Sermon: Holy Suspense (Advent Sunday)

As with last week and throughout Advent I won’t be able to post the video of my devotional talk for the week. However, here is the text as I explore the Lectionary Gospel (Year B) and tackle that sense of suspense and tension that confronts us at Advent and throughout our Christian lives.

Mark 13:24-37 NRSV

In the lead-up to family birthdays and to Christmas, there is a noticeable difference between the males and the females in my immediate family.

My wife and daughter cannot stand not knowing what their presents will be. They want to know in advance. In particular, I often subjected to intense lobbying from my daughter to know what we’ve bought her.

My son and I are different. Both of us are content to wait and find out on the day. That’s part of the pleasure for us. If we knew in advance, it would be an anti-climax.

Advent – and particularly Advent Sunday itself – is about how you deal with suspense. That’s why this week’s theme in the series I’m following is called ‘Holy Suspense’.

We are living in between times in a sense of tension and hope about what is to come, not satisfied with life as it is and longing for it to be different.

We are in the hour before dawn, the time when the temperature is usually at its coldest, but when the complete darkness begins to be replaced by a blue light. As twilight before dawn beckons, indirect light from the Sun below the horizon takes on a blue shade. It is sometimes called ‘blue hour’.

The ancient Celts used to talk about living in ‘The time between the times’, and while some of their expressions of that would not be helpful to us, I think we can at least affirm those words.

For that is where the holy suspense of Advent, in the hour before dawn, places us: in the time between the times.

But what times are we in between? There are two in Mark chapter 13.

You may be surprised to hear that, because for a long time people have wrongly assumed this chapter is entirely about the Second Coming and the events leading up to it. However, there is a real tension between two ‘comings’ in this chapter, and the Lectionary verses we have today give us the cusp between the two.

So – what is the first coming in Mark 13?

You might assume it is Jesus’ first coming, the Incarnation, the great event to which we are building up.

But you would be mistaken.

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

   and the moon will not give its light,

25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,

   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Now some of you will jump on that language and say it’s talking about the Second Coming. My one-word answer to that is ‘no’, but bear with me as I explain what it is.

For one thing, language about the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, stars falling from heaven, and powers in heaven being shaken is not to be taken literally. This is neither Carol Kirkwood giving the weather forecast on BBC Breakfast, nor is it Brian May or Brian Cox describing an astronomical event on The Sky At Night. This is special language that we call ‘apocalyptic language’, which was a veiled way of speaking so that enemies like the Romans would not understand what they were on about.

But, you say, the verses go on to speak about the Son of Man coming in clouds and sending his angels to gather his elect from the four winds. That must be the Second Coming, mustn’t it?

Only if you don’t recognise your biblical quotes, I respond. ‘The Son of Man coming in clouds’ is a direct citation of Daniel chapter 7. In that chapter the Son of Man does indeed come in clouds – but not to earth. He comes to the Ancient of Days, that is, Almighty God.

It would seem therefore that what Jesus is talking about here isn’t his first coming, nor is it his return, but his ascension to the right hand of the Father, where, as it says in Daniel 7, he receives the kingdom.

And Jesus’ statement

30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place

makes it quite clear he is talking about an event that is very close at hand, not in the distant future.

What then about the Son of Man sending out the angels to gather the elect? That surely is the evangelistic mission of the church that Jesus commissions his disciples to undertake. He gives that command just before he ascends, and it begins at Pentecost.

Hold onto those thoughts for a moment, while we ask – what is the second coming in Mark 13?

Well – er – it’s the Second Coming! Not that the Bible ever uses that expression. Normally it uses a word that means not ‘coming’ but ‘appearing’ or maybe ‘presence’. Jesus will appear again on earth after his ascension, and we need to be ready.

That’s why he tells the little vignette at the end of the reading about the master who goes away (the ascension again) and leaves his slaves in charge of his property. However, those slaves need to be ready for whenever the master returns. They don’t know when that will be, so they need to be ‘on the watch’ and ‘keep[ing] awake’ (verses 32-37).

That’s all rather more straightforward than what I called the ‘first coming’, isn’t it?

The only strange thing about as far as I’m concerned is that all of Jesus’ teaching in this chapter is a response to him prophesying that the Jerusalem Temple will be destroyed, and Peter asking him when this will happen and what the signs will be (verses 1-3). So why would Jesus go on to talk about his return in glory?

I think it must be something like this: Jesus has solemnly spoken about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple as a sign of judgment. But he goes on to warn that a greater judgment is waiting in the wings for the end of time.

Right – now that I’ve outlined what I think is the right way to understand this passage, we can answer some practical questions about how we live during holy suspense.

For the suspense in which we live is this: at the ascension, Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Father and was given the kingdom of God. He reigns.

Yet not all is well, and we await his appearing (a.k.a. the Second Coming) when everything will be put under his feet.

Just as the Queen reigns but not everyone obeys the law of the land, so we live in a time like that. Jesus is in charge of the universe, but not everyone acknowledges that. Such a state of affairs creates a sense of tension for us as followers of Jesus.

Two applications, then:

Firstly, the gathering of the elect: because not everyone willingly lives under the reign of King Jesus we are given the Great Commission to proclaim the Gospel. In the Roman Empire when a herald came announcing ‘good news’ it was usually the good news of a new Emperor or of great victories.

Well, that is our message in the Great Commission. There is a new king on the throne, and his name is Jesus. What’s more, he has won the greatest victories of all time – over sin and over death.

As we live with this great tension between Jesus receiving his kingdom and it being completely fulfilled, we call more people to bow the knee to King Jesus.

Secondly, the slaves staying alert and awake in the master’s house: because Jesus will appear again and everything and everyone will acknowledge him as Lord and King, we need to be ready for that. In other words, we need to live as if that future is already here. The call to obey Jesus now is critical, because it’s the consequence of proclaiming the Good News that he is King and has won those victories over sin and death.

Now that creates more of the tension with the world we live in, where to live like that may not be popular. But discipleship is not an option. And if we proclaim to the world that Jesus is King, then a necessary part of our witness to back up our words is to live as if Jesus is King. Which he is.

To conclude: do we know what our present is on the Great Day of Christ’s Appearing? Yes and no. Yes, we know in general terms that his new creation will be full of truth, beauty, and love, and there will no longer be anything to spoil it.

But also no, because how can we imagine such a gift with accuracy and detail? We might just as well also be surprised.

What we know is that Jesus will reign without any further opposition.

Meanwhile, we live as citizens of his kingdom and proclaim his reign, even though that brings tension.

But one day, the suspense will be over and all will be well.

That is the Advent hope.

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