St Andrew’s, Edwardsville—Mark 13:24-37, Isaiah 64:1-9, I Corinthians 1:1-9
“Don’t go away—we’ll be right back after these messages.” How many thousands of times have those of us who are a certain age heard that request for us not to get up and change the channel? (Of course, that was in the days before channel surfing with the remote.) We’re being told to wait right where we are, the interruption is only temporary. General MacArthur, as he was retreating from the Philippines just ahead of the Japanese onslaught, solemnly promised, “I shall return,” and asked the Filipinos to wait for him. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the Terminator movies immortalized the phrase “I’ll be back”, as he vowed to return to the scene of a temporary defeat. And how many times have we told a child or a friend in a public place, “Wait for me here, I’ll be right back.”
As he neared the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus communicated this same message to his friends and followers in progressively clearer tones. He would be handed over to the authorities and put to death, but would rise from the dead in three days. And after his death and resurrection, he prepared his closest disciples for the fact that he would be taken from them once again, this time to return to the right hand of the Father, from whence he came. And when that moment arrived, and the dazed disciples stared at the cloud that had removed him from their sight, an angel promised that “This same Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come … in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” And in that experience, when they saw Jesus ascend into his glory and heard the angel’s voice promising that he would return as he had departed, the disciples very likely reflected on his words to them which are recorded for us in the thirteenth chapter of Mark’s gospel. “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come. … What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.”
In other words, the disciples felt themselves to be entering the intermission in a two-act drama. Jesus’s incarnation, his life and ministry, his dying and rising, and his ascension into heaven constituted the first act. A lot was accomplished, but there remained a good deal yet to be done. After the intermission, during Act Two, he will come back and finish what he started. All wrongs will be righted, all suffering relieved, and every tear wiped away. The good guys in the white hats will carry the day and the bad guys in the black hats be given their just desserts before the closing credits roll and the show comes to an end. What a glorious event to look forward to! What a wonderful future lay in store for these disciples and those who would hear their message!
But the intermission began to go on for a long while. The generation that had heard the promise of Jesus’s return and the admonition to stay awake began to die off. Many perished as martyrs, to be sure, but many others, like St John on the Isle of Patmos, simply died of old age. He said he’d be back, and we believed him, but we never thought it would take this long! And since then, the followers of Jesus have been making adjustments in their expectations. The second generation of Christians, around the turn of the second century, had the biggest adjustment to make, because their parents had led them to count on Jesus’ return in their lifetime. But every generation of Christians since then has also tended to see itself in apocalyptic terms, as living in the end times. Yet, as the long-anticipated event didn’t come, and didn’t come, it was supposed that maybe this isn’t the intermission in a two-act play, after all. Maybe we’re in Act Two—maybe Act Two is this time between Christ’s first coming as a powerless infant and his second coming in power and great glory. There, that helps a great deal to make sense of things. But, still, as second acts go, this is an awfully long one. And it’s getting harder and harder to wait patiently. Many times it has seemed to the church as if she lives in the Land of Narnia as described by C. S. Lewis: “Always winter, but never Christmas.”
Always winter but never Christmas. Just ask any child you know, or the child that still lives within you, and you will be reminded that this is an extremely challenging state of affairs with which to live. And amid the stress of such a challenge there are many temptations. One such temptation is to try and hurry things along. In every age, there have been those among the Christian community who have become obsessed with the second coming of Christ. They have looked at whole books of the Bible as elaborate cryptographic codes, which, if correctly solved, would yield the answer to the question we’re all asking, “How long, O Lord, how long?” If we have our eyes and ears open, we know only too well that this temptation is alive and well in our own time. When I was a parish priest, and contemplated doing a serious adult Bible study series, I knew that doing one on the Book of Revelation would attract the largest number of class members! The ultimate extreme, of course, is represented by those groups who are so sure they’ve figured it out right that they sell their homes and quit their jobs and climb the nearest mountain to wait for the final moment. We had a rather high profile example of this just two or three years ago, didn’t we? So far, every one has had to admit that they figured it wrong. Not an encouraging track record for deciphering the code. And one wonders, when the Master of the house does finally return, will he be pleased with those servants who have been so pre-occupied with the welcome they plan to give him that they abandon their usual duties?
The opposite temptation is, perhaps, even more dangerous. This is the temptation to say, “We’ve been duped, taken for a ride! He’s not coming back, or he would have done so by now. We’re just wasting time and energy with this vigilant waiting business. I’m going to forget it all and just try to find what joy there is in life as I know it.” A variation of this—something a little nobler, perhaps—is to say, “He’s not coming back, so our job is to build the kind of world that he would make happen if her were.” Two thousand years, after all, is a long time for a bride to wait at the altar before coming to the conclusion that maybe her fiancé’s car didn’t break down and he didn’t really misplace his bow tie, and that he really is not going to show at all. When the Master of the house returns, these are the ones who will have already skipped out, nowhere to be found.
For many years, I had a plaque on the wall beside my desk which was given to me by a parishioner as a memento of a moment we shared in a Bible study. It simply said, “I’m God and you’re not.” I’m God and you’re not. From one perspective, such a statement, projected onto the lips of God, might seem off-puttingly overbearing, unnecessarily arrogant. But as it has resonated in my own heart several years, it has been a source of comfort. The undertone that I hear in it is, “I’m God, so you don’t have to be—just drop that particular load right where you are. I’m up here in the hot air balloon; you’re down on the ground. I can see what’s over the next hill and around the next bend; you can’t. I can see that storm brewing out over the water; you can’t. I can see everything that’s going on and how it fits together; you can barely see past the end of your own nose on a clear day. And, besides, a thousand years for you is like the blink of an eye for me. And besides that, I do have a record of eventually keeping my promises: Abraham did become the father of a great nation, the people of Israel did get out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, the kings of Israel and Judah who followed me faithfully did have successful careers, and the Messiah that the prophets foretold did eventually arrive. And you don’t even have any idea of all the times my grace has kept you away from disaster without your knowledge. So my advice to you is, lighten up and go with the flow.”
My friends, Jesus, in his love, warns us to stay awake and alert, to be faithfully vigilant for his return. Faithful vigilance certainly doesn’t mean abandoning hope. But neither does it mean being fixated on the day and hour of his coming in power and glory. Faithful vigilance simply means doing what we’re supposed to do and being what we’re supposed to be while we wait. Francis of Assisi was once asked—according to legend, at any rate—Francis was once asked while he was hoeing weeds in his garden, what he would do if he knew that the Lord’s return would occur in the next few minutes. Francis’ answer was that he would just keep hoeing and try to finish the row. At that moment, hoeing was what Francis was supposed to be doing, and if the Lord Jesus were to return that day, how else could Francis possibly hope to be found?
For today’s Christians, faithful vigilance means continuing to come together in worship each Lord’s Day, continuing to celebrate the mystery of his dying and rising in word and in sacrament, being faithful to one another in Christian community, ministering according to the gifts we have been given, within the Body of Christ and in the word, being responsible parents and children and friends and citizens, loving God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. If the Lord returns today, he will want to find us faithful in each of these tasks. And if he finds us faithful in these ways, he will also find us contented and at peace. Living and moving within the will of God is a source of great peace, peace that passes understanding, peace that comes from knowing that not only are we not God, we are not even executives in the kingdom! The Kingdom of God has no management personnel, only labor. We are but shift workers, looking forward to the paycheck that we’ve been promised, knowing that the boss will be back any time now, and that he wants to find us at work when he returns.
Come, Lord Jesus.