First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Is 64.1-9 & Mk 13.24-37
Proposition: When we see the brokenness of our world, our hearts yearn for God’s kingdom to arrive; yet we must realize how we take part in the sin that is destroying our world and repent for it.
We are here tonight to repent. We have seen God come to save us, we have been saved by God, but we have not lived our lives as those who have been saved, as those who have seen God. We are here to repent.
This is what Isaiah has to say to us tonight. Tonight we are at the beginning of Advent. We lit a candle at the beginning of this service, the first candle in the Advent Wreath. Tradition associates the first candle with hope--the hope of Messiah, exiled Israel’s hope of return to the Promised Land, our hope of Jesus’ return to save us. Hope is powerful stuff--we’ve seen that recently in political campaigns; maybe we even feel that now as we look ahead to Christmas, to reunions with family, with old friends, to a break from the regular droning on of our day-to-day lives. I strongly believe that it is our hope that sets us apart as Christians.
The passage tonight tells us a lot about hope. This is a prophetic song. The song is longer than just the text we read tonight. It starts early in the previous chapter and stretches to the close of chapter 64. The prophet wrote this song in hope.
This song was written for the Jews who were returning from sixty years of Exile in the distant country of Babylon. I’ve tried to find a situation in most of our lives that would give us a feel for what this would have been like. I can’t find one. But I think if we were one of the refugee families who’ve fled Iraq in the last five years, we might be better able to relate to the experience of the Jews returning from Exile. Picture the situation: After weeks, probably months, of lining up government paperwork, selling all that your family has accumulated in the years you’ve lived in a foreign country, quitting your job, becoming incredibly financially vulnerable, you set out on the long trip home. For any of us who’ve travelled internationally, you know how draining the long hours on planes and longer hours in airports can be. Multiply this by weeks traveling across the desert. And then the homecoming. The individuals returning would never have seen this land except in the stories their grandparents would have told. In their grandparents’ minds, this was God’s chosen land and Jerusalem was the city where their God lived with his people. The impressive temple, the towering king’s palace, the paved streets, the waterworks, the masses of people during festival time--these were all built up in the returnees minds as a picture of what coming back to Jerusalem would be. But when they actually got there, they must have wondered where they were. Like Iraqi refugees returning home after half a decade away, only to find buildings demolished by bombs, neighborhoods reduced to rubble, a constant threat of random acts of terrorism, and an economy struggling to scrape by, the returning Jews arrived to a city burnt out, the temple leveled, the few people who remained living in hovels and fighting off wild animals. They faced terrorism from ancestral enemy nations and racially-based disputes with the people who had escaped exile and stayed in the land. The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us all about this. The glowing prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel that pictured the return as a victory march led by God himself into a revived and revitalized nation, of the entire world serving the reinstated Davidic king, of the nations going on pilgrimage to worship at a rebuilt temple--these must have seemed like cruel jokes, like nothing more than lies.
This is the situation into which the prophet sends his song of hope. This is why the people cry, If only you would tear apart the sky and come down! They are people who need to be saved. And they remember, from the stories their grandparents told them, that God had saved them in the past. The song tells us this in verse 3: When you performed awesome deeds that took us by surprise, then you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. It really did happen in the past--God, why don’t you do it now? This directs us back to the earlier part of the song that we didn’t read tonight. I’m going to read a bit of it, starting in verse 11 of chapter 63: His people remembered the ancient times. Where is the one who brought them up out of the sea, along with the shepherd of his flock? Where is the one who place his holy Spirit among them, the one who made his majestic power available to Moses, who divided the water before them, gaining for himself a lasting reputation, who led them through the deep water? Like a horse running on flat land they did not stumble. Like an animal that goes down into a valley to graze, so the Spirit of Yahweh granted them rest. In this way you guided your people, gaining for yourself an honored reputation. The people remember how God saved them from slavery in Egypt, raising up Moses to deliver them, splitting the Red Sea in front of them when Pharaoh and his army were about to cut them down from behind, how God led them triumphantly into the Promised Land, driving out its idol-worshiping inhabitants before them. They remember all of this, and yet they experience none of it. In the next line they pray, Look down from heaven and take notice, from your holy, majestic palace! Where are your zeal and power? Do not hold back your tender compassion!
We remember the ways in which God has saved us. I pray that we can each look back on our lives and point to the place where we first heard the good news that God sent Jesus to come and bring us into what God is doing, to take the wrong things we have done and nail them to his cross, redeeming us through his death and binding us forever to God’s saving work in the world through his coming back to life from death. I pray that we can each say, “This is where God came and found me, where he rescued me from sin and death.”
But even if you can’t say that tonight, we all have the stories the Bible tells us, moments in history when God spectacularly broke through, saving his people, preparing the way for his final saving action in Jesus. We can remember just as well as the Jews returning from Exile how God helped ninety-year-old Sarah to conceive a miracle baby, how he rescued Jacob’s family from famine by sending Joseph down to Egypt as slave to store up food as an Egyptian official, how he brought Jacob’s family out of Egypt four-hundred years later through a dry road in the middle of the Red Sea, how he provided food from the sky in the desert, how he crumbled city walls, how he enabled inexperienced David to kill the Philistine giant. Even more, we can hear the stories about Jesus, how he fed the hungry, released the sin-oppressed, made the lame to walk, the blind to sea, raised the dead, walked on water, and triumphed over death. We can remember how God has come to save us in the past.
But with the returning Jews, we too can look around at our circumstances and ask, “Why do you hold back now? Why don’t you show your love to us now?” Look around. How many of us have hearts that are breaking for someone we love? How many family members are sick, dying? How many of us feel the pull of financial worries--of jobs disappearing, of mortgages or the inability to get a mortgage, of college loans to pay back or college education to expensive even to consider? I listen to a lot of NPR as I drive between the church here and my apartment up in the city. Some days I can’t help but change the station to stem the flow of commentators predicting doom on Wall Street, of Eight-Forty-Eight reporting the race-based violence here in our own city, of the news ticker reading off sixteen or twenty-seven or fifty-six more people killed in a suicide bombing somewhere in the Middle East or in India. And then I ask myself, how are we going to pay for Christmas? I worry about my parents, my brothers and sisters, my in-laws--their relationships, their jobs, their deteriorating bodies. And what about the times when I fail--when I forget to make an important phone call, when I say just the wrong word to a friend going through a hard time, when I selfishly choose to block out the world by distracting myself with iTunes or my guitar rather than turning to God in prayer?
Oh, God, our world is broken. We are broken. Our bodies are dying, our spirits participate in this death. We see sickness, war, hunger, need, racism, injustice. How many homeless men have I walked by downtown, how many young girls do I see peddling their sexuality in hope of gaining love! Our TVs, our radios, our internet newsfeeds--they all cry out with us--How can you hold back, Yahweh? How can you be silent?
Part of hope is mourning, lamenting. We’ve heard that the first step to recovery is admitting that things are wrong so often that it’s a cliche. But it’s true. We need a strong dose of realism, of mourning. Things are not right. This is not what God’s kingdom looks like.
But Isaiah’s song of hope leads us deeper. As I’ve hinted at already, we see what’s wrong with the world not only when we look outside ourselves, but also when we look within. During Advent, we look forward not only to remembering how Jesus came in a manger in Bethlehem two thousand years ago; we also look forward to Jesus’ promised return. One of the basic affirmations of our faith is that what the baby born at Bethlehem did in his living and dying and rising again is not just an interesting historical fact or even a sentimental story to warm our hearts. We affirm that it matters for us now, because we are still living inside that story, in between the chapter where he rises from the dead, appears to his followers, and returns to his Father and the chapter where he comes back, setting the world right, granting justice to those who’ve been oppressed and giving mercy to those of us who have been the oppressors, to when Jesus sets up God’s kingdom here with us. During Advent, we look forward to this second coming of Jesus.
But just like the prophet’s song expresses, even while long for Jesus’ Kingdom, we ourselves stand in its way. Listen to what the prophet says just after he’s cried out to God to come and rescue them: Look, [God,] you were angry because we violated [your commandments] continually. How then can we be saved? To some degree, the sin of Israel continued to stand in the way of God setting up his kingdom through them. The song continues, We have all become like one who is unclean--like a person who is excluded from serving you. All our righteous acts are like a menstrual-rag in your sight. We all wither like a leaf; our sins carry us away like the wind. No one invokes your name, or makes an effort to take hold of you. For you have rejected us and handed us over to our own sins.
“Wait, how do we stand in the way?” we ask. “We don’t murder, we don’t declare wars; we don’t steal from the hungry, we don’t buy products made by exploiting cheap foreign labor; we don’t commit adultery, we don’t buy into Hollywood’s lie that sex is the same as love.” Look into your hearts. How often we put our hope in a shallow display of seeming-godliness when long ago the fiery pursuit of pleasing God flickered out in our hearts. We mind our p’s and q’s, we’re polite and make charitable displays while our hearts are full of selfishness, of lust, of greed, of anger, of bitterness, of fear. We settle for skimming the surface, going through the motions of following Jesus without putting anything on the line, without taking up our cross to follow him to Golgotha.
I want to draw this sermon to a close by listening to what Jesus says in Mark chapter 13 verses 32-37. Let me set up the situation: Jesus has just left the temple for the last time, only days before he will be sold out to the religious power-mongers and crucified. As he and his followers are leaving the city, one of his disciples tugs on his sleeve and says, “Teacher, look at these tremendous stones and buildings!” The Herod-dynasty had been about rebuilding the temple for forty-or-more years. It’s towering structure was impressive, full of granite, marble, and gold. The good and moral people of Jesus’ day saw the rebuilding of the temple as a mark of God’s approval of their country. This complements the dominant religious outlook of the day, forwarded by the Pharisees, that demanded a rigorous observance of outward moral regulations but failed to attend to mercy and true justice, things that can only be discerned by the heart. Jesus responds to his follower, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!”
This harsh rebuke leads into a private conversation with the disciples in which Jesus tells them about what they should really be putting their hope in. He describes how they are going to experience horrible suffering and persecution, but how his return to set up God’s kingdom will break into the middle of it. This is where we pick up in verses 32 through 37. He says, But as for that day or hour no one knows it--neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son--except the Father. Watch out! Stay alert! For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey. He left his house and put his slaves in charge, assigning to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to stay alert. Stay alert, then, because you do not know when the owner of the house will return--whether during evening, at midnight, when the rooster crows, or at dawn--or else he might find you asleep when he returns suddenly. What I say to you I say to everyone: Stay alert!
Matthew recounts this same conversation, but there we find more details and more vivid language. In Matthew 24 verse 48 we read, “But if that evil slave should say to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he begins to beat his fellow slaves and to eat and drink with drunkards, then the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not foresee, and will cut him in two, and will assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Are we waiting? Are we standing by the door, looking for Jesus to split the sky and bring the justice and mercy we long for, the right relationships, the freedom from and death and dying? Or do we get tired, forgetful, drunk? The prophet reminds us No one invokes your name, or makes an effort to take hold of you.
Oh, God, we cry out to you! We are guilty; we are lazy and forgetful. We abuse our neighbors rather than following your Son in laying down our lives for them! We distract ourselves, dulling our senses to the death eating up the world you created, losing ourselves in shopping, in television and music and movies, in alcohol, in sex. We forget that your kingdom is coming, that Jesus is returning. How can we be part of it when our hearts are so set against it? How can we be saved? Still, we cry out to you with the prophet, Yahweh, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the product of your labor. Yahweh, do not be too angry! Do not hold our sins against us continually! Take a good look at your people, at all of us! Your chosen cities have become a desert; Zion has become a desert, Jerusalem is a desolate ruin. Our holy temple, our pride and joy, the place where our ancestors praised you, has been burned with fire; all our prized possessions have been destroyed. In light of all this, how can you still hold back, Yahweh? How can you be silent?