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When is Jesus coming back? Does God have a plan?

Australian Cityscape

Week of Sunday November 27 - Advent 1
Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

‘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.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

The Sermon Draft

What does it mean when we say Jesus is coming back?

Do we literally expect that one day we will literally see the  son of man coming in clouds. Will he arrive floating through the air, sitting on his throne, ready to set the poor free from oppression? (That’s what that Coming is about, really. It’s for freedom, not judgement.)

Will he replant a kind of Garden of Eden, where life is full and good, and is how it should be for all people, and for the planet itself?

The thing is, he has not come back like this. Not if we are hoping for a literal interpretation of that story. Truth to tell, many of us don’t think he will. He’s had plenty of time.

We’ve decided maybe the story means something else. Maybe when the church looked with all its insights into how God will finally put things into place on earth; well, maybe we got it wrong. We misunderstood. Some folk, of course, think the whole idea is just rubbish. Jesus is dead and gone, they say.

So does it mean something else, this story? Does the idea of Jesus coming back still talk to us? Does God have a plan somewhere? Let’s explore this by asking another question which is also appropriate for Advent.

Why do we celebrate Jesus’ birthday?

We have an anniversary to remember something that was important and should not be forgotten. We remember. We relive the joy and the significance. And that’s why we celebrate Christmas.

Except Christmas is not a warm fuzzy baby story. And it’s got nothing to do with shopping and tinsel, and all that. We do a lot of that, and we get together with family and friends, and a lot of that’s good. But it’s not the Christmas story.

The Christmas story is a radical political attack on the powers-that-be.  Those stories in Matthew and Luke, which we treasure, and turn into sweet-donkey-carrying-Jesus-and-Mary stories, are a full frontal attack on the Roman Empire, and the Jewish Temple. This Jesus who is born is the Lord and Saviour of the world, not the Emperor. People owe allegiance to him, not the Emperor. Every knee shall bow to him, not the Emperor, says Paul in Philippians.

If you think I’ve just said a couple of blunt things about Christmas, let me tell you they fade into insignificance alongside the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth set down for Christmas Day.

If the texts for today, and the next four weeks of Advent and Christmas, were printed in The Advertiser, and if people really understood, there would be white hot outrage on the talkback lines, and in the parliament. People would talk about passing laws against churches. Churches might be burned. Ministers and congregations might be beaten up. (We’d suddenly have weird things like politicians saying, “Why can’t the churches just stick to justice for refugees, like they’re supposed to.” Can you imagine that!!!)

When we get soppy about baby Jesus, who never cried in his manger, and are happy to let life go on as usual, we completely miss the point.

If we think Jesus came to save us, then we’ve begun to understand; but if we think that does not mean turning the world upside down, and changing everything in our lives, then we’ve still mostly missed the point. We have not really heard the stories.

It’s not that we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. We should. But it’s not an end in itself. It’s not just a sales season. It's not just family together time.  It’s meant to be the beginning of something. It's serious business.

There used to be a poster with a night view of beautiful city lights, like on Windy Point. The text said, “Jesus wept.” Somewhere on Christmas Day, we should have a moment of weeping, for we are far from the world of peace and good will for all people, that Jesus imagined.

Jesus coming back means we take the ideas of Jesus seriously. We take the ideas in the Christmas story seriously. We actually expect them to happen. We think Jesus’ ideas on life are the true way to live, and we try to live that way. We believe they will lead to the the kind of world in which all people can be fully human, and truly happy, and at peace; and so, we live them out. This is going to happen, we say....  and do.

That’s what we mean when we say Jesus will come back. In fact, it’s started. Jesus is back. We are living in his Kingdom as it spreads through the world. Here and there, now and then, people do not live for themselves, and for greed and power. Instead, the spirit and the ethic of Jesus takes over...  now... and again. In a very real sense, he is here.

Maybe there will be some great cataclysm one day.  A bomb that destroys the world, or an asteroid, or comet. Or maybe a plague that wipes most of us out in  a few short weeks. That would be like a judgement day. Maybe, just maybe, the story is literally true. Does it matter... really?

for in some sense, he is here now, and judging already. We are found wanting. We are being called to change. To change where we are going, to help others change, and to cry out for changes in society to bring peace and justice for all, not just for our comfort.

So what does it mean to be ready, to be awake, to be alert, to be watchful?
Why do we need to stay awake if Jesus is already here?

Let me explain.

I’ve just been on a 600km ride. I left Tuesday afternoon, and got home at twenty past midnight on Thursday morning; thirty three hours.

“How can you do that?” asked one of my friends. “How can you be fit enough?” She was a bit overwhelmed. “You must be a super sportsman!”

We look at some Christians like that; or, at least, I do. "How can you be a super Christian like that?" And we can be tempted to give up. We think, “I’m no good at all. How could I ever do all that?”

Well, let me tell you about the bike ride. You do have to be a little bit fit. But if you can ride a hundred kilometres; that’s  five or six slow hours; then you can ride five or six hundred, straight off the bat.

It’s not actually about being super fit. It’s about being awake, and alert, and watchful. And it’s the same with being a Christian. Being awake, and alert, is what counts.

On the bike, you have to keep an eye on the traffic. Sometimes it doesn’t see you. You have to watch for potholes. A pothole that would simply make a car bump, can throw you off, and break your shoulder. You have to watch out for kangaroos; one nearly hit me in the middle of the night. You have to keep alert to little numb places starting in your hands. If you don’t, they’ll begin to hurt, and you may not be able to finish. You have to be alert to thirst and hunger, or you can get very sick, very suddenly. It helps to watch the road signs, too, or else you can get lost. I've done that before.

But if you stay alert to these things, the kilometres just happen! You just keep going. Most of the time, it’s actually nowhere near as hard as people might imagine.

It’s the same being a Christian. We have to keep alert, and keep watching for signs of Jesus. Otherwise we'll miss the signs, and end up in the wrong place, or doing the wrong thing. If it means anything to say Jesus is alive, we are not just following a formula from an old book. We are looking to see what is happening, and how we need to respond, and lead and serve, in that situation.

For example, were we alert enough to notice the person who missed church for two weeks in a row, or did we only work out three months later, that we can’t remember the last time we saw them?

Did we notice our next-door neighbour getting more and more frail, or were we asleep; too busy?

Did we hear about changes to unemployment benefits and write to our MP, or were we not watching? Did we answer that Council survey on changing the bylaws, or did we not even bother to read the letter?

Did we keep half an ear on what that boring bloke at the Op Shop, or at church coffee, was saying? Or did we just think about how we could get away; it’s tempting sometimes. But maybe in all that old bloke’s blather, Jesus was asking us to do something.

(Chuckle) That happens with sermons sometimes, too!

Being a Christian is not about believing in something. It’s not talking and theory. It’s like the bike. Sometime, the planning has to stop, and you just have to start the ride, and start watching and responding, and stay alert. We have to do Christianity;  and get on with it. Jesus is back already... and we are called to follow.

There’s just one other thing. I get an absurd amount of pleasure from these long rides... and yes, I'm probably a little bit crazy. But it’s not just about the achievement. In fact, it’s mostly in the doing. Serving Jesus is the same. Actually doing it has its own rewards... and they are life changing.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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