First Sunday in Advent

“… in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25)

TEXT: Mark 13:24-37

Nuclear war. Asteroid impact. Supervolcano eruption. Global pandemic. What does the future hold?

Economic downturn? Or better times? A promotion at work? Or unemployment? Will crude oil prices continue to plummet? Or should you invest in green energy?

And what lies ahead for baby-boomers like me, as we approach our “golden” years? Can I have a retirement plan that does not involve a bottle of whiskey and a handgun?

What do we think will happen? Tomorrow? Next month? Next year? Our view of the future radically affects how we live today.

How about you? How do you see the future? Is it bleak? Or is it bright?

A great many of us see the future as a headlong dive into the abyss. To them, tomorrow looks pretty bleak. Things are going downhill fast, from bad to worse.

Then there are others who look to the future as holding great promise. They foresee a bright tomorrow. “Nothing is beyond us,” they say, “if we will only pull together.”

Those with a bleak outlook, I think, must live in a constant state of anxiety. As I said before, a person’s expectation of the future colours their view of the present. Because they have no faith in the future, the here and now becomes a terrifying place, full of pitfalls and threats and struggles.

Those with an authentically bright outlook, on the other hand, have better chances for living purposeful, creative, and productive lives. They have long-range goals, and they are willing to take risks. Because they are optimistic about the future, they usually find it easier to be patient as they wait for the fruits of their labours to ripen.

So … are you pessimistic? Or are you optimistic?

Admittedly, there seem to be plenty of grounds for pessimism. There’s lots of evidence around us pointing to a bleak future.

How optimistic would you be if you were part of the 80% of the world’s population that has access to only 20% of the world’s resources and wealth?

Or what about those African nations ravaged by AIDS, ebola, malaria, and hunger? How much optimism can they be expected to muster?

How much optimism is there amongst the children of homes where addiction and anger hold sway? And consider that, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of domestic violence have skyrocketed in Canada.

For many people—here and elsewhere—the outlook does indeed appear quite bleak. As followers of Jesus, we have to recognize this. We cannot ignore the human misery and uncertainty that exists in so very many places.

However, as Christians, surely we are aware of abundant reasons for hope. Even in difficult times, we are called to hope—and to watch! As the apostle Paul said to the Romans, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11b).

Those words apply to us, also. Hope is our business. And ours is a realistic hope.

Our hope is not based upon ignoring life’s grim realities. It’s not about pretending that every cloud has a silver lining.

Jesus does not call us to be hymn-singing ostriches who pop our heads out of the sand to shout, “Hallelujah!”  No. He calls us to have our eyes wide open.

“Watch!” he says. “Keep awake!”

As followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to observe life honestly—to recognize evil and name it openly. At the same time—if our eyes really are open—we should be able to see our Lord at work everywhere, even in places of utter cruelty and chaos.

We are called to draw attention to a Saviour—one who dares to be redeemingly busy, even in the bleakest of circumstances. That is, after all, the whole reason why his symbol is a cross. The cross remains—forever—a tangible sign of his real presence amongst his people.

Remember: our God brings light out of darkness and growth out of decay. The Lord reconciles enemies and creates love where previously no shred of love existed.

This is the message we are called to bring into a world of hurt. But we can carry that message only if we have a firm belief in the future as belonging to the God of Christ Jesus. From the very earliest days, Christians have held to the belief that Jesus Christ comes again. He comes to every generation in judgment and mercy—and he will come again at the end of time; a final return when he will finish what he started at Bethlehem.

His is “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord …” (Philippians 2:10-11).

Christ is the Lord of history. More than that, he is the destination of history. He is the one true end; he is the one true Lord. Final victory belongs to him.

To him! Not to chaos. Not to terrorism. Not to war, greed, injustice, cruelty, neglect, or survival of the fittest. Or to final, world-wide, self-destruction. None of these demons will prevail! Christ alone is our end and our destiny. He is our future.

To believe in the Christ who comes again is to live with an indestructible hope. Evil may be loud, and boastful, and busy everywhere—but evil will not win the final day. The ultimate victory lies with Christ Jesus. That is the substance of our hope.

Such hope is a command. “Watch!” says Jesus. “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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mark 13:35-37).

Now, “staying awake” is not a passive activity. We are not called to watch the clock like bored travellers waiting for a train that never arrives. No.

Keeping awake means being ready for Jesus—being fit for him here and now, as he confronts us in the rough and tumble of everyday life. It means being eager to work alongside him in his ministry to “the last and the least.”

It means believing in him as the end of all things—as God’s final Word, the loving climax of history. It also means believing in him as one who is to be loved and served right here, right now. It means daring to hope.

In Jesus, God dares us to hope! So … start hoping!

Wake up and start hoping. And while we’re waking up—waking up to Jesus, waking up to hope—let’s make sure we understand what real hope is!

Hope is not a natural disposition which some lucky people have in larger quantities than others do. Hope is not some special feeling that we get and then cultivate like a hot-house tomato.  Hope is not related to your material prosperity or your outward success in life.

Hope is a response to the Word of God in Jesus Christ. It is a matter of decision. It requires commitment. It demands obedience. Hope is about living proactively, creatively, lovingly, and self-sacrificially.

Hope is about living that way no matter what obstacles we encounter—and in the face of the darkest clouds looming on the horizon. Hope is about being committed to fundamental optimism, even—and especially—in a world churning with distrust and violence and fear.

“Watch!” says Jesus. “Be ready for me—for I will come suddenly; and what I say to you I say to all: keep awake!”  Amen.

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