“In Our End Is Our Beginning”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 2, 2018: Advent 1
It is fairly obvious that no one told Jesus that Advent and Christmas is about light and happiness and Christmas carols and cookies and hot cocoa. In the gospel lesson today he intones a message chaoss, of the Son of Man clouding surfing back to earth. Jesus says people will faint from fear and foreboding and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. I think a little context might help us to understand what Jesus is talking about and why we are beginning our Advent journey with something that sounds so very much like an ending.
Jesus and the disciples are sitting in the square outside of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Temple was the center of Jewish faith and life, a building that would have made St. Peter’s in Rome look like a little country church. The Temple was built from fine materials, covered jeweled mosaics. In the sunlight of mid-day, the Temple would glitter and gleam, a shining beacon that could be seen from miles away. As the disciples gazed at the Temple that day, and at the life that teemed around it, I imagine that they were captivated and in awe of this central point of their faith, at this place that connected them so deeply to God. Then, in the silence of their awe, Jesus breaks in and says, “You see all of this? Sometime soon all of it will tumble to the ground. Not a single stone will be left on stone.” The disciples, shocked, ask, “Teacher, when will this be? What will be the sign that this will take place?”
That is actually a pretty common refrain throughout the gospels, “What will be the sign that this will take place?” Seemingly everyone who meets Jesus in the Gospels wants some sign, and that includes the disciples. They wanted signs that Jesus was who he said he was, that he was the messenger of God he proclaimed himself to be. The only problem is that, time and time again, when Jesus gives the people a sign, they don’t seem to be able to recognize it or understand what it means. It’s like the classic Far Side cartoon were a boy is trying to enter the Midvale School for the Gifted. He’s carrying a book under one arm and leaning with his other arm, with all of his weight, against the door, and it won’t budge. On the door there is a sign in great big letters that explains the problem: it reads, “Pull.”
Jesus gave people plenty of signs that he was who he said he was. He healed the sick and diseased; he walked on water a few times; he took a little boy’s boxed lunch and turned it into a feast for thousands. But the people, and the disciples, still didn’t get it. At one point, Jesus throws up his hands in exasperation and says, “You people look up in the sky and see dark clouds gathering and you’re perceptive enough to know that it is going to rain so you take cover. Why is it that you can’t see these things I am doing and know who I am?” The simple truth is that we, the beautiful and broken creatures of God, just aren’t good at reading signs. We aren’t always good at reading the signs that matter, either. It is just a part of who we are. We see what we want to see; we ignore what we want to ignore. Sometimes it’s just easier to pretend so that we don’t have to get involved.
So as Jesus and the disciples are sitting in the temple square, and the disciples gasp when Jesus says the whole thing will crumble one day, Jesus tells them that they aren’t going to have any trouble knowing that it’s happening. Basically, Jesus tells them, “Well, when you see a great big army camped around the Temple about to take it over, and they have really big weapons, well, that’s going to be the end of it. They’re going to tear it down.” In the next breath, Jesus goes on to speak of other signs and that is where we pick up on our reading today. Jesus moves from describing signs of the destruction of the Temple to describing the signs of when he will come again in final victory. His message is that the signs won’t be hard to read. When he returns to the earth to make all things new, it’s going to be obvious. When Jesus comes again to claim his rightful place as king and ruler of the universe, we’re going to know it.
The Second Coming of Jesus is one of the beliefs and doctrines of the Christian church, I think, that turns a lot of people off. If you’re like me, you grew up reading the Left Behindseries and that is your frame of reference for Jesus’s second coming. Those fiction novels scared me so badly that if I wasn’t ‘good’ I would wake up one morning and be all alone because all the ‘good’ people in my life—my parents and grandparents and teachers and friends—would have been sucked up into heaven by something like a cosmic Dyson vacuum. It also made me afraid to fly because in the opening scene of the first book, the pilots of a commercial plane are raptured into heaven and the few passengers that are ‘left behind’ plummet to their death. If you didn’t read those books than you likely have seen the hell-fire and brimstone preachers on T.V. They scare people into giving them money with messages like, “Jesus is coming, and you better turn or you’re going to burn.”
It’s all bologna, my friends. It’s all bologna because it has nothing to do with the Bible. We did hear today that the Second Coming of Jesus will be a little on the scary side—fire and clouds and rumbling and weird things with the sun and moon. But no where do we read that people will be suddenly sucked up into heaven. We don’t read anything about the rapture because that word literally doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. Jesus says nothing about turning or burning. Instead, we know that when Jesus comes back he’s going to put things the way they should be. Just look at his life, his ministry, his teaching, his sacrifice, his love and grace. When he comes again, that’s the stuff that will be on the agenda. And Jesus assures us that whatever it is going to look like when he comes back, we’re going to know that it’s happening. We don’t have to read the tea leaves or get out the Ouija board. We’ll just know, and when we know, we can look up because our redemption is drawing near.
The reason that we have started our Advent journey with these strange words from Jesus, the reason that we dropped in on his conversation he was having with the disciples about the Temple being destroyed and his return, is quite simple: in our end in our beginning.
My friends, the more we know about the return of Jesus, the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of the world as God wants it to be, the more faith and trust we can put in God and in God’s ultimate plan and design for all things. And the more faith and trust we have in God and in God’s plan, the more life we can experience right here, right now. God’s plan is that Christ is going to come back, and when he does, as the Christmas carol says, the hopes and fears of all the years will be met in him. God knows when the time will be right; God knows what we and the world need and when we need it. We’ll know when it’s happening so we don’t have to get bogged down with trying to interpret everything we think is a sign that Jesus is on the way back. That’s freedom, and from that freedom we can begin to model the world as God wants it to be. That’s why in our ending is our beginning; because we know what the end is going to be like, we can begin to live it right now.
The theologian Karl Barth had a painting of the crucifixion on the wall of his study at Princeton Theological Seminary that was painted by the artist Matthias Grunewald. In the painting there is an image of John the Baptist with an extra long pointer finger extended toward the figure of Jesus on the cross in the middle. It is said that when Barth had guests in his office, he would direct them to John the Baptist in the painting and say, “I want to be that finger. I want to be a sign pointing to the victory of Christ.”
We are a people who have read the end of the book. We know how the story ends. We know that God wins, in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and when Jesus comes again. So as God’s people, in our life together, it’s not that we stand on a corner holding a sign that says, “The End Is Near.” No, instead, we live in such a way that our life is a sign that reads, “The New Beginning Is Here.” We are the billboard that advertises a coming attraction. We are the preview or trailer of the movie that makes people look forward to the full show. We’re the warm-up act that gets people pumped for the concert that is about to begin. We’re the appetizer to the full feast, the kind lady at Braum’s who will gladly give you a sample before you commit to a flavor. People—and that includes you and me—don’t have to travel into the future or gaze into a crystal ball to see what the kingdom of God in its fullness is going to be like. They can simply, hopefully, look at you and me as we faithfully and lovingly follow Christ.
They can look at us and see as we serve food to the hungry and give clothes to the cold and naked, and know that in God’s kingdom all needs are met. They can look at us as we worship and sing and pray together and know that in God’s kingdom there is such a thing as peace and unity. They can look at us as we study God’s word and think critically and compassionately about the world we live in and know that in God’s kingdom God is really interested in what happens here on earth. They can look at us as we gather around meal tables, as we’ll gather around and sing carols this Friday when light that huge tree in the front yard, and know that in God’s kingdom there is joy and laughter and beauty. They can look at us as we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice and know that God loves us just as we are and not as we think we should be. They can look at us loving enemies and turning the other cheek and laying down our weapons and know that God’s kingdom is the peaceful end to death and destruction. They can look at us and know that in a backwater town, a few millennia ago, God took on flesh to show us a love that we have never seen and can never escape.
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees,’ Jesus said, ‘as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” That’s you and me, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are that leaf, that tree, that turns when the warm breeze of summer begins to blow. We are ahead of time, signs of the change that is coming, of the beauty that is about to break into the world. We know the end, so let’s begin. Let’s shine brightly and be beautiful. Let’s can go ahead and be changed. Let’s point others to what is coming and live the heavenly life now. Let’s be a sign of God’s shalom, God’s peace, in a world and in a time that is yearning for things to be made right.
This world is set up with all kinds of signs telling people which way to go. Those signs are set up for me and you, too. Some tell people to push when the door really only opens with a pull. Most of them are stop signs. Some say that the road we are travelling on is a dead end. Still others say there is no way you can go. Today, as we begin the trek to Bethlehem, let’s set up another sign in the world and then let’s live what it says: “Coming Soon.” May the name of the Lord be praised. Amen.