Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min. Location: First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Date: November 29, 2020
Well, happy new year to you! Today we are beginning a new Christian Liturgical year as we commence the season of Advent. Advent, which means ‘the coming’, is the four-week time prior to Christmas day where Christians the world over make plans to get ready for the coming of the newborn Christ-child. The birth of Jesus reminds us how God personally comes onto our worldly stage and shows us how to live and love. Advent is all about getting ready and prepared for a new house guest who we want to feel comfortable and loved in our heart’s homes when the baby Jesus is born Christmas Day. The little baby’s birth is just one advent, or coming, we are preparing for the next month. Lest we forget, this season of Advent asks you and me to pause and remember two separate advents or comings.
Traditionally, the very first Sunday in Advent is the time the Church remembers, not the birth of Jesus, but the second coming of Jesus at the fulfilment of time. This second advent is known by many names in our popular culture such as “The Rapture” (which is a word that isn’t even in our Bible), “The End Times” (which is an oxymoron to a follower of Jesus because for us the Eternal Time is just beginning!) or “The Judgement” (which in and of itself sounds like a lugubrious affair). Personally, I would rather call it as Scripture calls it in today’s lesson in verse 27, “The Gathering.”
As you hear the scripture today, remember the setting. Just like Matthew’s gospel, Mark has Jesus doing rounds with the religious scholars, leaders and social leaders in the Temple area. Mark 13 has him leave Jerusalem and we find him privately speaking to four of his disciples: Andrew, Peter, James, and John. The writer of the Gospel is inviting you and me into this intimate conversation with Jesus and the four future pillars of the early church. All of Mark 13 is dealing with The Gathering and what it will be like leading up to that point. Jesus is telling them in essence, “Better buckle up, boys, things are about to get a little dicey!” Hear the Word of the Lord!
24 “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.
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then 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. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that heis near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven 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. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It 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. 35 Therefore, 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, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
We first have Jesus quoting well-known Hebrew prophetic scripture from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and Daniel describing what it will be like at The Gathering. He then tells his disciples to read the signs of the times to better understand its arrival. And then Jesus peppers them with the call to be on guard and alert, keep watchful and expectant. In other words, “Peter, Andrew, James and John, you’d better buckle up!”
Frankly, none of this sounds very ‘Christmassy’ to me; it’s all rather jolting and unsettling. Why does the tradition of the Church begin the new Christian calendar at this point? Why are we starting with the second advent or coming first?
Years ago, best-selling author Stephen Covey wrote a book called, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. He says successful people first develop the habit of being proactive instead of be reactive. In other words, it’s a reminder that leaders are to take initiative. The second habit Covey espouses is that we are to keep the end in mind. By this, he means we are to envision what it’s like when we have accomplished what we have set out to do. I learned this trick from my high school English teacher, Charlotte Richter, who told us that if we want to better understand a book, read the first chapter and then immediately read the last chapter right away so you have a better idea of what to look for in the story’s flow in between the two.
Beloved, we start our Christian year off with the end in mind because it helps us calibrate the rhythm for the rest of our year, and in a real sense, the rest of our earthly life. We begin with the “last chapter” of The Gathering because it will help us to better understand and assimilate the events of our lives before then. Like an overture to a beautiful symphony that sets out the entire musical score that is carried out throughout the piece of music, so we are invited on this first Sunday of Advent to remember the overall score of our Christian redemptive Story.
Now, you do know the notes of our Christian overture, don’t you? There are four themes running through the Judeo-Christian Story. If you don’t know these, you need to write them down as it helps you see how the whole Bible fits together. The first theme is God establishing relationship with his creation. The second theme is humankind’s rejection of that relationship with God. The third theme is exile from community with God. But the fourth theme is that God searches out, hurts for, and takes the initiative to restore relationship with the exiled ones. Relationship, rejection, exile, and restoration is the ever-repeating overture that plays over and over and over again in the biblical narrative from Genesis through Revelation and through each of our own lives as well.
So, on this first Sunday of Advent, we begin with the end in mind. We begin with reminding ourselves that ultimately, God takes the initiative to bring his children back home, to restore the lost ones at the Great Gathering. Why begin there? Because, my friends, Jesus has reminded his four closest friends that it’s time to buckle up as it’s going to be tough going between now and when the Gathering takes place. He is reminding you and me that we are to be on the lookout and anticipate the Great Gathering because in doing so, we are given hope to keep on keeping on. Keep watch, stay awake. Have hope! There’s more to the Story!
We begin with the second Advent first, we begin with the end in mind first, because if we lose sight of it, we will succumb to the Four Disses: DIS-couragement; DIS-illusionment; DIS-interest; and DIS-avowal.
Reminding ourselves that God’s relationship and desire with people is for restoration, we will prevent ourselves from getting discouraged. There is so much in our world that makes us discouraged right now ranging from the pandemic to ugly politics. It’s easy to lose courage and strength at the moment and it quickly swirls into the second Dis-, Disillusionment. Discouragement leads to disillusionment. We do not think we can make a difference in the world. We become cynical and fed up with it all. When that happens, we slip into Disinterest. Disillusionment breeds disinterest which is the fertile soil for apathy to grow. Why go and vote? My vote will not matter. Why give to the Church? What I give won’t make a difference. Why bother to worship? No one will notice if I attend or tune-in or not. Why bother to help serve? They have enough volunteers.
Discouragement leads to disillusionment which leads to disinterest which ultimately leads to disavowal. We lull ourselves into thinking God doesn’t care or doesn’t exist so why bother trying to live a Christ-following life? We begin to disavow our relationships with our neighbor and place ourselves as our life’s number one priority. When we begin getting so clouded we disavow our love for God and for our neighbor as ourselves, we become sickly selfish.
So, Jesus reminds us.
So, Jesus says, “Be on guard! Be alert! Stay awake! Begin with the end in mind! Buckle up because I’m not leaving you alone! Yes, things seem pretty difficult right now, but remember, I have already overcome the world!”
This, my friends, is why we remember the Second Advent first. We know the end of the Story which gives us optimism and hope to thwart any discouragement, disillusionment, disinterest, and disavowal our swirly lives tries to foist on us. We have hope in The Gathering.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
© 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the 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.
Thought provoking, as usual. So glad my life’s path crossed yours, Patrick.