Have you ever had someone tell about a good movie? “It’s, like, the best movie ever,” they might say. It’s high praise. So, you sit down to watch the movie… and it just disappoints. I remember when the Star Wars prequels came out, I believe in 2001. I had a few friends who were massive fans of Star Wars. I mean, I enjoyed the movies, don’t get me wrong, but I was never really “into” them as much as some people get. Anyway, I just remember these friends being devastated by Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Now, it’s not a great movie; nowhere near as good as the first one. But it also didn’t destroy the universe or anything. But from my friends’ reactions, you’d have thought it did.
The problem, of course, was that I had a bunch of friends whose expectations were impossible to live up to. They were asking a movie to be something it was never going to be. We do this often; we build something up, only to get disappointed when it fails to live up to our expectations. Parents feel this way about their kids, kids feel this way about their parents; spouses, friends – really every relationship has a moment in which one person lets the other down. We’re just people, so that’s kind of our “normal” – failing one another.
But, of course, it shouldn’t surprise us. Our expectations are just out of whack with reality. So that’s what we’re here to talk about today. Because if ever there was an unfulfilled expectation, it was when Jesus came. Now, I know that probably sounds scandalous to everyone, but I want you to bear with me while we think it through, because it’s really important that we understand this the way Jesus’ followers and other contemporaries would have. I think it gives us another way to look at our own lives.
First of all, we read a passage from Isaiah this morning. It began with a cry to God to come to earth, saying, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Here, Isaiah expresses that understandable feeling that the world is unjust, and the even more understandable desire for God to come fix it all.
In so doing, he asks God to come with a flash and a bang – tearing open the heavens, shaking the mountains, and setting the world aflame, so that all the enemies of God tremble. And, frankly, this is how most people expected God to come into the world that first time; with fires and floods and burning, wearing a crown and bending every knee.
Only, that’s not what happened at all, is it? Instead, God came as a baby – not a royal baby, just a baby born in a barn to a poor family. And who shows up for the birth? Some angels, yeah; but they share the experience with the nearby shepherds. These are just regular people, on a regular day, doing regular things. There were no fires or floods, no earthquakes or bloody battles. All that happened was the most commonplace of God’s miracles, the miracle of birth.
The thing is, if you’re expecting the sky to tear open and the world itself to start shaking, it’s going to be awfully hard to understand what was so special about this baby, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve had people ask me many times, “How come people didn’t believe in Jesus? They saw him do so many miracles!” That’s true; but again, they were brought up with these words from Isaiah about God making a big show of things. So on the one hand, you can’t blame the people who saw Jesus. Many of them thought he was just a prophet or a special messenger… and that seems kind of reasonable, given this perspective on what they thought God would do.
But, as I’ve been saying, that’s just expectations getting in the way. That’s us, as human beings, foisting our expectations of what God should do onto events. It’s asking God to act they way we would act, rather than allowing us to be us, and God to be God.
And that brings us to our other reading, the passage from Mark’s Gospel. This passage takes for granted one of the key aspects of Advent. As you all know from our children’s sermon, we are now in the Christian season of Advent, which is the lead-up to Christmas. We are getting ready for the coming of Christ. But for most of us, I think, that’s actually just an act of “memory.” Advent is definitely a season in which we remember waiting in the past. That is, it’s partially about remembering how people waited for so long – thousands of years – for a Messiah. They waited and waited for God to come, so we wait, too.
But the thing is, we’re not just supposed to be doing an act of memory. Today we’re celebrating the sacrament of Communion, which is also an act of memory. But more than just memory, it reminds us that we will, one day, feast with Jesus at his heavenly table. So it’s also anticipation. That same idea holds true for Advent. And that’s what this passage is getting at.
For as long as Christianity has existed, we have been waiting for Jesus to return. It’s part of the Christian deal. We hope for Christ to come and set everything right, once and for all. That’s what he’s told us is going to happen, and that’s what the Mark passage refers to. The passage from today talks about suffering and miracles of darkness and the heavens themselves shaking, and the Son of Man – that is, Jesus – coming from the clouds in glory. Jesus tells us all this in today’s reading.
But Jesus also says that it will happen within the generation to which he was talking. Well, that didn’t happen. So what did Jesus mean? What are we supposed to take from this? How on earth is this supposed to be relevant to us, and particularly what has it got to do with Christmas?
Well, if I were a betting man, I would say that Jesus is speaking in riddles here, as he’s wont to do sometimes. Perhaps he had planned to come back within one generation, but he changed his mind. Perhaps he did come back, but invisibly. Perhaps because God’s time is not like our time, it’s still to come, and Jesus was using the word “generation” in a way that’s really different from how we use it. No matter what, though, this is a passage about how Jesus will come again.
And if I were a betting man, I’d also bet that it’s safe to say that, while Jesus uses this particular type of language to refer to his second coming, his first coming was surprising and challenged everyone’s expectations; I’d expect his second coming to do the same. Maybe it will look exactly like that, and maybe it won’t. Maybe everyone will be able to see, or maybe only certain people will. No matter what happens, though, the best advice to follow is that at the end of the passage: keep awake!
That’s not just good advice during sermons; it’s also important for us as believers. We’re supposed to make our faith a part of our lives every day, not just on the rare occasion that we deign to think of it. When Jesus says, “Keep awake,” he doesn’t mean “don’t go to sleep.” Rather, he means, “Pay attention.” It’s hard to think of better advice.
So while we’re in Advent, while we’re in this season of waiting, let’s spend our waiting wisely. Let’s look for what God is doing. Keep awake, and open your eyes to finding God in unexpected places. Don’t be blinded by the world around you and its expectations for you; rather, pay attention to the things God is already doing. That way, whenever God shows up, however God shows up, you’ll notice. Whether it’s in the sky tearing open and the earth trembling, or if it’s merely in the crying of a child, by keeping awake, we can find where God is showing up right now; and when we do that, we know we’ll be able to find Jesus when he comes again. Amen.