Advent is not merely a time to look for the coming of Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, God with us, our Emanuel. But rather, Advent is a time for us to look for the promised second coming of Jesus, his return in glory. As the angels declare to the disciples in Acts 1—“This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
And so, Advent—which literally means “coming” or “arrival”—is the time we wait. We watch and we wonder—even as we rejoice that God has already done great and mighty things for us and continues to be faithful to his promise toward us. Advent is a time for us to remember the future—remember that just as God worked life from all manner of chaos throughout the ages, God will do the same into the future. Christ will come again. God’s promise will once more be embodied in our midst. And so Advent is a time for us to appreciate the mystery, the revelation of God’s love among us—both in the already present but also in the just-out-of-our-grasp future.
God’s promised reign is so close we can taste it—like a crumb of bread on our lips and a drop of wine on tongues. Advent is a time for us to appreciate this already-but-not-yet, in-between time, and ask ourselves what we do with our lives of discipleship. What do we make of this promise from Jesus to come again? Do even devote much of our attention to pondering it?
Would you pray with me? May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Charlie prided himself on being exceedingly punctual. He followed a very precise routine every morning. His alarm went off at 6:30. He rose briskly, shaved, showered, ate breakfast, brushed his teeth, picked up his briefcase, got into his car, drove to the nearby ferry landing, parked his car, rode the ferry—whose timetable he had committed to memory—rode the ferry across the harbor, got off, walked smartly to his building, marched to the elevator, rode to the 17th floor, hung up his coat, open his briefcase, spread his papers out on his desk, and sat down in his chair at precisely 8:00. Not 8:01. Not 7:59. Always 8:00.
He followed the same routine without variation for years, until one morning his alarm didn’t go off, and he overslept by 15 minutes. When he did awake, he was panic stricken. He rushed through his shower, nicked himself when he shaved, gulped down his breakfast, only half brushed his teeth, grabbed his suitcase, jumped into the car, sped to the ferry landing, jumped out of his car, and looked for the ferry. There it was out in the water feet from the dock.
He said to himself, “I think I can make it,” and then ran the dock towards the ferry at full speed. Reaching the edge of the pier, he gave an enormous leap out over the water and miraculously landed with a loud thud on the deck of the ferry.
The captain rushed down to make sure he was alright. The captain said, “Wow! That was a tremendous! But if you would’ve just waited another minute, we would’ve reached the dock, and you could’ve just walked on.”
Timelines. Agendas. Schedules. Calendars. Plans. Programs. Timetables.
If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time devoted to keeping track of time. Some of you may remember that I have a clock wall in the front room of the parsonage. I love clocks, but it’s not just clocks. It’s time. I’m pretty fanatical about it. Some of you have experienced that firsthand, actually. I like to know what’s going to happen, and more importantly, I like to know when.
Timelines. Agendas. Schedules. Calendars. Plans. Programs. Timetables.
Even the most lackadaisical or carefree among us has to worry about time at some point or another. If you want to plan a vacation and need to use any kind of transportation other than your own car—a plane, train, ship, or whatever—you’re going to need to adjust your timetable according to someone else’s. At some point or another, every one of us becomes beholden to one degree or another to a timetable—one of our own devising or someone else’s.
Going to the doctor or the dentist is a good example of how sometimes the constraints of someone else’s timetable might make us less than happy. Or the RMV. The dreaded RMV…known for making you wait. And wait. And wait. Studies have shown, that on average people wait about 32 minutes at the doctor or dentist. The RMV wait is actually shorter, according to the studies. The average wait time at the RMV is only(!) 30 minutes. These same studies go on to figure out all kinds of stats about waiting. Do you know how long the average person will spend of their life waiting in line for things? Approximately six months. That works out to about three days a year just waiting in line.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
We spend a lot of time waiting, and that’s time spent that could be spent doing something else. And yet when we do find ourselves at the doctor’s office or the dentist’s office waiting, or at the RMV, what do we do? We sit there. We might play on our phones. Text people. Read the news. More than likely play a game or worse—mindlessly scroll through social media. If you don’t have a phone to play with, you might pick up one of the worn-out magazines that’ve been lying on the table for 18 months and leaf through that. I used to do that at the barber when I was growing up. I’d reread old articles in TIME Magazine. I never could understand why he didn’t bring in the newer issues.
If we’re at the doctor, we might also find ourselves growing anxious as we wait, particularly if we’re waiting to be seen for some issue that we’re having and are looking for an answer. Or if we’re waiting with someone else who’s going to the doctor. We grow anxious with them as we wait to go in with them. Waiting for test results is much the same way. Have blood drawn and wait to find out what’s up. I can still remember waiting to hear about each of Grandma’s surgeries—two hips, three knees, and two shoulders. I remember waiting to hear that all went. I trusted the doctor, but I still waited anxiously for the final word. We can all identify with that. The waiting game. It rarely, if ever, follows our timetable.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus speaks to the disciples about his return in glory. I love the image that he paints, of course apart from the tidbit about suffering—“‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” Jesus’ return will be in grand style, his arrival filling the sky—no one will miss it! He’ll dispatch the angels. I can just see it now. Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael leading the way, as they pull in God’s beloved, you and me and everyone in the whole family of God, from every proverbial corner of the globe, from pole to pole. It’ll be a tremendous, tremendous experience. Jesus describes it in cosmic terms even, quoting both the Prophet Isaiah and the Prophet Joel—“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.” When Jesus comes back, it will be like nothing else that we’ve ever seen. Even the planets, suns, and moons will behave differently. Time itself will stand still.
Jesus’ return is of course a big deal. It means the promised Kingdom of God is finally here in its fullness. The kingdom where, as we said only a few weeks ago, “we’ll all be changed, transfigured from mortal, temporal beings to fully embodied, enlivened members of Christ forever. We will be reborn, from death to life, from lives of suffering and sorrow to lives of gladness and joy.” When Christ comes again, the waiting will be over. No more pandemics or fears of pandemics. No more political intrigues, backbiting, and showboating. No more wars. No more death. No more greed, no more vainglory, no more wrath, no more danger, no more envy and jealousy. The day of Jesus’ return means for us who’ve been united with him in death and resurrection, “a day of mercy, a day of grace, a day of fulfilled promise, a day of inexpressible, inestimable love.”
So naturally, we wonder when this might be. What’s the timeline? What’s the agenda? The plan? When can I mark this date on my calendar so I don’t schedule bridge work for that day? What’s God’s timetable for Jesus return? Well, we don’t know. No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even Jesus. Only God the Father—which, to a degree, makes sense, since he is the source of all things, even time itself. There is some strange comfort in knowing that not even Jesus knows the day or hour of his return.
It’s in God’s control—the same God who created the planets, suns, moons, plants, animals, seas, fish, and birds—even created us. That same God is in control. The same God who saved Noah and his family in the ark. The same God redeemed the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. The same God who delivered Daniel from the mouth of the lions, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the flames of the furnace. The same God who remained faithful to his people in captivity and brought them back to the holy city of Jerusalem from a foreign land. The same God who for us and for our sake was born into poverty, to a poor, insignificant teenage girl, pregnant out of wedlock by the power of the Holy Spirit, who grew up like us, worked like us, laughed like us, got sick like us, had friends and family die like we do, and who himself ultimately died the same death we each face. This same God is in control and remains in control, and it’s his plan, God’s timetable, that dictates when Jesus will return. Not ours. Not the Democrats or the Republicans. Not Wall Street. God’s timetable, and God’s timetable alone.
No matter how much we try to control it or how much we attempt to figure out when it’ll be, when Jesus returns is not up to us, but it’s up to God’s timetable. We wait in hope, expectation, and trust that just as God has always been faithful since the dawn of creation to those whom he calls his own, he will be faithful to us whom he calls his own—not on account of our own goodness, but on account of the mercy and love shown us in his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
And so—what are we to do while we wait? Do we sit anxiously, waiting and fretting that although we don’t know the day or hour, the return of Jesus won’t happen when we want it to? Or do we sit and wait, anxiously fretting about what the cosmic shift—the indescribable, fundamental upending of life as we know it—what that will mean for us when Jesus comes back? No—we learn the lesson of the fig tree, or any other tree called to bear fruit. We go about our lives, as normal, doing what we’re called to do as disciples of Jesus—living as God’s faithful people, hearing God’s Word and partaking together in his body and blood, sharing the good news of Christ not only by what we say but also by what we do, serving all people, following the example of Jesus, and striving for justice and peace wherever we are.
We rise each morning, and we live our lives. Whether we follow a very precise routine every morning or whether we take the happenings of the day as they come. But we go about our lives in the sure and unshakeable conviction that Jesus is coming back. We may not know the day or hour, but we know he’s coming back. God has a plan, and Jesus will come back to claim us, once and for all, to establish his reign of love according to God’s timetable.
The dawn is quickly approaching when Jesus will return on the clouds of glory and we with him will at length join the heavenly multitudes, thousand thousand saints and angels at his throne attending. And we with them will then eternally swell the glad refrain—“Hallelujah! Praise him! Praise him!”
Until that time, I say to you, and I say to all: “Keep awake.” The time is drawing near.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.