November 28th 2020

Reading Mark 13:24-37

The first Sunday in Advent is the day when typically, we focus on the theme of hope. Hope is, of course, central to all that we are and all that we seek to be and do as Christians, but in this past year, hope, for many, has seemed a dream too distant to imagine.

We may not appear to have suffered quite so badly in our corner of the North East of Scotland, but we have not been blind to the pain and struggle felt by people in other parts of our country, nor in the world as a whole. The suffering has been immense. Those affected directly by the virus, patients, their families and all who care for them personally and professionally have a story to tell. Those of us affected more indirectly by the impact of social distancing, lockdown and all that entails, feel pain too.

Those who work in every aspect of the care sector put themselves at risk each time they go to work, and their families when they return home. Those who work in retail, in the hospitality industry, and so many more are similarly at risk, with the added fear of the future as companies and businesses go under, and jobs are lost in the wake of how each nation deals with the overwhelming challenge to public health. It is hard to be hopeful when you live each day with uncertainty and each moment fearing what tomorrow may bring.

We are not the first generation to live with fear, who, in a world fraught with the devastation of war and disease find the possibility of hope a futile exercise, and we shall, no doubt, not be the last. Yet, as Christians, we are called to live in the perpetual hope of a better life to come, however pious or trite that may sound. Our whole faith is built on the promise that one day, Jesus will return and call us to life with him in eternity, if not now, then some time in the future, but therein lies the problem. When? When will that day come, and what are we to do in the meantime?

The disciples were concerned with this same question – when, as were the generations of Christians who came after them. When will that time be, and how will we know it is upon us? That is the question we hear Jesus addressing in today’s reading.

Earlier in the chapter, one of the disciples had drawn Jesus’ attention to the immense beauty of the temple building but his response was not one of admiration, as may have been expected. Indeed, Jesus rather dismissively points out that at the end of the day, it is simple a building made of bricks and stone, which will eventually be raised to the ground. “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Mk.13:2). The disciples wanted to know though – when? When was this going to happen and how would they know it was imminent?

The answer they got was perhaps not quite what they expected. They wanted details. They wanted a much clearer idea of when this more beautiful future was going to arrive than Jesus gave them. The disciples wanted to know when this day was likely to come, and, would they be able to recognise the signs and have time to prepare themselves.

The reference to words from Isaiah made it clear that the day of the Lord was something that could not be taken lightly. It was a serious matter, truly a matter of eternal life and death. The day Jesus returns is one that ought to fill us with awe, and perhaps even dread, particularly if we have paid but lip service to the life of faith we are called to embrace.

According to Jesus, the day and the hour is unknown. “No-one knows about that day or hour,” he says, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v32). And so therefore, we must be on our guard. We are to be prepared to greet the return of the Son of Man at a moments notice, and this is the real nub of the lesson.

Too often, we concern ourselves with things that, in the greater scheme of things really don’t matter. What matters, what truly matters is how we live our lives on a daily basis. Our hope is in the Day of the Lord and all that this will mean for us, but we cannot, in the meantime sit idly by doing what we like when we like as though we have all the time in the world. An elderly retired teacher once told me that she had no fears for the future of the church because there would always be people like her who would come to cram for their finals.

If this passage teaches us nothing else, it tells us that if we postpone the preparations, there may not be time to cram for these proverbial finals. Our hope is not as simple as assuming all will be well. Our hope is secure in the love Jesus has for us all and in our response to that love by how we live life now.

The season of Advent is a time when we look forward to the Day of the Lord described in the gospel today, but it is a message that is perhaps too often overlooked by the joy of celebrating Jesus’ first coming to earth. Christmas is a day for love and joy, but Advent reminds us of an even greater joy to come.

These days, the season of Advent is almost entirely subsumed into preparation for a celebration of the past. It was never meant to be though. Advent was always about offering us time to focus and reflect on the wider meaning of Christmas, the fuller ministry of Jesus and the deeper love of God for all humankind. Pretty much from Halloween onwards, shops and streets, adverts and alleyways are filled with the sounds and smells of the coming season – carols and incense, movies and mince pies, and maybe this year we need to feel the joy more so than most.

Advent is not always a happy time of year, and this year it will be difficult for many, many more people. There are those who will feel loss keenly, others who will spend it alone. There are those who will be worried about how they can afford Christmas this year, and those who are overwhelmed by the fear of how the coming months are going to unfold, post-Christmas bubble socialising.

Yet it is into just such difficult and fearful times that Jesus first came to us. In him was the outpouring of God’s overwhelming love for us all, and so, even though Advent will undoubtedly be difficult and this Christmas be very different for many, we have reason to remain hopeful. We have reason to remain thankful – for the love shown by friends and neighbours, for the care offered by nurses, doctors and all in the caring professions, for the service provided by those who serve our communities in health, safety and education.

In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that however hard the present may seem, we have reason to be hopeful, for we do not stand alone. In Jesus we have all we need to withstand the pressures of this present time for “he will keep (us) strong to the end, so that (we) will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8). As we struggle to make sense of our present troubles, may we claim this truth and draw on the strength of God, who himself has blessed us with the spiritual gifts we need to stand firm most especially in darker day.

May the light of God’s love shine brightly in our hearts. May it guide our footsteps as we navigate this journey we call faith. May it strengthen our resolve to live every moment as though it were our last, in service, in fellowship and with love, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Click on the link to listen to “There is hope” by David Pettigrew

There is hope