In this time of advent you are going to hear the sounds of Christmas, the Christmas carols that we are so familiar with and love so much. You will hear them on the radio, you will hear them across the street in the department stores.
But there is another sound in Advent, a different music. You will not hear this music in the stores or on the radio but hopefully you will hear it in church. It is the music of Advent. It’s not sung often or gladly, even in church.
Advent goes back to the Old Testament, to Isaiah and Malachi and Ezekiel, back to a nation waiting, longing for God to come and deliver them. It goes back even farther than that, back even to Genesis, and says that what happened at Bethlehem is mysteriously related to what happened at the Creation.
Then it looks forward, beyond what we can see. It says that what happened at Bethlehem is also mysteriously related to what will happen in the End. Advent puts the little town of Bethlehem against the backdrop of the cosmos and all of history and says that we can understand what happened at Bethlehem only by seeing it in that perspective. The most beautiful of all Advent hymns does this:
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is the Alpha and Omega,
He is the source, the ending he.
That’s the song of Advent, and it reminds us that what happened at the beginning and what will happen at the end are mysteriously related to what happened at Christmas. It says that you are not merely looking upon a tender human scene; you are getting a glimpse of the very nature of things. You are seeing eternity in a manager. “He is the source, the ending he.” In Mark 13 we look at the ending, the words of Mark, the passage that is called “the little apocalypse” because it contains so many of the predictions of the end, the apocalyptic forecasts that were current in Jesus’ time. They are collected there, all of these forebodings about history. It’s like a Reader’s Digest version of the apocalypse of John, what is known as the Book of Revelation at the end of the bible, filled with signs in the heavens and tribulation on earth. It’s all there in a kind of summary in the thirteenth chapter of Mark. But the chapter concludes with these words: “No man knows the hour or the day, no one knows but the Father. So watch.”
The next time somebody confronts you with biblical visions of the end and ties them to current events, remember this passage: no one knows. The prophecies in Mark were tied to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. Nothing happened. The prophecies in Revelation were tied to the fall of Rome. Rome fell. Nothing happened! They have been tied to events in every age, and nothing has happened. Today seers and fundamentalist preachers tie apocalyptic prophesies to political events in the Middle East. They even fuel the fires there, some of them, in the hope they can precipitate Armageddon, exactly the way the Zealots in Jesus’ time tried to use him to provoke a cataclysmic end of history in their time. The result today would be the result then. That was the tragedy of Massadah. Violence upon violence, to no purpose.
When will we learn the lesson that Jesus taught his disciples, that the kingdom of God is not going to come by force? Because no one knows. The result of claiming to know is always the same. The result of claiming to know and acting on the basis of this certainty always means that history is going to be bloodier than it would have been otherwise. To no result.
In relation to the End, our situation is one of waiting. This is the message of Advent. We can’t end the waiting. We can’t do anything about it. The End, the judgment, the kingdom of God will come when God is ready, not we. Until then, we live by faith. By definition, this means we live with uncertainty. It’s a sign of maturity. It’s always been the sign of spiritual maturity, ever since Abraham, living with uncertainty. Just as the sign of wisdom is the ability to say “I don’t know.” I am impressed with the humility of all the really great scientists. Every last one of them will say, “The more we know the more we discover how little we know.” You can be certain only if you don’t know very much. I am impressed as well with the spiritual giants, the mystics, who spent a lifetime of disciplined prayer and monastic isolation, who talk about the Deus Absconditus, that is, the hidden God. They say, “The closer you get to God the more he is hidden and the less you know about him.” I am impressed with those who wait in loneliness, in sorrow, or in pain, for some help to come, some Messiah, some cure for their pain or some release from their bondage. They wait without understanding, without knowing why they must endure this exile. But they wait faithfully, trusting that one day God will act and give them new life. Until that time, they walk – members of this fellowship today, all over this city, in hospitals, not with us because of pain or sorrow, waiting without answers. That’s what spiritual maturity looks like because of pain or sorrow, waiting, without answers. That’s what spiritual maturity looks like. It doesn’t have all the answers.
That’s why Paul said, “Prophecy passes away, tongues will cease, knowledge will pass away” – the three claims to certainty. Paul says they are all illusions. They don’t work. The only things that endure and help us endure are faith, hope, and love. When in a time of waiting, those are your provisions: faith, hope, and love. No one knows but the Father.
Then to the final word: watch. Be prepared for the unexpected. As Christians we believe he will return. He is Alpha and Omega. He is the beginning and the end. We do not know when, we do not how. It is not impossible that his second coming will be as much a surprise as the first. It is very possible that all the prophecies about him will be confounded.
So in terms of the future, we are all alike. We are in a time of waiting. This is why I think a lesson given by Johanan ben Zakkai, the last pupil of the famous Hillel, is for us. It’s perfect for Advent, the season of waiting and watching. He said this: “If you are planting a tree and you hear that the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree. Then go and inquire.”
Jesus said, “You’re going to hear all kinds of prophecies. But remember, no one knows the hour or the day. No one knows but the Father. So watch. Watch.” That is, pray for the kingdom, and work for it. When you finish the work, and if you’ve got nothing better to do, then go and inquire. But first, do the work the Lord has given you."