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First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
64O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as 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! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
This is the first of Advent. There are two main seasons of preparation in the Christian calendar. In Lent, we prepare ourselves for the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in Advent we prepare ourselves for the joy of the presence of Jesus. And that informs the theme for this Advent. We are going to be intentional about noticing the presence of Jesus around us as we prepare to celebrate his birth 2000 years ago.
Today we are focusing on how we can notice Jesus’ presence in the world around us. Our world might be a bit strange this year, but Jesus is still present within it.
Main Reading: Mark 13:24-37
24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then 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. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven 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. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Eyes and Ears
Every week, Carol or Elinor will update our church’s joys and concerns prayer list. And I’ve noticed something, maybe you’ve noticed it, too. Have you ever noticed that the joys section is always smaller than the concerns? Why is that?
Is there always more wrong than right in the world at any given time? Well, probably not. I believe the joys section is smaller because we do not notice or do not share the good news. If someone was sick and they get better, we often do not share that update.
If you’ve ever been in one of my groups, you always know how we’re going to start: with highs, lows, and prayer requests. One of the great benefits of doing that and sending out the prayers every time we meet is that we get to see how things resolve.
For example, a few weeks ago in our staff meeting someone asked us to pray for their friend who was in the ICU and doing very badly after contracting COVID. The next week, he had made some improvement, but was still in rough shape. The next week he was out of the ICU, but still needed a lot of monitoring and support. Now he’s truly doing much better and on a good track. The weekly check-in gave us the opportunity to celebrate his progress from critical condition to being on the mend.
Sometimes it’s also eye-opening to hear more details about something going on. For example, our children’s director, Kate, dropped off Advent bags for my kids. She worked with Janice and Maria on the Christian education committee to deliver 22 bags plus mailing 2 more. That’s nice. But then I saw there were 26 little activity bags inside each larger bag. So that means Kate, Janice, and Maria filled 624 little Advent activity bags and sent them to 24 kids. 624! That’s amazing!
A year or so ago I sent out a thank you card to everyone who had volunteered in the Community Dinner over the year. And the cards completely filled the conference table in my office. Seeing that opened my eyes to the scale of the effort and the response of this congregation!
All of these are examples of “seeing” the presence of Jesus. I intellectually understood that there were a lot of people involved in the Community Dinner. Seeing that table filled with thank you cards opened my eyes to the presence of Christ.
I already knew that Kate, Maria, and Janice delivered a bunch of Advent bags. But seeing that number – 624 little bags – that opened my eyes to the presence of Christ.
I understand that God is active in our world today. But when I can see progress over the course of several weeks of prayer requests? That opens my eyes to the presence of Christ.
We can use our eyes and ears to intentionally notice the presence of Christ this Advent. In our text today, Jesus says, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” Use your eyes to notice the presence of Jesus. Our first text from Isaiah says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”
So here are two ideas for seeing the presence of Jesus. First is the follow-up. If someone asked you to pray about something, follow up with them. Ask them how it’s going and how you can be praying now. You might get to see or hear about something amazing, or you might see or hear about a new way they need the presence of Christ.
The second idea is the same, but from the other direction. If you asked for prayers about something, let people know how it’s going. Then they get to see the presence of Christ or they get to see how the presence of Christ is requested.
So one way we can notice the presence of Jesus in the world around us is to use our eyes and ears.
Jesus encourages us to notice his presence in nature as well. He says, “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.”
But let’s not miss what Jesus is saying about nature. He didn’t say, “From the fig tree you can notice beauty.” No, he said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson.” To notice the presence of Jesus in nature, I’m going to encourage you to go a little beyond beauty.
For example, I have been intentionally spending time outside in our yard almost every day. I even got a camping hammock so I can quickly put it up and take it down – the boys would surely destroy it if I left it up. So I go outside, put the technology away, and sit…watch…think…pray…notice.
At the beginning of fall, I noticed something about two of the trees in our back yard. They’re both the same species. They live only about fifteen feet apart. And yet one of them had lost most of its leaves while the other had barely lost any. As I reflected on these two trees having different reactions to almost identical circumstances, I realized that it was also a metaphor for our spiritual journeys. Even two people in the same household could have very different spiritual journeys.
From that realization, I started talking with our staff and church leaders about considering individual people in our church rather than just thinking about groups and attendance. Instead of just asking, “how many people came?” we’re trying to ask, “how can we best support John or Mary in their spiritual journey?” You are your own tree!
So we’re actually starting something new this week. The staff are picking five households, and we’re reaching out to them to check in, make sure we know what’s going on in their lives, and also how we can best pray for and support them. And then we’re going to do it again. And then we’re going to do it again. We are going to devote intentional time to considering the spiritual journey of individuals in our church, and we’re going to try to go through the whole church this way.
We want to know how connected you’re feeling right now.
We want to know how you’re investing in your spiritual journey right now.
We want to know how you’re serving others right now.
We want to know how we can pray for you right now.
We want to know, not just the negative areas of your life, but what would make you happy?
And make sure you notice the key word and the key phrase. The key word is “YOU.” And the key phrase is “right now.” So we want to know about you, specifically, right now. Not someone else generically sometime.
And we want to know this so that we can think, not just about the whole congregation, but YOU! We’re talking about this as a person-centric ministry. Instead of asking how the program went, we’re trying to ask how YOU are and how we can support or bless YOU.
When you get one of these phone calls over the next year, now you know what to expect! We want to cheer for you. We want to bless you. We want to support you. We want to pray for you. Because you are your own tree. That’s one way I learned a lesson from nature. I didn’t just see beauty, I learned a lesson.
What lesson can you learn from thinking deeper in nature?
Jesus also says in our text today, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
My great grandmother used to say that anyone who lives long enough will see all of the prophecies from the book of Revelation. That’s one of the reasons there are so many end times groups throughout history: there are always enough signs and wonders to think you’re living in the end times.
Thinking about this, another way to notice the presence of God is through history. When have prior generations faced similar challenges? Solomon reminds us in the Bible that there is nothing new under the sun. The details change, but people? People are pretty similar at any point in history.
One of the people I follow online is Brady Shearer. He starts off his videos with the same tagline – “Helping churches navigate the biggest change in communication in the last 500 years.” What’s he talking about? The Internet, of course. But that raises another question: what happened 500 years ago? Any guesses what the last huge change in communication was?
The invention and proliferation of the printing press. Suddenly books could be manufactured quickly and cheaply. Suddenly literacy was a core skill for everyone. Suddenly identical ideas could be shared across a continent. And suddenly, that change in communication technology helped Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformers overturn Western Christianity and the political map of Europe.
As that shift in communication wound its way through Christianity, what had changed? Instead of professionals reading and interpreting the Bible, now everyone had access. Instead of watching a priest practice the religion behind a curtain, now everyone was a potential vessel for the grace of God. Instead of learning Latin to read the Bible, now there were local language translations to make it more accessible. The Word of God came down in the flesh in Jesus, and the Word became accessible with the printing press.
How will our world and how will Christianity be different as a result of our own major shift in communication? That’s still working itself out. But we can derive comfort by seeing how prior generations survived and sometimes even thrived through the last major shift in communication.
We can also look at past generations who survived pandemics. We can look at past generations who struggled with political deadlock, or difficult debates about race, or debates about the nature of justice, or economic uncertainty, or demographic shifts. Pick something that worries you, and I can just about guarantee that a past generation has dealt with it in some form. Again, the details will be different, but people are pretty similar across the sweep of history. Our motivations, our emotions, our personal struggles, they’re very similar to people hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
If you’re anxious about something big picture right now? Take a look at history and see how a past generation dealt with something similar. We’re still here. A future generation will look up what we did to survive or thrive during this time. We can see the presence of Jesus in history.
Sisters and brothers, no matter what is going on around us, Jesus is present. We can use our eyes and ears. We can think deeply about the lessons we can find in nature. We can notice Jesus’ presence throughout history. Jesus is present. How will you notice?
We’ll close with what Jesus said to end our text today: “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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Amen.