Do You See What I See?
Look for the Signs
First Baptist Richmond, December 3, 2023 The First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
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!
It’s the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a season of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ. It’s also the beginning of an Advent sermon series called “Do You See What I See?” that takes its name from a line in a song by Noel Regney and his wife, Gloria Shayne, written in 1962 as a plea for peace at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.i But that’s not what most people remember about the song. They remember Bing Crosby singing it in that wonderful, intimate way he had, where it sounded as if he were singing just for you. The song became a Christmas classic, with the night wind asking the little lamb, “Do you see what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite.” The star served as a sign that would lead people everywhere to a child, a child, sleeping in the night, who would bring them “goodness and light.” But don’t forget that other part: the part about the Cuban Missile Crisis. In those days Regney and Shayne found that they couldn’t perform their song without being overwhelmed by emotion, especially when they got to the line about people everywhere praying for peace. “Our little song broke us up,” they said. “You must realize there was a threat of war at the time.”ii With the United States and the Soviet Union aiming nuclear weapons at each other, the Cuban Missile Crisis may be as close as we
have ever come to the end of the world, and in times like those we look for signs.
Today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 64 was written in a time like that. God’s people were in exile, praying for their redemption. They were “alienated from their homeland, living among foreigners, suffering for their sins, and estranged from God.”iii And yet the prophet seems to believe that God deserves at least some of the blame. In the second half of verse 5 he says, “[Because] you were angry with us, we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” And then the prophet describes their present, pitiable condition: “We 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. There 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.”
And then the prophet remembers the special relationship God has always enjoyed with his people. He stands up a little straighter and says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” And that’s when he becomes bold enough to ask God to intervene. Looking back up to the first verses in this passage Isaiah says, “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!” And I can almost see him, standing out there in the desert under the night sky, looking up in the hope that he will see the first little rip in the fabric of heaven, and the light of God’s glory pouring through.
At Tuesday’s staff meeting I tried to sum up the good news of Advent—or at least the good news of this First Sunday—in three lines. I said: 1) the world is broken, 2) we can’t fix it, and 3) help is on the way. I don’t think I have to convince you that the world is broken. If you read the news or watch it on TV you know what a colossal mess we humans have made of things. As the prophet says, “All our righteousness is like a filthy cloth.” And although we talk a lot about bringing heaven to earth here at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we know that we can’t do it on our own. Sometimes heaven seems so far away that we’re ready to give up, shrug our shoulders, and walk away. But in those times we often remember, as the prophet did, that God is our Father; that we are the clay and he is the potter. And that’s when we become bold enough to say—as the prophet did—“O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” O, that you would take everything that is wrong in this world and make it right. That’s the hope of this First Sunday of Advent. That’s what we are waiting for and praying for in times like these.
And that brings us to our Gospel lesson from Mark 13, a passage that has been called “the Little Apocalypse” because it sounds so much like the Book of Revelation. It, too, was written at a time when people were looking for signs. The late Fred Craddock, who was not only a great preacher but a renowned New Testament scholar, said, “At the time Mark wrote his Gospel, Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. Civil strife had outlived Roman patience, and the threats begun by Emperor Caligula thirty years earlier had now been carried out. What did this disaster mean for the purposes and promises of God? Jewish prophets had fed the war effort with messianic ideology, but how were the followers of Jesus to understand the end of the Holy City and the temple? Added to the
persecution at the hands of religious and political authorities and the anguish of families torn apart by differing loyalties was the unbearable confusion created by false messiahs and false prophets. False messiahs were claiming, ‘This is the second Advent; I am Christ returned,’ and false prophets were turning religion into an almanac: ‘The signs are right; this is the end.’ Experiencing most heavily now the absence of Jesus, the faithful are torn between giving themselves up to despair or reaching for any flicker of hope.”iv And that’s when Mark digs down deep into the story of Jesus, remembering a moment shortly before his death when he shared with his disciples these famous last words.
They were in the temple in Jerusalem, and the disciples were asking Jesus to notice how big it was, and how large its stones. But Jesus was not impressed. He said, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” And of course they wanted to know when this was going to happen, and what the signs would be. So, Jesus took them to the other side of the Kidron Valley, sat down with them on the Mount of Olives, looked back toward the temple, and began to tell them what was about to take place. He said, “Beware that no one leads you astray, for many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he.’ And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. All this is only the beginning of the birth pangs.” And then he told them that they, themselves, would endure great tribulation, and not only them, but everyone: “For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. But in those days, after that suffering, 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.”
There are some people who get excited about those kinds of apocalyptic predictions, and in my experience they are often people who are on the fringes of society. I remember one in particular, a member of a former church, who dressed as if he had three big cardboard boxes in his closet: one that said “Shirts,” one that said “Pants,” and one that said “Socks.” It looked as if he got dressed each morning by reaching into those boxes in the dark and pulling one item from each. He loved the Book of Revelation, which seems to be all about the world coming to an end. He didn’t love it when I tried to explain that it was written near the end of the first century, AD; at a time when Christians were being persecuted for claiming that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord; and that it was written to encourage them in their faith, and help them hold on no matter what, even if it resulted in their death. Over and over again in that book it says that the one who endures to the end will be saved. But he read it as if it were written for Christians living in the twenty-first century, as if it contained the secret codes that would help them know when everything was about to come undone. People like that keep an eye on the skies, and when they witness a solar eclipse or see a blood-red moon hanging low over the horizon they say, “There! You see? The end is near.”
They want it to be near. The world, as it is, is not working for them. And so they hope, they pray, for an end to the way things are and a beginning to what can be. They are ready for God to turn this world upside down, to usher in his glorious kingdom. But the people who are not on the fringes of society don’t feel that way. The world is working pretty well for them. They don’t want things to be turned upside down; they want them to stay just the way they are. Which raises an interesting question: if you are not eagerly awaiting the return of Christ and the radical upheaval that will precede the coming of his kingdom, why not? Is it
because things are going well for you and you don’t want them to change? If that’s true, then put yourself in the sandals of those people addressed by today’s Gospel lesson, looking out over the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. That’s when the next words out of Jesus’ mouth might come as a comfort.
He says, “In those days, after that suffering, they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then 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.” And if you were among the elect, if you were a member of one of those first-century churches hearing someone read this chapter from the recently released Gospel of Mark, you might be comforted. You might think that it wouldn’t be long before Jesus would come for you, and you might find that his next words were not troubling, but instead hopeful. 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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
And then, just like those original disciples, you might want to know when. “When will all these things take place?” And you might be as disappointed as they were to learn that, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So, what do you do in the meantime? In a word, you keep on doing the work of the kingdom. “Beware, keep alert,” Jesus says; “for you do not know when the time will come. It 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. 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.” Jesus says it to those who are eagerly awaiting his return, like that former church member who loved the Book of Revelation. But he also says it to those for whom things are going well, whose lives are working out just fine, and if that’s you then remember this: 1) there may come a time when things are not going well, when your life is not working out, and 2) remember that it is not some vengeful judge who is coming back, but rather Christ himself.
I know I’ve told you this before, but sometimes I talk to people whose circumstances have changed overnight. They were doing fine, life was going well, and then, suddenly, they felt a pain where they had never felt one before. They tried to ignore it for as long as they could but when it only got worse they went to the doctor, and after undergoing a number of diagnostic tests they were told that they had cancer, the bad kind, the kind that probably wasn’t going to get better. And so they came to me and asked me to pray. What they wanted was to be cured of cancer. They thought that maybe I would know the secret word that would make them well. But I don’t; I don’t know any secret words; my prayers are just as ordinary as everyone else’s. But I do have a secret, and this is it: I say, “You probably know what kind of answer you would like to get from God, but maybe instead of asking for that you could ask for this: maybe you could say, ‘God, show me all the ways you are already at work in this situation.’” And that’s when they begin to see signs—signs of God’s love, signs of God’s care—sometimes signs of God’s healing activity in their lives, but not always. And yet, the next time I talk to them their faces light up with joy. They say, “God is at work everywhere, all the
time! And because I’ve been looking I’ve been able to see it!” What about you? Can you see the signs of God’s goodness and grace? Can you see the signs of God’s love and care? Can you believe that when your world is broken, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it, help is on the way?
—Jim Somerville © 2023