This sermon preview is part of "Pardon the Interruption: An Advent Series."
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The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.
- From Isaiah 52:7–10
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
- Mark 13:35-37
“They ask me: Why are we always facing these difficulties?” Taleb said. “We are believers. Why is there always war, war, war?”
Those are the words of Rabih Taleb, a Pastor of a small congregation in Southern Lebanon, located less than a mile from northwest Israel. He is describing the deep questions of his congregation, which had just been displaced by the war between Israel and Hamas. This displacement was the congregation's seventh in the last 50 years.
That is an Advent question, "Why are we facing these difficulties?" It is very similar to the scriptural cry, "How Long, O Lord?"
Psalm 13 cries: "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?" (emphasis mine).
For how many has that Psalm summarized their prayer?
Waiting, wrestling with God, wondering when reprieve will come - and if it will come and all.
Suffering is especially acute in the war-torn areas of the world. But it is not limited to such places. It is the human condition.
Murder, poverty, gross injustice, corruption, a devastating diagnosis, all that shakes us with its terrible unfairness, everything that make us cry out, "We are believers. Why is there always..." Always trouble, always darkness, always fear, at the door, in our lives — some of it (God help us) we even know we caused ourselves. "How Long, O Lord?"
Such questions are Advent questions because Advent is the time of waiting. Advent waits for God's interruption to, too often dreadful, business-as-usual. It is the in-between time. It is the season we find ourselves in: and it awaits Jesus's coming — his second in glory as much as his first at his birth. As the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth said:
“What other time or season can or will the church ever have but that of Advent!”
This may seem odd to you. Odd because outside, despite the cold, our culture tries to be its cheeriest during the months leading up to Christmas. There are lights and songs and presents to be bought and, if anything "religious" is said at all, we're confronted immediately with "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men."
Advent refuses to jump there immediately. Advent is far more honest. Advent awaits an interruption, and a good interruption - like the one in the vision of Isaiah, which promises "all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God." This season refuses the too-simple sentimentality of 30 days of warm and fuzzy movies about good cheer. It demands that we recognize the full gravity of the situation we find ourselves in. Advent knows we need an interruption of the-way-things-are.
But if an interruption is to be good, that suggests that whatever it interrupts is anything but. Advent Waits in the Dark. There is a story in the Gospels. A story which the early Church, no less surrounded by trial and hardship and war than we are, often told one another. A story from Jesus's own teaching, a parable about the Kingdom.
In it, Jesus urges:
"Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:35-37).
Watch! Keep vigilant! This waiting is active.
The hour draws near, though no human being might know the day or the hour. The word from God, the God whom we cry out to "How Long, O Lord" comes. The word comes to those waiting in the dark. To receive the message, it may help to know we know where we are. And we are in the thick of night.
Where are you waiting for the action of God? What moves you to ask, "How Long, O Lord?"
Does Advent pointing to the second coming as much as the first change how you think about this season? If so, how?
Is there anything surprisingly comforting about knowing the Christian church has been wrestling with these questions since its beginning? What might this tell us about our faith as Christians?