A Sermon On Mark 13:24-37
Some years ago, when I was living in Mountville, I called home to suburban Philadelphia one evening. I usually didn't get my brother when I called, because he was on the road so much, but I could usually catch my mother at home. The phone was busy when I called. Calling about a half-hour later, I was surprised when I found the phone still busy, since my mother isn't one to stay on the phone long. It was still busy after an hour and a half. I called one last time before bed and sure enough the phone rang. Someone answered the phone and dropped it on the table. I called into the phone but received no reply. I got a sinking feeling.
I remembered the telephone number of the police in my hometown, so I called the dispatcher, introduced myself and explained the situation. He asked me to stay on the line while he sent a police car over to the house to check it out. They arrived very quickly. I could hear the police reporting in to the dispatcher...one light on, TV set off, quiet, no activity in the house, all doors locked, no response to the doorbell. I gave the police the OK to enter the house. I told them where the hidden key was in the garage. The garage was attached to the house and made a racket when it was opened. If anyone were in the house, they'd come running when they heard the garage door open. The police opened the garage door and retrieved the hidden key...no response from inside the house. The police made their way to the front door, unlocked it and stepped inside. My brother, who was up in his bedroom the whole time, hearing not a thing, heard the front door open. Going to the top of the stairs, he looked down to find two police officers standing inside the front door, one of which says, "Where's Mrs. McLean? We want to see Mrs. McLean, and we want to see her now! "My poor brother had the wits scared out of him. He called out: "Mom, better get out of bed...there's someone here to see you." After the police saw my mother, they went on their way, with my appreciation.
I called home a few minutes later to find out my mother had been bothered by harassing phone calls and had taken the phone off the hook. She put it back before she went to bed. When the phone rang when I called, she assumed it was the harasser calling again and dropped the phone on the table. My mother and I got a good laugh out of that one. My brother, however, didn't see too much humor in being confronted by the police. It took him a while to forgive me for that one.
Did that story end the way we expected? How do we feel when what we expect to happen doesn't happen? Relieved, when we get something better than we had expected—disappointed, if we're expecting something wonderful. Expectation is anticipating what's going to happen and planning for it. It's the reason for insurance policies and pension plans, calendars and planning sessions, studying for tests.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the time when we start to expect something wonderful to happen in four weeks. Perhaps our expectations have had us making preparations already. If we expect to have a meal with family or friends, we make food preparations. If we expect to take a vacation, we plan ahead for day trips or reunions. If we expect to decorate the house, we anticipate taking out the strings of lights and grumbling about untying the knots. That is, we prepare for what we expect to happen.
Our Gospel lesson has us looking further into a different future than that. On the first day of the Christian year, our lesson is about the last day, when the householder returns from his journey to see how his servants have done in his absence. Did they continue with their work, or slack off in his absence? On the first day of the Christian year, we are expecting the last day's arrival.
Most of the time we perceive time as the present affecting the future. But at Christmas we see how what we expect to happen tomorrow affects what we do today. It's backward, but it's true. The future affects the present. What we anticipate tomorrow affects what we do today.
What about the last day? Does what we expect to happen then effect what we do today? That day will be like a householder leaving home with the servants in charge. The servants might be tempted to kick up their heels and relax after the master is over the hill and out of sight...skip the dusting, stop feeding the dog, help themselves to the wine cellar. But the charge is to keep alert, for the servants do not know when the master will return. The servants won't want the master to return and find them asleep! The master will return without time to prepare; the time to prepare for the master's return is always now.
Does this future effect us today? Do we live as though the master of the house could return at any moment? Are we ready should he come suddenly, and will he find the servants awake?
In colonial New England, an eclipse clouded the sky while the legislators were in session. A number of them panicked and moved to adjourn, because they thought it was the return of the Lord. One legislator said: "Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world, and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move, sir, that candles be brought."
Since almost 2,000 years have passed and Jesus has not yet returned, it's easy for the faithful to live as if the present world is all we can expect in the future. But our present can be altered if we expect God to return and remake this world, without brokenness, oppression or pain. The present will be altered if we expect the master of the house to return and call for an accounting upon his return. It all depends on what we expect to happen.
The late actress Helen Hayes told the story of the first time she was responsible for cooking the Thanksgiving turkey dinner. She was a little anxious about the meal, so she prepared her husband and son: "I've never cooked a turkey before, so if you don't like it, please don't say anything. Just get up from the table, put on your coats, and we'll go out to eat for Thanksgiving." Then, she went into the kitchen to check on the turkey. When she got back, her family was sitting at the table with their coats on.
What we expect to happen determines what we'll do now. When the householder comes back on December 25, will we be ready? If the householder should be late, will we be ready when he arrives? The householder may even arrive early. Will we be ready whenever he does arrive? Those who expect him to arrive in the future will prepare for his arrival today. They want to be ready when he returns for his accounting.
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