Advent: Discouragement and Hope
Scriptures: Mark 13:3-13, 32-36
A man on his way home from work stopped to watch his son's Little
League baseball game. When he got to the game he asked his son, "What's the score?" The boy said, "We're behind 14-0." The father looked at him and said, "You don't sound very discouraged." The boy said, "Why should I be? We haven't gotten up yet."
There are plenty of reasons to be discouraged this Christmas. While
the economy in the King County has improved over the last five years, homelessness is at an all-time high. [Slide 1: Homeless on the street] During the one night count of the homeless in King County back in January, it was discovered that the number of men, women, and children in King County without shelter has grown by over 1000 in the last three years. I also read that the number of requests for help from the food bank in King County has grown by over 100,000 in the last eight years.
Then there is terrorism. [Slide 2: Paris attack] While France got all
the headlines, the day before the Paris attacks, Beirut, Lebanon was hit with suicide bombs that killed 43 people. [Slide 3: Beirut attack] Earlier this year twin bombings by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon killed 49 people. [Slide 4: Nigeria attack] We hardly even talk about Al Qaida anymore, because there are too many other terrorist groups to worry about. [Slide 5: Blank]
And if that isn't enough, there are plenty of reasons for
discouragement in our own church family: people facing a recurrence of cancer, people facing their first Christmas after the death of a husband or wife, people worried about their children or their jobs or their health or how they will care for a sick family member. Sometimes it seems like God is behind 14-0.
This is not new. Jesus warned his disciples about this kind of thing
in Mark 13. You want a list of discouraging circumstances, look at this: [Slide 6, click on each item]
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars (v. 7)
There will be earthquakes in various places and famine (v. 8)
They will hand you over to councils, and you will be beaten (v. 9)
Brother will betray brother, and a father his child, and children will rise up against their parents and have them put to death (v. 12)
"The desolating sacrilege" will be set up (v. 14)-probably referring to the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans
"For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of creation." (v. 19)
How is that for discouraging? But it gets worse: [Slide 7, click on items]
The sun will be darkened (v. 24)
The stars will fall from the heavens (v. 25)
Talk about climate change! In Mark 13 it looks like God is behind more than 14-0.
And yet throughout the chapter are signs of hope: [Slide 8,
click on items]
After the mention of wars and disasters, in v. 8, Jesus says, "This is but the beginning of the birthpangs." At first that sounds discouraging. But the word "birthpangs" opens a door. When you compare the suffering of the world to birthpangs, you are saying that a new life is approaching. All these discouraging events in the world are signs of something new God intends to do in the world. God has another at bat.
Similarly after mentioning beatings and arrests, in v. 10, Jesus says, "The good news must first be proclaimed to all nations." Yes, it may be hard to get anyone to listen, let alone believe, but the good news of God's love will get out. The gospel is going to win. God still has another at bat.
Another example: after Jesus talks about the sun being darkened and the stars falling out of the sky, in v. 26 Jesus says, "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory." When things are at their darkest, that's when God will show up.
The fact is as followers of Christ we have it no better nor any worse than other people who suffer in this world. This difference is that we have hope. We know that God still has another at bat, so we are not afraid to keep playing.
Which brings me to our second scripture reading. At the end of Mark 13 Jesus says, [Slide 9: Quote] "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Let this verse put an end once and for all to every preacher, every writer, and every cult leader who claims to have a timetable for the end of the world. Let's stop the nonsense of trying to predict when the world will end and when Jesus will come again. If Jesus himself does not know when that will happen, how can anyone else?
Instead of trying to predict when he will return, Jesus tells a little story. [Slide 10: Quote] He says, "It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work." Between Jesus first coming in 4 BC and Jesus's second coming whenever that will be, we have a job to do. We have been put in charge of certain things.
Jesus uses the example of the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper's job is to guard the house and be ready to welcome the master. In the same way our job is to take care of what God has entrusted to us and be ready to welcome Jesus' return whenever it happens. That's what Jesus means by "keep awake." Pay attention to the job God has given you in this world: the job of caring for others, providing for their needs, sharing with others the good news of forgiveness and hope through his Son. Keep doing your job: feeding people as a sign that in the Kingdom of God there will be no hunger, providing shelter as a sign that in the Kingdom of God everyone will have a home, caring for the earth as a sign that Jesus will come not to destroy the earth but to redeem it, to make it the good creation God intended it to be all along.
We can do that job because we know the game is not over. God still has another at bat. In fact, God is going to win. [Slide 11: Blank]
One of my favorite movies is a little known 1993 film called
Searching for Bobby Fisher. A 7 year-old boy named Josh learns to play chess from street people in New York City. Josh shows a natural talent for the game not seen since Bobby Fisher, the teenage prodigy who won the United States Chess Championship as a youth. Unfortunately Josh's chess coach pushes him relentlessly to make him a champion, in the process almost destroying his love of chess and his compassionate heart.
At the end of the movie Josh plays in the championship game of a tournament against another boy who has also been driven by his coach to become the next Bobby Fisher. The parents and coaches are not allowed in the room where the game is played so there is no possible way for them to influence the players' moves. They must watch the game from another room by closed circuit television. Late in the game Josh's opponent makes a move, and Josh's coach in the other room says under his breath, "That was a mistake." Then, even though Josh cannot hear him, his coach in the other room begins talking as if he is talking to Josh. He says, "You've got him. It's there. Look deep, Josh. It's 12 moves away, but it's there. You've got him."
In the other room Josh is staring at the board. He senses
that he has been given an opening but he can't see it. In the other room his coach says under his breath, "Don't move until you see it." Josh stares at the board imagining every possible combination, until suddenly he looks up, and in his eyes you can see that he has got it. He has seen the path to victory.
Then in the most remarkable scene of the movie Josh reaches out to shake hands with his opponent. In the other room his father asks the coach, "What is he doing?" The coach says, "He's offering him a draw." Meanwhile in the game room Josh's opponent asks the same question: "What are you doing?" Josh says, "I'm offering you a draw. Take the draw, and we'll share the championship." His opponent says, "You've got to be kidding. Look at the board. You are behind. I'm going to win." Josh says, "You've already lost, you just don't know it." But his opponent refuses the handshake, so Josh makes his move. In the process Josh loses his rook, but 11 moves later he wins.
So much of this movie is a parable of the Christian faith.
Jesus has already won, but much of the world does not know it yet. To the world it seems like Jesus is behind 14-0, and to make matters worse, his first move is a sacrifice on a cross. But the game isn't over. It's 12 moves away, or maybe 20 moves away-we don't know how many moves away-but Jesus has already won, and we can share the championship with him, if we let go of our pride and take his hand.