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Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

Sermon for 1st Advent: Watching at the Gate


I’m preaching this sermon next Sunday, November 30, 2008, on the first Sunday in Advent for Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.  It’s a strange text for the coming of Christmas…or is it?  Have a great Thanksgiving and a wonderful first Advent Sunday.  

Watching At The Gate

Mark 13:24-37
24“But in those days, following that distress, 
   ” ‘the sun will be darkened, 
      and the moon will not give its light; 
 
25the stars will fall from the sky, 
      and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
      

 26“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

 28“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

 32“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

 35“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. 36If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ “

 

A Strange Story for Advent

The text we just read seems more like the end-of-the-world than getting ready for Christmas.  But, here we are again in the season of Advent — watching for the coming of the Christ into our world.
 
When Mark writes his short, powerful story of Jesus’ life, he devotes two chapters to the return of the Messiah to this earth.  Mark sandwiches this two-chapter discourse between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the end of the last week in Jesus’ life.  It is as though Jesus knows his time is about finished for his earthly ministry, and he is reassuring his disciples that regardless of how things look in the next few days, or months, or years, that the Messiah of God, the Christ, will return again to this earth to finish the work he has begun.
In this passage, Jesus makes his point clearly.  First, he points out that there are signs pointing to the coming — the advent — of the Messiah — and that when we see the signs we know that the Messiah is near, right at the gate, the outside door: 

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 

Then, Jesus reminds the disciples that they are to watch, and gives them a real life example of the kind of watching for the master’s return that he expects: 

“It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.” – Mark 13:29, 34

And this servant who is assigned to keep watch is watching for the master’s return.  Why?  The master has already been there, he has already established his power and authority, he has already assigned his servants the roles they are to play.  Why do they need to watch for his return?  Why does one servant have the sole duty of watching at the gate, the outer door?

Let’s see if we can put ourselves in the place of those first century disciples, or those servants to whom Jesus referred, and imagine the scene Jesus is painting, the story he’s telling to those who are very anxious about the future.
The Door and the Doorkeeper

The first thing we have to do is get acquainted with the house of a person like the master that Jesus refers to.  While the homes of ordinary people were very simple, the house of a person who could afford servants would be a lot like the houses of wealthy people today — more spacious, more rooms, more square-footage.  
Typically, houses of the first century were walled compounds with a front entrance usually closed with a secure gate.  Outer doors, also referred to as gates, could be barred with crossbars, securing the courtyard from unwelcome intruders.  So, the servant who would watch for the master’s return, would watch at the front gate, or the outer door.
   
Because first century homes did not have video surveillance, or door bells, or other devices to alert the homeowner inside of approaching guests, the doorkeeper stood at the door.  The doorkeeper’s job was to monitor the door, open it for welcomed guests, and secure it against unwelcomed intruders.
The doorkeeper is referred to in Psalm 84:10 where the psalmists says –

Better is one day in your courts 
       than a thousand elsewhere; 
       I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God 
       than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

The doorkeeper was a servant’s job, not a privileged position.  An unlike the doormen in the famous hotels or apartments of New York City, the doorkeeper was not particularly rewarded for his work — he was expected to do his job.  
The Door To The Future

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but our daughter Laurie loved the movie, Back to the Future, when she was a teenager.  Actually, she loved Michael J. Fox, who just happened to be in Back to the Future.  And, she saw Back to the Future something like 14-times.  Way too much, because she was able to mouth the dialogue along with the actors on the screen.  This was what psychologist might call a bit obsessive.  Anyway, Back to the Future, to refresh your memory was about “Marty McFly, a typical American teenager of the Eighties, who is accidentally sent back to 1955 in a plutonium-powered DeLorean “time machine” invented by slightly mad scientist. During his often hysterical, always amazing trip back in time, Marty must make certain his teenage parents-to-be meet and fall in love – so he can get back to the future.”  (summary from The Internet Movie Database) Hence the name, Back to the Future.  

Now, Back to the Future wasn’t the first of these time machine movies.  H. G. Well’s book, The Time Machine, published in 1895 was actually a rehash of a previous book, The Chronic Argonauts, also about time travel.  Interesting that the term “chronic argonauts” didn’t catch on — wonder why? — but “time machine” did.  
Human beings have been fascinated by time travel probably since we developed a concept of time including the ideas of past, present, and future.  
When Jesus starts to tell the disciples about the future, they’re all ears.  “How will we know, and what will be the signs of your coming?” they ask Jesus.  Jesus then tells them about the signs:
  • The Temple will be torn down (13:2)
  • Many false messiahs will arise (13:6)
  • Wars and rumors of wars (13:7)
  • Earthquakes and famines will occur (13:8)
  • Followers of Jesus persecuted (13:9)
  • The gospel will be preached to all nations (13:10)
  • Families will turn on each other (13:12)
  • All men will hate you on account of me (13:13)
  • The abomination of desolation will occur (13:14)
  • The time will be so hard that if the Lord does not cut it short, no one will survive (13:15-20)
  • False Christs and false prophets will perform signs and miracles to deceive God’s people (13:21-23)
Then, Jesus combines quotes from Isaiah 13 and 34, where Isaiah describes God’s judgment on the nation of Babylon in Isaiah 13, and on all the nations in Isaiah 34 – 

24“But in those days, following that distress, 
   ” ‘the sun will be darkened, 
      and the moon will not give its light; 
 25the stars will fall from the sky, 
      and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

Then, Jesus says, 

26“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

 

In other words, the key to the future is in the past.  Just as God came to vindicate his people and deliver them from the Babylonians, and others who opposed them, so God is coming again to deliver his people when similar governments threaten,when similar systems of oppression and unfaithfulness thrive.

After both the Isaiah passages that Jesus quotes, God shows up and vindicates his people.  In Isaiah 14:1 -

The LORD will have compassion on Jacob; 
       once again he will choose Israel 
       and will settle them in their own land. 
       Aliens will join them 
       and unite with the house of Jacob.  – Isaiah 14:1

And then from Isaiah 35: 

The desert and the parched land will be glad; 
       the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. 
       Like the crocus, 
2 it will burst into bloom; 
       it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. 
       The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, 
       the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; 
       they will see the glory of the LORD, 
       the splendor of our God.
 
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, 
       steady the knees that give way;
 
4 say to those with fearful hearts, 
       “Be strong, do not fear; 
       your God will come, 
       he will come with vengeance; 
       with divine retribution 
       he will come to save you.”
 
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened 
       and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
 
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, 
       and the mute tongue shout for joy. 
       Water will gush forth in the wilderness 
       and streams in the desert.
 
7 The burning sand will become a pool, 
       the thirsty ground bubbling springs. 
       In the haunts where jackals once lay, 
       grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
 
8 And a highway will be there; 
       it will be called the Way of Holiness. 
       The unclean will not journey on it; 
       it will be for those who walk in that Way; 
       wicked fools will not go about on it. 

 9 No lion will be there, 
       nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; 
       they will not be found there. 
       But only the redeemed will walk there,
 
10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return. 
       They will enter Zion with singing; 
       everlasting joy will crown their heads. 
       Gladness and joy will overtake them, 
       and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

 

The point is, when things are at their worst for the people of God, God is not far away — God is at the door, close by, about to appear, again.  Just as he did in the Old Testament, just as he did in the ministry of Jesus, God is coming and we are to watch for him, watch at the gate so we can open the door and admit him without delay.

When The Master Returns Home

Often when the master of the house was gone activity at the house slowed down.  The servants went about their chores, it was a good time to paint, and take care of other routine maintenance, and there were still herds to be looked after, and household business to attend to.  
But when the master returned, he returned to a house ready to come alive again.  Ready to throw a party, to tell all the neighbors that he was home, ready to celebrate his homecoming.
 
Stories like the prodigal son, while not exactly the same, illustrate that point.  The homecoming of a son, even a wayward one, was cause for celebration.  Even more the homecoming of the master!  Plans were made, food was purchased, cooks were busy, invitations were sent out — it was a banquet for all who would come.  
Stories like the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24) are examples of this kind of celebration.  Invitations were sent and when those invited did not come, the master sent his servants to find those who would come because the feast was in full swing and nothing could stop it, not even ungrateful guests.
 
Another Door, Another Time

But there is another coming of the Christ, another way he comes to us, again.  In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus has given John messages for the churches.  The seven churches also represent the people of God.  
  1. To the church in Ephesus, Jesus says, “You have forsaken your first love. Repent.”
  2. To the church in Smyrna, Jesus says, “Be faithful to the point of death.”
  3. To the church in Pergammum, he says, “You did not renounce your faith in me…”
  4. To the church in Thyatira, he says, “Hold on to what you have until I come.”
  5. To the church in Sardis, he says, “Wake up! Strengthen what remains…”
  6. To the church in Philadelphia, he says, “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have…”
  7. To the church in Laodicea, he says, “I wish you were either hot or cold…”
Then Jesus says to all of the churches, representing all of the people of God –

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with hiim, and he with me.”  – Rev 3:20

Jesus is at the door, knocking.  But where is the doorkeeper?  Why is no one watching? Why doesn’t anyone hear his voice?  Why don’t we have the banquet ready?  Why aren’t the invitations sent?
 
And, that is what Advent is about.  Watching at the gate.  Looking for Jesus.  Not getting so distracted by all of the things in our busy lives that we fail to keep looking.  Keep hoping, keep waiting.  Keep watching.  
For just as he came in the form of a baby 2,000 years ago to a nation who was not looking for a messiah, so he comes today, in human form again.  Present with his people — the church.  Coming home to his great creation.  Coming again in and through the church, if we let him in.  If we hear his voice.  If we open the door.  If we watch at the gate.  
The words of John the Revelator ring in our ears and resonate in our hearts – Amen, come, Lord Jesus!  

Categories: advent, Lectionary Yr B, Mark, sermon, Sermon Illustrations, Sermons, The Story, Worship

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6 replies

  1. thanks for the message. i will keep watching…

  2. Lends a whole new understanding of Rev. 3:20.
    Wonderful message. So relevant.
    Thank you!

  3. In other words, the passage at the beginning is not talking about point in the future or any point in time; it is talking about now. Christ is always at the door. The “signs” that the gospel writer lists (temple torn down, etc.) are always occurring, both in reality and metaphorically.

    And we should always be watching for an appearance of Jesus because you never know when it will occur. It’s sometimes a complete surprise — as in the form of a baby in a small town in the Mideast.

    Many good points here. Well done, Chuck.

  4. T, Larry, and Jim,
    Thanks for your kind comments. -Chuck

  5. This is helpful in providing direction for my sermon preparation for this First Sunday of Advent. Many Thanks! Dave, Free Methodist Church

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