Game shows for $1,000. “This show has been granted trademark status as ‘America's Favorite Quiz Show’ by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.” Answer, please. “What is Jeopardy!?” Correct.
Each week, 25 million viewers watch Jeopardy! Its unique answer-and-question format is a popular motivational tool for educators.[i] It also lends itself well to our text.
Based on Jesus’ answer, we ask three questions. First, what was the question? Second, what are we waiting for? Third, what should we do?
First, what was the question? What question did the disciples ask that prompted Jesus to reply, “In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light”?
Backtrack 20 verses. Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, when Peter and the others queried, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” These things meant the destruction of the Temple, and sign meant fulfillment.
In essence, the disciples asked two types of questions. The first was historical. The Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D. The second was eschatological or an end-time question. In the 19 verses between their questions and his answer, Jesus instructed his disciples what they should do and not do in the meantime.
Jesus taught using cosmological and apocalyptic images – wars, earthquakes, famines, birth pains. Followers would experience family betrayal, beatings and death. He promised an abomination of desolation and false prophets and christs who would perform signs and lead astray the elect.
Next, the good part. Sun and moon go dark. Stars fall and powers in heaven are shaken. Then the Son of Man would come in clouds with great power and glory to send angels to gather his elect from the four winds and the ends of earth.
Now, what was the question again? The question was, “When will the destruction of the Temple occur, and what is the sign of fulfillment?” Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question (in 30 A.D.), and Mark’s answer to Roman Christians (in 60 A.D.) prepared them for our next two questions. What are we waiting for? What should we do?
The answer prepared them not for an apocalyptic end of the world, complete with the smell napalm in the morning, back-dropped by Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, but for a new beginning. The destruction of the Temple meant a new beginning.
The Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D.; however, it was not to be restored but replaced by the Son of Man. The very Person of Jesus, the Son of Man, became the place of God’s dwelling.[ii] The dramatic collapse of the world’s power structures meant not the end of world history, but the beginning of a new and better phase in which God would work out his purpose.[iii]
What does all of this mean for us today? I will get to that when I ask my third question. Next, what are we waiting for?
Mark indicated a new beginning, and today, the first Sunday of Advent, marks a new beginning for us as church, the beginning of the church year.
The word ‘advent’ is from the Latin word ad, meaning "to" and venire meaning “come.” Advent focuses on Christ's coming to us in the flesh; however, Christ's coming manifests itself among us in three ways – past, present and future.
In the past, Christ came to us in the flesh, an infant who grew to a man. In the present, he comes to us in Word and Sacrament. In the future, he will come again in glory.
On the first two Sundays of Advent, we focus on Christ’s Second Coming. The third and fourth Sundays have incarnational themes – John’s magnificent prologue and Luke’s annunciation to Mary.[iv] Advent ends when we gather for evening service on December 24th. Only then does the Christmas season begin.
Christ’s coming evokes urgent excitement for the believer. We wait on tiptoe of expectation. We sense His presence is here. We sense His presence is near. Each day brings us closer to the reason for our waiting, the reason for our being.
Perhaps this will help. On January 6, 2014, our daughter-in-law gave birth to our first granddaughter. My wife, Cindy, and I were so excited that on the day we left to see her, we could not sleep, and left two hours ahead of schedule. Good news stimulates excitement.
As Christians, are we excited as we wait for the liturgical celebration of Christ’s coming and the final celebration of His return? Are we excited about His presence here and now as He comforts and challenges us in Word and Sacrament?
God comforts and challenges us in Word and Sacrament. He comforts and challenges us to do what? That moves me from ‘what are we waiting for?’ to ‘what shall we do?’
The Daily Double! Pray and act, otherwise known as the Christian Life. The Christian life is prayer and action, worship of God and love of neighbor, meditation and mercy.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly said, “Learn the meaning of this phrase, ‘It is mercy, I desire, not sacrifice.’” … I learn and live mercy through meditation, a life of prayer. A Christian without an active daily prayer life is like a candy cane without stripes.
Prayer gives meaning to my life as a pastor and husband. Cindy, my wife who gives meaning to my life, and I spend time daily meditating on Scripture passages. Currently, we are focusing on Advent passages. The other day Cindy told me, her prayer life used to be one where she only threw up petitions to God.
Petitionary prayers are important, but there are other forms of prayer – thanksgiving, repentance, adoration and praise. Bible phrases tell us that praying to God can include “call upon,” “intercede with,” “meditate on,” “consult,” “cry out to,” “draw near to,” “rejoice in” and “seek the face of.”[v]
For me an active prayer life includes these forms as well as meditation and contemplation; however, the mere mention of meditation and contemplation unnerves some Christians. Some pastors rail against meditation and contemplation, while others promote them. I suggest one never engage in any prayer or practice that leads away from Christ.[vi]
For me meditating on Scripture is simply having a conversation with God. Since God is wise and merciful, I sit silently and wait for God to speak. Meditation is that simple. I wait for God to speak a word.
In his Simple Way to Pray, after prescribing an organized method of meditating, Martin Luther wrote, “If in the midst of such thoughts the Holy Spirit begins to preach in your heart with rich, enlightening thoughts, honor him by letting go of this written scheme; be still and listen to him. Remember what he says. Note it well and you will behold wondrous things in the law of God.”[vii]
In Meditation on Christ’s Passion, Luther wrote, “We say without hesitation that he who contemplates God’s sufferings for a day, an hour, yes, only a quarter of an hour, does better than to fast a whole year, pray a psalm daily, [or] hear a hundred masses. This meditation changes man’s being and, almost like baptism, gives him a new birth.”[viii]
Meditation, almost like baptism, gives us new birth. In short, Luther encouraged meditation as a way to deepen our understanding and appreciation of God’s Word.
Meditation relates well to my first point in that the destruction of the Temple meant a new beginning. Worship at the Temple was replaced by worship through the new place of God’s dwelling, the Christ.[ix] Likewise, through baptism, my old sinful life was destroyed so a new grace-filled life could emerge.
As a Christian, I live by faith. I am not promised exemption from suffering, trial or even death for the sake of the gospel.
One of the more compelling stories of martyrdom is that of Jim Elliott, who ministered in Ecuador to the Auca Indians, who eventually killed him. Shortly before his death, Elliott said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep [his very life] to gain what he cannot lose [eternal life].” Though they did not articulate it in these words, many early Christians lived by the wisdom of this motto.[x]
Living by this motto means that one must stay awake. One must imitate the doorkeeper.[xi] As Christians living in between the time of Christ’s coming in the flesh and his glorious coming, we do not know when he will return.
The doorkeeper could surmise that his master would return during the day. It was dangerous to travel through the night. Yet, parables always challenge one to consider the improbable. So, he needed to stay awake. The Christian, like the doorkeeper, is never off duty.[xii] Christians must live mercifully and pray actively.
I close by asking you to check your calendar. Between now and Christmas, how many parties will you attend? Parties with people from work, the neighborhood, your social club, church, school and so on. In addition, friends will invite you to attend school functions and Christmas pageants. Then family matters demand Christmas cards and gifts. Of course, we all have professional and personal duties.
My point is that in the busyness of the season, we are easily distracted. No longer awake, Christ’s coming catches us unaware. We lose the sense of wonder and contemplation, unable to read the signs of the times because of our distractedness.
Staying awake is not about sleep, but about spiritual laziness, which often manifests itself as busyness in the form of distractedness. Distractedness is a way of not paying attention to oneself or the needs of others or the voice of God because we are so busy doing nothing – shopping for bargains and checking our smartphones, catching up on small talk and on social media, attending parties and festivities.
Being awake when Christ arrives depends upon my ability to wait quietly and attentively. My difficulty is not that I reject Christ, but staying awake and attentive to the signs reminding me that He is coming. [xiii]
If you do not know how to stay awake – how to pray – use Portals of Prayer. Each day there is a Scripture passage and a meditation.
As we begin Advent, I ask you to do one thing – pray daily – so that when the Day of the Lord comes, He may find you awake. As you pray, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.[xiv]
[ii] LaVerdiere, 207
[iii] France, 533
[iv] John A. Melloh, Advent , 18
[v] Margaret Dorgan, 1037
[viii] Paragraph 10 - http://www.lutheranmissiology.org/Luther%20Meditate%20Passion%20of%20Christ.pdf
[ix] LaVerdiere, 207
[x] Witherington, 357
[xi] France, 545