The Gospel lesson today is from St. Mark, chapter 13, verses 32 to 37.
"But of that day and hour no man knows, no, not the angels who are in heaven, neither the Son but the Father. Take heed, watch and pray for you know not when the time is. For the Son of Man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, gave authority to his servant, and to every man his worth, and commanded the gatekeeper to watch. Watch, therefore, for you know not when the master of the house comes, at evening, or at midnight or at the cock-crowing or in the morning lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you, I say unto all, 'Watch.'" Here ends the lesson.
Dr. E. Stanley Jones, one of the 20th century's greatest missionaries, told the story of a little boy who stood before a picture of his absent father. He then turned to his mother and said wistfully, "I wish father would step out from the picture." This is some of what the best people who lived before Christ's coming longed for. That God would step out of the picture so that the reality they knew as Creator and Father of all would become intimate, personalized, near. God did precisely that in what the church calls the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God stepped out of the picture at Bethlehem. God made Himself known in a baby.
"The Incarnation is the union of divinity with humanity in Christ," says Webster. The ultimate test of the Incarnation for you and me is a recapture of Christian experience. The one who has become aware of Jesus sees in him the kind of person God has hoped and then believed to be. As a small Italian-American boy put it once, "Jesus is the best picture God ever had took."
The season of Advent is meant to prepare God's people for Christmas. Advent is a season of expectation. Was anyone ever more expected than Christ? Was anybody ever more looked forward to than Christ?
History records for us two events on February 15, 1564. Michaelangelo died and Galileo was born. That same year on April 23, William Shakespeare was born. These three men influenced and helped shape Western civilization. But what expectation might any have had of either of them? But we can't say this about Christ. A people, a nation was expecting him. They had been waiting centuries for his arrival. They were looking everywhere for him. And every time someone came on the scene, like John the Baptist, they wondered if he might be the one.
The hope of his coming kept them going through the humiliation and indignity of their exile, through the coming of the Greeks with their temples, and then of the Romans with their efficient management of government. So certainly one can't say they didn't expect him.
And yet the fact is, that when he did come, they didn't recognize him. They didn't know him and they didn't know him because he wasn't the Christ whom they had expected. The one they expected was supposed to cause a stir, but Jesus didn't. He came quietly. On that night in Bethlehem as a special star shone overhead, a few shepherds were watching, but no one else. People went about their business at home, in their shops, in the market place, while God was doing his greatest work right under their noses.
In Malcolm Muggeridge's extraordinary book in which he describes his own rediscovery of Jesus, he writes, "Probably no child born into the world that day seemed to have poorer prospects than Christ did." The ancient Jews of Jesus' day didn't expect that kind of Christ.
They expected, at least most of them, a Christ who would liberate them from Rome. He didn't. He liberated them from Satan, from sin, and from guilt. They expected a Christ who would dazzle them by miraculous feats. He didn't. He healed the sick and fed the hungry, but he didn't jump off the temple just to dazzle them into belief. He refused to do that.
Moreover, they expected a Christ who would instill in their young a love of the law. The Law with a capital 'L'--because it was the Law of God that Moses had given them and it covered every aspect of life with rules and regulations, both ceremonial and moral. People were neglecting it, and they were expecting a Christ who would rekindle a love of the Mosaic law. He didn't. He talked about the law of love, which was quite different. In fact, he said that "love is the fulfilling of all the laws."
They expected a Christ who would make life easier, reduce the taxes, increase the employment, bring down inflation. He didn't. If anything, he made it harder. He talked about crosses, not crowns. It's harder, infinitely harder, to change yourself than it is to change your environs, your surroundings. I'm not saying it isn't important for a person, from time to time, to change surroundings for it is, but the essential thing is to change the person. It's much easier to change the surroundings in which a person lives than to change the person who lives in those surroundings.
Above everything else they expected a Christ who would be a smashing success. He wasn't. He was a dismal failure. They expected a Christ they could keep to themselves as a nation. After all, are we not the chosen people? They couldn't. He was like a river, the current of which is so strong that the banks couldn't contain it.
They expected a Christ who would promise a happy ending. Don't we all like happy endings? He didn't promise the kind of happy ending that all people longed for. He never let them forget about the girls who might have gone to the wedding but didn't because they were too late. And the man who missed the dinner because he was too busy to accept the invitation. He never let people forget the fact that the door can be closed and that it can be closed forever, that there is the possibility of missing the bus.
They didn't expect anything like that. Only a few of the most perceptive ones could see the possibility of a Christ born in a manger and crucified on a cross. So it's no wonder that they hardly recognized him because he was not the Christ they had expected. They weren't ready for the unexpected Christ and that is why millions in our world are still watching and waiting today.
Once again, we have come to another season of expectation--Advent. The final one in this century, the last one in this millennium. Advent leads us to Christmas. We know that Christmas comes in the normal course of events. It always has come. The calendar always gets around to the 25th of December and if we live for another month, we will have another Christmas. We know that.
We also know that Christ will come in one way or another, but instinctively, we look for him to come in the way we expect him and there is a sense in which he will come in that way. He will break through here and there the hard crust of our fiercely competitive world. He will soften a hard heart here and there. He will heal an open wound. He will manage to find a small place on millions of Christmas cards and messages, even the ones that have not a single reference to himself because the one who sends it expresses his own love and affection on that card. So, he will come in that way.
But there's also a sense in which he will come as the unexpected Christ. Oh, we expect him to come in the usual places, in our churches, or in a creche set up on the lawns of a million houses. Or perhaps in the homes of devout Christians. Yet for some people he will not come in any of those places.
We expect him to come in the familiar music of the beloved carols we sing and have heard all our lives, "Silent Night," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." For many of us, he will come in that music. For many more, he may come in the more primitive rhythms of music known as rock or jazz or in George Frederick Handel's classic and majestic "Hallelujah Chorus."
We expect him to come in the familiar language of the Bible, especially in the King James translation of the birth narratives of St. Matthew and St. Luke. We expect him to come in the structure of our long-established manners and gift-giving. He may or he may not. He may come to some little shed completely outside our sheltered lives in some new way of loving each other in a world in which love has almost been forced out of the picture by the sheer size of the human family.
It would be so much easier for us if he came in the same old way and in the same old places. But I'm afraid he won't. Christ is always coming in so many unexpected ways that it disturbs us. We hardly recognize him. We want solutions. He gives us problems. A person can settle down and die in a solution, but in a problem a person is more sure to stay alive.
Christ comes as the angel that troubles the water. He says something like this to me and he may say the same to you: "You can't wrap God up in a proof sheet of logical, rational reasonings. You can't giftwrap Christ as a Christmas present. You can't keep him in your ecclesiastical institution by whatever name your particular church may be called."
Christ comes like the wind, like a breath of life. If you don't expect him, you will not find him. And if you do find him, don't be surprised if he's unlike the one you expected.
What we celebrate at Christmas is not a vague spirit or mood but a concrete event. An event that actually happened in time and place. The coming of Jesus in the world is as truly an historical event as the signing of the Magna Carta, the discovery of America, or the landing of a man on the moon. It is an event in which Christian faith sees God unexpectedly entering our life in a unique way. Unless this is so, there's no real Gospel to proclaim and Christmas is only a fairy tale for the children.
Christmas means the love of God made known in Jesus Christ as the ultimate reality. To hold firmly to this faith in a time like ours is undeniably difficult. The contrast between the song of the angels and the grimness of our situation is too overpowering for any easy faith. Christ emphasizes the importance of watching, keeping alert to and prepared for God's activity in the world. Our age often seems oblivious to anything spiritual, but God's people are called to watch for his movement among us. Watching requires an alertness and a spiritual sensitivity to what God is doing in the world. It's not likely that we'll see God's work if we're not watching for it.
Christ calls us to discipleship and depends on us to share his love with a lost world, to be faithful stewards of his resources, to be instruments of his peace. We are to watch for his coming, faithful in his service, obedient to his Word, ready for his return--any day--any hour.
"Take heed, watch," said Jesus, "for you do not know when the time will come."
George MacDonald was a Scottish preacher who left the parish ministry and later wrote a great number of novels and stories for children. He published a book of poems, among them one poem which found its way into our hymnals.
They all were looking for a King
to slay their foes, and lift them high;
He came a little baby thing
Who made a woman cry.
O Son of Man, to right my lot
Nothing but your presence can avail
Yet on the road your wheels are not
Nor on the sea your sail.
My fancied ways, why should you heed?
You come down your own secret stair.
Come down to answer all my need.
Yes, every bygone prayer.
The three stanzas of MacDonald's hymn is but another reminder we are to be expectant, waiting, and watching, because we do not know how or when Christ will come again.
Let us pray.
O, Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life until the shadows lengthen, the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then in thy great mercy, grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest and eternal peace at the last through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.