Watch… and Hope
November 29, 2020*
By John Partridge
Isaiah 64:1-9 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Mark 13:24-37
Have you met anyone that you know lately?
Many of us have been so isolated because of the coronavirus that we don’t get to talk to very many people but when we do, one of the common thoughts that we share is, “what a strange time this is.” Our isolation, in fact, is one of the big worries that we have about quarantines, self-isolation, and social distancing. Social, isolation amplifies our feelings of loneliness, abandonment, depression, and hopelessness which, in turn, increases the likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and suicide. And all these things, as well as our fear of disease, sickness, and death, are what makes living through a time of pandemic so hard.
But the people of scripture were familiar with hardship.
At the time of Isaiah, the Assyrian empire was on the rise and its armies were marching across the region toward Israel and Judah exactly at a time when those nations were declining in influence and military power. Worse, Isaiah carries a message from God that Israel will be defeated, destroyed, and her people carried off into seventy years of captivity and slavery in Babylon. Life was about to get more difficult than anyone had imagined, and everyone’s plans and dreams for the future were about to be erased and dramatically rewritten. But before Isaiah ends that bleak message, he also includes these words (Isaiah 64:1-9):
1Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
4 Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over toour sins.
8 Yet you, Lord, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord;
do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look on us, we pray,
for we are all your people.
As doom approaches Israel, the prophet Isaiah prays that God would come down and reveal his power to the world just as fire unleashes its power and is revealed to anyone, and anything, that comes close to it. Fire cannot hide the effects of its heat and, Isaiah knows that likewise, God’s power is so great that its effects cannot be hidden from the world. When God comes down from heaven, nations quake and mountains tremble. But Isaiah also knows that our God is different than other gods. The God of Israel does not use power to bring death and destruction, but to help and to heal people who do what is right and who remember to follow and obey the ways of God.
But God’s love and care for the righteous is exactly the thing that has brought judgement and destruction to Israel’s doorstep. Isaiah confesses that for too long, Israel has persecuted and sinned against the true followers of God and brought harm to them. It was that sin against the good and the righteous that angered God against his people and caused him to turn his face from them. Israel had entered a time when God simply refused to rescue them from themselves and allowed them to stew in the mess that they had created. As such, Isaiah’s prayer both confesses their guilt, but also begs that God would not stay angry at them forever. Despite their guilt, Isaiah has hope for the day that God would once again return to rescue them because, regardless of what they had done, they remained God’s chosen people.
And then, in Mark 13:24-37, at a time that was nearly as familiar with difficulty and hardship as in the time of Isaiah, Jesus picks up the Old Testament theme discussing the day of judgment and the coming of the Messiah. At that time, Israel was no longer captive in a foreign land, but they were ruled by a foreign government, watched over by a hostile army, and paid heavy taxes to Rome. And in that time, just as they had in the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel prayed for God’s Messiah to rescue them. And Jesus said…
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And 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. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that itis near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their 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. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
Jesus reinforces God’s promise that the Messiah would return in judgement and declares that at that time, God would finally reveal his power and glory to the world and would gather his people from the ends of the earth. But until then, Jesus reminds us that although no one can know the day or the hour of his return, the end of the world will not come completely without warning. Just as we watch the trees during the winter, and we recognize that Spring is coming when the trees begin to bud, in the same way we will know that judgment and the end of the world is coming if we are alert and watch for the signs.
Similarly, Jesus warns his followers, and us, that we are like the servants that have been left in charge while the owner of the house is away. We do not know when he will return, but we must watch for his return, remain at our posts, and continue to do the work that he has given us, so that we will not be found slacking when he returns.
And so, once again, God’s promise and prophecy bring hope to his people, both in the time of the New Testament and in the twenty-first century, as we look forward to the return of God’s messiah the rescue of God’s people, and the final redemption of the world.
But as is often the case, as we look forward, we often worry about how which side we will find ourselves on Judgement Day. And so, the very passages of scripture that were intended to give us hope, are the very passages that cause us concern and steal our joy. But Paul knew that people in the church were going to worry about that and so as he wrote to the church in Corinth, in 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, he reassured them by including this reminder:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul reminds us that it in, and through, Jesus Christ that we are enriched in every way and given our abilities to speak, to preach, to tell stories, and to carry the gospel message to the people around us. It is through God’s gifts of speech and knowledge that God confirms the truth of our testimony. Further, while we wait for the return of Jesus Christ, we are given all of God’s spiritual gifts to aid us in sharing the gospel and in carrying out the mission and vision of Jesus Christ. What’s more, Paul says, is that it is Jesus, and his power, that hold us steady and firm in the against the temptations of the world, so that we will be found blameless when Jesus return and we stand in judgement. And finally, Paul reminds us of the faithfulness of the God who called us to follow Jesus and who adopted us as his children. If God has done all these things, and if we continue to diligently work for him while he is away, then we have nothing at all to fear when he returns because we know that on that day, the world will finally be put right, justice will be done, the broken will be repaired, the lame will walk, the blind will see, disease, suffering, poverty, and death will come to an end, and the world will finally know… peace.
And that is why, from the time of Isaiah, to the coming of Jesus, and even until today, the consistent message of scripture is that the coming of the Messiah, and the day of judgement, is not a message that should cause us fear or concern. Instead, the message of the power of God, the birth of his Son Jesus, and the promised day of judgement was, is, and has always been…
…a message of hope.
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/9XG6erKs3go
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.