Isaiah 63:16-64:8, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:33-37
At our dinner table the other night I took a poll. I asked those people present whether it is best to know everything you are going to get for Christmas or is it best to be surprised? I don’t believe that we arrived at a consensus, but I have an opinion. My opinion is that most of us remember the waiting before Christmas when we were little children more than we remember the things we got for Christmas. Don’t you remember the tingle, the waiting, not knowing what was coming, but that something surely was? And then do you remember that Christmas when you knew what all the presents were, long before? I do. Maybe it comes to all of us around 11 or 12 years old. That’s when it becomes a challenge. You can snoop around when everybody but you is out of the house. You can feel the shape of every package with your name on it, weigh it and smell it or shake it. I don’t remember how old I was or what year it was, but one Christmas I knew everything I was going to get. My uncle brought my present over one night and I put it under the tree, but I embarrassed myself and him too, I guess, when he left by thanking him for the book instead of the present. I knew everything I was going to get, most miserable Christmas ever, as I recall it now, and I promised myself I would never do it again.
It occurred to me that maybe Christmas is like the Cunard Lines. The Cunard Lines, you remember, were the steamships, the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary and the like. They used to advertise that if you sailed one of their ships to Europe, getting there was half the fun. Well, Advent is a little like that. Sometimes we tell ourselves that as Christians that in a proper sense, Christmas ought to be celebrated after the event rather than before, but it is clear to all of us that the season of Advent is more like Christmas than is the Christmas season. Or, my way of saying that is that our present is more like our future than it is like our past.
The text I want to call to your attention is this last line from the 13th chapter of Mark, “What I say to you I say to all, Watch!” If I understand correctly, if I understand the meaning of these other two passages from Isaiah and from I Corinthians, these words from Jesus are not a threat, as they are sometimes understood to be, they are a promise, like Advent. Now, what I have to say to you this morning may get a little complicated, but if you want to know what it is all about, it is about just one thing, “our present is more like our future than it is like our past,” and that’s good news. Let me say more about that.
First let me see if I can tell you what I mean by illustrating it. The present of our world is more like its future than it is like its past. That’s what Eric Toffler was telling us in Future Shock. He was telling us that the amount of knowledge around the world is so much greater than it was say 200 years ago. That accelerating growth of knowledge has accelerated the rate of change, so that change is the only constant factor left to us. The future comes at us so fast it often seems to be a threat, we can’t absorb change that rapidly, hence future shock. And yet, for all of that, there is no question that the present world is much more like the future than it is like the past.
That’s true for Denton. Six years ago when I began driving up Interstate 35 on my way to various churches in Denton County to be their District Superintendent, I came to the conclusion that there was a kind of line that marked the advance of the metropolitan area outward. I saw it passing through the city of Lewisville. It was identifiable partly by traffic patterns partly by traffic patterns of housing growth. I was identified more by which way the people faced. Did they face toward Denton and the County Seat or toward Dallas? They were beginning in Lewisville to face more and more toward Dallas, while in Lake Dallas, for example they were still facing toward the county seat. Now that imaginary line is moving through the town of Lake Dallas. It is six miles down the road from the Denton city limits. Now, the new shopping center means that Denton is moving out to meet it, but it is certainly clear that we is this community are moving toward our future and that our present is more like our future than it is like our past. We don’t know precisely what that future will be but that it will not be like our past.
Surely, the same thing can be said of this church, for if we serve the world we live in it cannot be otherwise, but it is also true of every one of us who is here this morning. The seeds of the present are the harvest of the future, and those seeds are present and growing now. So, Jesus promised his disciples the future. He made it possible for them to hope. His words are not a threat but a promise about the future for the sake of the present, “What I say to you, I say to all, Watch!”
Now that’s the first thing to say about advent. The second is that watching is not passive but active. This last part of the 13th chapter of Mark bears a certain likeness to the parable of the talents. In that story, as in this one, the master of the household goes away on a journey and leaves his servants in charge. They are not left to do nothing however, but something. He has left them their work to do and they do it faithfully as part of the waiting and watching. Which is another way of saying that the future is also a product of our action. There is a moral dimension to watching. If it is true, and I certainly believe that it is true, that the imaginary mind set called the metropolitan area is on its way here, we don’t have to wait until we are simply awash in it. (I believe in the first place that such will not happen. Denton already has its own identity with the seat of county government and the tow universities here.) But even more than that, you and I ought to be aware that we must decide. We have the authority to decide. Jesus fully expected us to decide for love and justice and those things that bear witness to the rule of God in this world of his. Waiting and Watching is not just the passive, it is the active. We have our work to do.
One of the reasons that the future is often seen a threat is that it presents us with liberty (Now I am going to make a distinction between liberty and liberation if you will follow me for a minute.) Toffler says that most of us experience at some time in our lives, maybe many times in our lives, what he calls over choice. They have 38 flavors of ice cream t the ice cream parlor or there are 101 vocations that we can pursue to earn a living, or there are too many books to read or plays to watch. And that is threatening. It is so threatening that some people can’t stand it. They are paralyzed by liberty. One way to handle liberty is to abandon it, let someone else make the decisions. I suppose that Jonestown will be a word that not only marks our human history but also our language. It may be that we will all get caught up in trying to explain the unexplainable, but the cults are an answer to the tyranny of liberty. The people who enter them become like little children, so those who had studied them say, abandoning decisions and responsibility for themselves. It might be said that liberty is demonic. When you have a decision to make, can’t it be an anxious time? Isn’t it an uncomfortable time? Even a terrible time? I have come to the conclusion that one of the marks of the demonic is that it robs of of our freedom. Liberty robs us of our freedom, cults rob people of their freedom and they are evil. (Incidentally, I agree with those people who say you can’t pass a law against cults. It is not the responsibility of the government to expose them for what they are, it is the responsibility of the Christian church) As one writer said, this last week, true religion holds us in history , false religion wants to abandon history. It is time for the church to start again to tell it like it is both for what we are for, true religion, and what we are against, false religion, no matter what form that false religion takes.
But the distinction that I would draw is between liberty and liberation. Real freedom is not having possibilities out there to choose among. Real freedom is choosing one. At the moment we choose on we become liberated and truly free. If you are anxious about the choices you have to make, isn’t it true that anxiety is relieved when you say yes to one and no to all the rest? There are many people of marriage-able age and intention who believe real freedom is having five ardent suitors, but many of us would say, liberation, real freedom consists of choosing one, in decision, in commitment. The present is more like the future than it is like the past, and we make the future as we decide, as we say yes, and therefore, no. And Jesus said, “What I say to you, I say to all, Watch!”
But the third thing to say about this future that is coming is that not all decisions are equally valid. Jesus did not say the master of this household went away and left them to just watch. He left them to watch for his own return. When he returns all waiting is relieved. Hope consists in waiting for him.
Hear what I mean to say by that if you will. Because I believe that what compromises our freedom is demonic and therefore the enemy, I have wanted to say something about freedom and the future. Freedom is very illusive. It is not a state, it is a decision. It consists in making decisions. But the Bible insists in what sounds like a paradox that only true freedom is in slavery to Jesus Christ. So some have said that one man’s cult is another man’s religion. Wrong. The Christian faith has always been that there is an infinite qualitative difference between slavery to some cult leader and slavery to Jesus Christ. His is the only future that gives the present hope. Every other future is hopeless. And Jesus said, “What I say to you, I say to all, Watch!”
I have wanted us to remember the waiting this morning, for the waiting is waiting on hope. There is something about waiting on Christmas, isn’t there, that has a kind of melancholy about it. The best carols are always those sung in hooded tones, with a hint of a minor key about them. For the birth of Jesus is a reminder that his birth is more like his life to come than anything else. The words of the angel to Mary announcing his birth, “And a sword shall pierce your own heart.” So that his birth is more like his life…and his life is more like his cross…and so waiting on Christmas is also waiting for the cross. Whoever would choose among all the choices there are to serve Jesus and the kingdom, whoever would become free by becoming his slave, must know that sin is powerful, powerful enough to bring him to the cross, and whoever chooses his freedom should expect to follow him to the cross. But if your present is more like our future than it is like the past, then the crucifixion is more like the resurrection that it is like anything else. And we may hope even at the moment of of our greatest pain. You see Advent, the waiting, is a hope, a promise, a guarantee. And Jesus said, “What I say to you, I say to all, Watch!”
This sermon was preached on December 3, 1978 at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas