A sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on November 30, 2014.
Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
NOT too long ago, clocks were thought to be dangerous.
Forklore had it that two clocks, ticking in the same room,
could bring ‘sure death’.
It’s easy to see how this belief came about.
The clocks were almost certain to disagree,
and in the space between two chimings of one hour, uncertainty crept in;
time’s authority was undermined.
Tinkering with clocks is our inheritance from a people obsessed with time.
Clocks spread rapidly in early America.
They were especially popular among the Puritans, who despised idleness.
Massachusetts passed a law in 1663 making the wasting of time a crime:
“No person, householder or other
shall spend his time idly or unprofitably,
under pain of such punishment
as the court shall think meet to inflict.”
It was an English Puritan, Ralph Thoresby,
who invented an early alarm clock.
By the mid-19th century, Americans were producing their own clocks.
Workshops in Connecticut produced cheap models with wooden gears.
Peddlers sold them from coast to frontier.
But all these clocks were like many Americans themselves:
individual, conforming to their own notions.
There were hundreds of local times,
each city setting its city hall, or courthouse clock
to match its own solar moon.
When it was noon in Chicago,
it was 11:50 a.m. in Saint Louis
and 12:18 p.m. in Detroit.
Until the railroads finally forced uniformity in 1883,
local time…YOUR time…was all that mattered.[i]
Time was on the mind of everyone here, near the END of Mark’s Gospel,
And given—then and how—our obsession with time,
it is surprising, in fact it is SHOCKING—to hear Jesus say,
when being asked about TIME: “I don’t know.”
Those are hard words to say.
Parents don’t like saying those words to their children…“I don’t know.”
Students don’t like saying it to teachers,
and I KNOW that TEACHERS are embarrassed to EVER
have to say it to students…“I don’t know…”
Most of us, in the course of normal daily living
try to disguise our “I don’t knows”
so that we are NOT found out.
But there are some people who you never expect
will have to say “I don’t know.”
I remember once, in college, we had this convocation
where they brought in the head of the National Institutes of Health
and he was speaking
on the frontiers of medicine.
And I remember the stricken faces around the room when,
in response to the questions about cancer
–this Nobel Prize winning scientist said…“I don’t know.”
In one of his standup routines,
the irreverent late comedian George Carlin did a riff on the opinion polls
that news networks like CNN like to pose to its viewers.
Have you seen these before? The network asks a question,
and then asks that people call in
to give their view on a topic.
“Did you ever notice,”
Carlin would say, “there’s always, like, 18% who vote, ‘I don’t know’?
You take the time to go to the phone, and make the call,
and you’re voting ‘I don’t know’?
Carlin imagines some guy seeing the question on the television
and shouting, “Give me the phone!”
He calls the number, shouts “I don’t know” into the phone,
and then proudly says to his wife,
“Sometimes you have to stand up
for what you believe you’re NOT sure about.”[ii]
But even so, you NEVER expect Jesus to say, “I don’t know.”
In fact, when the scribes sat copying scripture generations ago
word by word,
page by page—
when many of them got to Mark 13—there is a BLANK.
They could not bring themselves to write down the words of Jesus–“I don’t know.”
“But about that day or hour no one knows,
neither the angels…NOR the Son…”
We can’t stand for Jesus to say…I don’t know!
It’s NOT like Jesus didn’t handle some tough questions:
Of all the hundreds of laws governing the people of God,
what is the GREATEST commandment?
–Jesus nailed that one.
They ask him about the resurrection—
–and he went right ahead with the answer!
They asked Jesus about paying taxes to the foreign government—
–and he did NOT flinch in answering it!
They asked him a very tough question about DIVORCE—
–and he answered it directly and decisively!
They even asked him one day,
if there was any connection between SUFFERING and SIN—
–when people SUFFER, is it directly related to their SIN?
–And Jesus answered it!
But, when they asked him the ADVENT QUESTION—
–WHEN is God coming?
–WHAT TIME is it, really?
Jesus said: “I don’t know.”
When is God coming?
“You taught us to pray Thy Kingdom Come—WHEN is that??”
WHEN is the justice?
WHEN is the fairness?
WHEN is the peace?
WHEN is the food that fills every stomach?
WHEN is the water that quenches every thirst?
WHEN….is the JOY??
HOW do we tell time in God’s world?
And Jesus said: “I don’t know.”
But we have a right to an answer!
You see, ADVENT, for them, was NOT four Sundays.
We have FOUR Sundays.
And, even then, WE can’t wait!
We shop too soon.
We party too soon—
ADVENT music? For four weeks?
Bring on Jingle Bell Rock!
We can hardly stand it. FOUR weeks!
THEIR ADVENT lasted a lifetime of lifetimes!
The children grew up hearing their parents saying, “WHEN?”
Then those children heard themselves saying it to THEIR children!
Generation after generation after generation—
–they have experienced NOTHING
but the tardiness of God!
The people among whom Jesus lived had waited their whole lives,
and their parents’ lives
and their grandparents’ lives
and their great-grandparents’ lives—
–for God to come to them in grace and glory.
They began to wonder if they would still recognize God when God did come!
How can you tell the voice of God
from the rumbling of our own hungry stomach?
How do you know God…when God finally shows up?
I’ve been pondering that all week.
It reminds me of something I read for last week’s Thanksgiving sermon
when Abraham Lincoln was President
and this nation was being torn apart by the Civil War.
Advisors came one after another to tell President Lincoln
what was the will of God.
Preachers made appointments and came and told him
what was the will of God!
They came in DROVES—
“this is the will of God for what you are to do!”
And Mr. Lincoln said:
“I find it strange that God has told everybody…but me—
–and I am the one who has to make the decision.”
as he paced the floor…
On Thanksgiving Day, 1863, President Lincoln,
in his proclamation to the nation,
asked PRAYERS for “all those who have become widows,
mourners, or sufferers.”
The definitive “will of God” would have to wait…
…and instead we pray.
And I dare say that there are those in this room this morning
who join Martha and Mary in their cry.
You might remember how, when Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus died,
and good friend Jesus was NOWHERE to be found—
–when Jesus finally did show up, Martha cried:
“If you would have been here—
–our brother would not have died!”
Now, we have a right to know!
WHEN is God coming?
How do we tell time in God’s world?
WHEN is ADVENT?
…And Jesus said: “I don’t know.”
The angels don’t know.
You don’t know.
Nobody knows…EXCEPT God![iii]
We don’t know…
…but I do know this—God will come.
“I can’t tell you WHEN,” Jesus says.
“But I can tell you—God WILL come.”
There is HOPE.
There is TOMORROW.
There is GOOD coming from the hand and the will and the heart of God!
There will be justice.
There will be acceptance and love.
Prejudice will be washed downstream.
There will be food on every table
and children will live in safety and happiness!
God will come!
But, not only are we NOT told WHEN God will come,
we’re NOT told HOW God will come.
God comes in SURPRISING and STRANGE ways—we know that.
Remember Abraham and Sarah?
There in the desert, on their own—and here come these visitors.
How were THEY to know that they were messengers from God,
carrying a PROMISE that was beyond comprehension?
Moses, out keeping his sheep—an old man out in the wilderness.
Sheep nibbling on what scrub there was.
And over in the distance—he saw a bush burning.
Not strange—because you know lightening
sometimes caused that sort of thing.
BUT—VERY strange—because the bush was not burning up.
And he went over and said—“What in the world?”
….And he experienced God!
Or, how about Mary Magdalene, at Jesus’ tomb?
She went to the tomb,
She saw the stone had been rolled away—and the body wasn’t there.
She went over to a man who she thought was the groundskeeper
and she said: “Well, they’ve taken Jesus,
where did they take him—“
She didn’t know….
And the DISCIPLES in the boat early in the morning.
A great storm is brewing—they’re scared to death.
And here comes….SOMETHING…or…SOMEONE…
…and they said, it’s a GHOST!
It was JESUS!
They didn’t know!
So, WHEN is Advent?
How do we tell time in God’s world?
Jesus has said, “I can’t tell you HOW…
…God is FULL of surprises…”
He said: ONE TIME when the Son of Man shall come in clouds of glory
and all his angels with him—
–and he separates people like a shepherd
separates sheep from goats—
–he will say to them:
“I was hungry,
a stranger, in prison—and you DIDN’T come…”
And people will say: “Well, we didn’t see you!
“When did we ever see you like that?
I mean, IF we had only KNOWN!
And Jesus said: “That’s the point!
….I come in surprising,
“THEREFORE—you stay awake!
You be on the alert!
God may COME—and you will MISS it!”
I don’t know.
If you’re like me, maybe you too often fall prey to thinking that you’ve “got” God.
Just like the railroads of the 19th century thought they had brought
TIME under control…
Just like all the times we prize CONTROL, ORDER, NORMAL
over everything else…
But here, in Mark’s Gospel,
we are being warned not to get LULLED.
Don’t get lulled into false assumptions about God.
Don’t get lulled into “false packaging”
of what is important in your life.
Don’t get numbed to the pain and possibilities of this world.
Here we have a Jesus who disrupted every time
of control that we seek to impose:
Control over time,
Control over priorities,
Control over our lives…disrupted!
In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus says we don’t know when God may come—
–“it could be in the evening,
or at midnight
or at cockcrow
or at dawn…”
That is the VERY OUTLINE of the Passion story in Mark:[iv]
–Jesus prays in the garden in the evening;
–He is arrested and taken away at midnight;
–Peter denies him at cock crow;
–and at dawn—on Easter—there is a whole new world!
God may come…in the evening…at midnight…at cockcrow…at dawn!
WHENEVER God comes—
—it’s going to look a lot like the CROSS of Christ.
So, you can be sitting in a worship service—
–moved by the music and the prayers and the table—
–sitting there in a pool of sacred reflection—
–and the folks right in front of you…
….are plotting about brunch!
I’ve been that plotter myself!
But, here’s the rub:
if we’re NOT going to be awake…
If we’re NOT going to enter EVERY room,
–saying, “this could be it!’
–we might MISS the coming of God!
There’s a story about this soldier named Ralph.
The teller of the story was a professor who had been
invited to speak at a military base one December.
Ralph had been sent to meet him at the airport,
and after they had introduced themselves,
they headed down toward the baggage claim.
All the way down the concourse, RALPH kept disappearing:
–once to help an older woman whose suitcase had fallen open;
–once to lift two toddlers up, so they could see Santa Claus;
–and AGAIN, to give directions to someone who was lost.
EACH TIME, he came back with a big smile on his face
and picked up the conversation where he had left off.
The professor could NOT figure him out…
“Where did you learn to do that?” he asked Ralph.
“Do what?” Ralph said.
“Where did you learn to live like that?”
“Oh,” Ralph said, “during the war, I guess.”
And then he told the professor about his tour of duty in Vietnam.
About HOW it was his job to clear mine fields,
and about HOW he watched one of his friends after another
blow up before his eyes.
“…I learned to live between steps,” Ralph said.
“I never knew whether the next one would be my last,
so I learned HOW to get EVERYTHING I could out of
the moment between when I picked up my foot
and when I put it down again.”
“…Every step I took—it was a whole new world,
and I guess I’ve just been that way ever since.”
…THAT is someone who knows how to TELL TIME in God’s world.
…THIS is someone who knows what time it is.
And THIS is what this joyful season can do for US—if we let it:
sharpening our senses to human need,
enlivening our imaginations about God’s powerful hope,
keeping us awake and alert….for God’s very next step…
God’s Advent is here.
[i] Howard Manfield, “Does Anybody Really Know what Time It Is?” The New York Times, March 10, 2011
[ii] Thomas G Long “Imagine There’s No Heaven: The Loss of Eschatology in American Preaching,” Journal for Preachers, Advent, 2006
[iii] This approach to interpreting this text owes a debt to a sermon Fred Craddock preached in the late 1990’s at Cherry Log (Georgia) Church
[iv] From WorkingPreacher.org, texts for November 27, 2011