the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
-- Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)
Just inside the front door of our home hangs a set of sleigh bells. Mind you, these are not the sort of cheesy little jingle bells that are sold everywhere this time of year. No, these are the real McCoy— a matched set of twelve round brass bells, heavy and solid. Once upon a time they were suspended on a leather harness, and served the purpose for which they were created: clearly and cheerfully announcing the progress of horse and wagon or buggy.
But not anymore. For many years they have been tacked in two graduated rows of six onto a polished wooden plaque, placed there by my grandfather’s careful hands as a gift for my grandmother. Those bells had been part of her beloved father’s legacy to her, one of the familiar sights and sounds of a childhood spent growing up on a farm in central Illinois. Gram had moved off the farm when she married; but she cherished memories from those days all her life, and gladly shared them with me when I’d come over to visit. I loved those stories and would listen for hours, wide blue eyes peeking out from under straight brown bangs as we baked cookies or put up jam or washed dishes. Gram always had things to do at her house.
I could hardly walk past that plaque without touching the bells, and imagining them jangling with the rhythm of a horse trotting along a country road. More than once, Gram let me take them off the wall and give them a shake. “What a racket!” she’d exclaim, smiling. “They really do belong outdoors. You can hear them quite a ways.” And then she’d tell a story about hearing those bells as she played in the yard, or helped her mother in the house, or sat in the one-room schoolhouse across the road. She didn’t always know what he was doing, or even whether he might be going out or coming home; but the sound meant Pa was nearby.
So now here we are, at the beginning of Advent. In the United States, we’ve just finished Thanksgiving feasting. We hardly have time to take down the pumpkins and corn stalks before leaping into the excited flurry and bustle that is the usual precursor to Christmas in America. Shopping, and decorating, and baking, and parties, and sending cards and presents...It’s as though someone hung out a sign: “Jesus is Coming! Look Busy!!”
Then comes this reading— and it doesn’t fit our happy retail imagery at all. Oh, it’s about preparation, certainly. But there are no chubby-cheeked cherubs sleeping in tidy mangers with adoring shepherds gathered round, no peaceful snow-covered vistas, and certainly no Jolly Old St. Nicholas. Instead, we have darkened sun and falling stars...and warnings to be ready, to keep awake “for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” At first blush, it sounds ominous, almost foreboding.
But is it? Oh, make no mistake, the portrait here is of the Son of Man in all glory, mighty and powerful, as befits the Lord of Life, the Creator of all that is and ever will be. And part of me can’t imagine greeting our Savior’s return in such a manner without my knees knocking.
But then I remember that this is “the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy,” as the old prayer says. The God who made the irrational choice to leave the trappings of omnipotent power behind and to live with us as wholly human, complete with bad hair days and dirt under his fingernails and parents who didn’t understand him. The God who loves us enough to call us brother and sister, son and daughter, beloved friend. The God whose very essence is love.
Just as the servants put in charge during the master’s absence, we have work to do in the meantime. Good work. “What does the Lord require of you?” the prophet Micah asks. “To do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” These are enough to keep us busy in a manner far different than the retail therapy that is our cultural imperative. More challenging, more consuming...more difficult, and infinitely more rewarding.
No, we do not know the day or the hour; but it doesn’t matter. We work, and we wait— not in fear and trepidation, but in eager anticipation of the arrival of love.
Like a little girl listening for the sound of Pa’s sleigh bells.
Gracious God, help us to see your face in one another, and to so prepare for your coming that we are ready to receive you in joy.