Sermon for Sunday, November 30th || Advent 1B || Isaiah 64: 1- 9; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13: 24-37 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“Beware!” “Be alert!” “Keep awake!”
The Son of Man could come at any time with power and great glory, we are told, accompanied by four angels to gather his elect. And when he does, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give off light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken!
Happy first Sunday of Advent. This is the first Sunday of what in the life of the church is a new year…a year in which the appointed Gospel readings each week will come primarily from Mark’s gospel, and for the most part, chronologically.
But this morning we start off with a bang—and a rather big, apocalyptic, bang at that. We plunge right into Chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel, exploding with vivid imagery, and language that sounds either horrifyingly threatening or disturbingly surreal or both.
It’s the end of Holy Week– just before the Last Supper. Jesus is talking privately to Peter, James, John and Andrew– his closest, most intimate disciples. He is promising them that although there will be a time of great suffering and upheaval before he returns to make all things right, they are to make no mistake that he will return to make all things right. When that will be no one, not even Jesus, knows. So the disciples must be awake, alert and prepared at all times.
Mark actually writes this story somewhere around 70 AD. The early Christians, most of whom are Jews, are hopefully anticipating Christ’s return. Their Roman enemy has retaken Jerusalem and destroyed the sacred temple of Judaism for the final time: The very heart of Judaism, torn down and crushed. It is a desolating sacrilege beyond our imagining.
So when Mark’s original hearers encountered this story, the “perousia”—that’s a fancy name for the return of Christ— couldn’t happen soon enough. They were defeated and deflated, and now they’re dreaming of seeing God’s divine justice executed against their enemies. In the words of judgment Mark attributes to Jesus, they hear not a threat but a profoundly life-giving word of hope. That they will be among those judged worthy at the end time is a given for them; the good news—the promise and the hope that keeps them going– is that their enemies will get their due and that God’s Kingdom will be established on earth at last.
The point, then, of Mark writing this story some 30-40 years after Christ’s death and Resurrection, is to place the suffering and pain of the early church’s present –in the year 70 AD or so–within the larger context of God’s sovereign promise for the future—and not just any future, but an apocalyptically better future in which all things will be made new and God will reign on earth as in heaven. And the point of what Mark has Jesus presumably say to his disciples before his death and resurrection, is to warn them that they will need to stay awake, to be alert, and to be vigilantly faithful until the promised day that could come at anytime.
All of which begs the question of how we, as followers of Jesus in the year 2014, can hold the suffering and pain of our present world within the larger context of God’s promise for the future. How are we supposed to stay awake, be alert, and become vigilantly faithful to the promise of that future, when 2,000 years have passed, a once vast and unknowable world is now a global village, and a 24-hour news cycle that provides constant exposure to the world’s suffering threatens to render us utterly numb?
This business of being awake and alert, faithful and above all else hopeful is in many ways a more complicated problem for us than for those who lived in the first century. Yet the solutions offered by our faith are so elegantly simple; spiritual practices like worshipping together, receiving the sacrament, praying and meditating—practices sure to give us the strength, the courage, and the perspective we so desperately need to fully engage, and respond to, the reality of the world’s suffering— and to do so without being overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all or worse yet tempted to bury our heads in the sand (which is never an option for Christians!).
This morning I’d like to suggest just one of these solutions to you, one spiritual practice that I’d like to challenge each of you to “try on” as an experiment during the next four weeks that comprise this Advent season. This comes to us from Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels by way of my own spiritual director.
It’s called, “Where’s your chair?”
The idea is this: You pick your favorite chair, and if possible you put it by a window where you’ll have a nice view. Every morning, for the length of this experiment, you commit to setting your alarm 20-30 minutes earlier than usual. When you get up, you make yourself a nice hot cup of coffee (or tea) and before you do anything else you sit in your favorite chair with your coffee and a Bible. Then you simply read a bit of scripture for 10-15 minutes, ask God to make it come alive for you, and think about how it might apply to your life. That’s it. A chair. A cup of coffee. A Bible. And 20-30 minutes. Elegantly simple. You can do this!
What you will find if you do, is that you begin your day with a lot more peace and a much healthier perspective. What you will find is just exactly what we prayed for in our opening collect: “the grace to cast away the works of darkness, and to put on the armor of light,” one day at a time.
And what you will find, with practice, is that as you await Christ’s coming this Advent season, he is already here! You’ll notice him everywhere–in the friend who is grieving, the child who is sick, and the neighbor who lost his job…in the homeless, the poor, those on the margins of society…in your friends and in your enemies, in the good news and in the bad…and most astonishing of all in yourself…in the very core of your own being!
So make a commitment. Try not to complicate it. Just start with the Gospel of Mark, and if four weeks feels daunting give it two. All it takes is a chair, a cup of coffee, a Bible, and 20-30 minutes.
And remember what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord…He will strengthen you to the end.” Amen.