‘But in those days, after that suffering,
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.’
Beginning at the End of the Story: Mark 13:24-37
Today is beginning of the new church year, the first Sunday in the season of Advent, the season when Christians are invited to shift our attention the ways Christ is always being born in the world by recalling the specific biblical stories of Jesus' birth. I realized this last week that over the next four weeks, between the children's pageant, the Christmas cantata, and our service of lessons and carols, we are all going to end up hearing a full accounting of Jesus' birth at least three times. The kids are going to teach it to us. The choir will sing it for us. We will sing it all together on Christmas Eve. You may be familiar with these stories. You may even have come to expect to hear these particular stories repeated at this time of year. That's what Advent is for... hearing about Mary and Joseph and waiting for Jesus to be born.
I don't know about you, but just about the last thing I expect to be hearing right now is this whole business about the sun darkening and the moon not giving light. And, yet, at the beginning of every Advent every year, the very first Gospel reading on the very first Sunday is always an apocalypse of some kind. This one in Mark 13 is called the Little Apocalypse. It's not little because it isn't world changing. It's just shorter than many apocalyptic stories in Hebrew Scripture and other parts of the New Testament. This is definitely not a story about a sweet, squishy baby Jesus that we might expect to hear this time of year. This story is about a grown-up Jesus at his most pointed and most severe, preparing his followers for the end of his life and all that will come next. When he shared these words with them, words inspired by ancient Jewish prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, he wasn't trying to terrify them, even though these images can sound pretty scary. Scaring people is not actually what an apocalypse is for, even if how that is how these Bible stories often get used. Now, they have a more important purpose. They are for reminding people that God is bigger than their current circumstances.
One of the most important things I ever learned about the Bible was that apocalypse stories aren't just about the supposed "end of the world." They are really about right now. Biblical scholars consistently point out that the apocalyptic stories we read in the Hebrew Bible arose during times of great struggle and pain. Similar stories in the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament did, too, or adapted ancient stories to a new situation where people were being oppressed. These kinds of stories are nearly always a way of reframing history, even time itself, into an outlet for God's intervention into the world. And undergirding every one of these epic stories of stars falling and the earth splitting is the idea that God can create something new and holy and redemptive in the midst of a destructive and cruel world. It is a statement that Babylon, and Assyria, and Rome will not have the last word. God will. And, the Word will change the world. As Jesus understood it, we must stay awake, that is pay attention, to the seismic shifts happening around us, not to predict when God will break into our world, but in order to be ready to respond to God in this world. It is our job as followers of God to watch, to be alert, for we do not want to miss playing our part in this new creation. We are both witnesses and participants in this new creation with God. We will miss out on our parts if we sleep through the cues.
For Mark, "staying awake" meant growing in discipleship, preaching about the ways God is active in our lives, tending to the tormented, and engaging with people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. That's what Jesus tells his followers to do in the earlier parts of chapter 13. You'll notice that each one of these actions is rooted in the concept of a just and loving God who calls us to strong relationships and great compassion. The message in this chapter of Mark is that God's entrance into the world was not a one time thing. It will happen again. In fact, God's entrance into the world through Jesus was but one holy, beautiful disruption. There are more. They will definitely be worth staying awake for.
I have shared before the words of scholar Kathleen Norris who once said that apocalyptic literature is a command to come to full attention to the here and now. I think we need to carry this definition of apocalyptic literature into how we hear all the stories of Jesus' birth over the next few weeks. It can be easy to be lulled into complacency by the familiarity and repetition of these stories. Even if you are new to this religious community, these stories are so common, that you have probably heard at least a few of them. I am going to urge to you listen to each of these stories with as fresh an ear as you can this year, because we can still learn something new about God's presence in our world and in our lives even though we may have heard these stories a million times. Remembering Norris' council to pay attention to the here and now, ask yourself, what does it mean for you to listen to these ancient stories while also being firmly rooted in the here and now of our common culture and life.
Here's a couple ways I've thought of to listen to the birth narratives while also being aware of the here and now. In our current cultural climate that so rarely seems to trust women and people with little political power to tell the truth about their lives, what does it mean for us to believe a teenage girl when she tells the origin of such a scandalous and impossible pregnancy as the one described in the early chapters of Luke? In this culture where greed and self-absorption are so often praised as "looking out for number 1," what does it mean for us to hear, in the early chapters of Matthew, of a young man who trusts that same teenage girl even when it may not be in his best interest to do so? In a world where we are supposed to be impressed by shows of physical strength and threats of destruction, what does it really mean for us to believe that God was made present in the flesh of a vulnerable child? In each of these questions, the ancient story is not lost or obscured by the here and now. It is illuminated by it. I'm not the only one who can come up with these kinds of questions. Each of us can pay attention this way. There is world-shaking wisdom and love in those stories. Let's stay awake so we don't miss it. So, what questions will you ask of the birth of Jesus that keep you rooted in the here and now. How are you going to stay awake?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5007
David Schnasa Jacobsen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3482
Mark Allen Powell: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2265
Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, "First Sunday of Advent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Kathleen Norris: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2005-11/apocalypse-now
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.