Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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This Scripture isn't Nearly Adorable Enough: Mark 13:24-37
“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.”
What are the essential elements for telling a good Christmas story? Well, we need the Holy family, Mary and Joseph. It is preferable that they be pitiful looking and forlorn, but also clean and tidy. We probably need a donkey, too, because that's their ride. And, the donkey should be clean and tidy. Angels. We also need angels. That's how Mary finds out that she's going to be pregnant and the shepherds find out where the baby is. The angels should be shiny and strong, but not too imposing. Wouldn't want to scare any of the on-lookers. There should be shepherds and wise men looking very pious, a simple barn with a manger that really looks like a cradle, and a really bright star. Oh, and the other animals in the barn should be very still and quiet. And, so should baby Jesus. It should be like that verse in the hymn "Away in a Manger," where baby Jesus wakes up all quietly and sweetly, even though he is a new-born who has been sleeping in a pile of itchy hay. This is the image I see most often in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Everything is peaceful... quiet... well- mannered. Nobody weeps. Nobody cries out. No one is suffering. Everything is serene... serene and adorable.
I wouldn't blame you if, on this first Sunday of Advent, you expected something pretty adorable during our scripture reading. I did, too. I expected the first readings to be about sheep, or sweet but put-upon parents, or some surprise angels showing up out of the blue. What I got was the end of the world. This section of Mark is often called the Little Apocalypse. During this new liturgical year that we begin today, we'll spend most of our Gospel time with the book of Mark. There is an intensity and directness of speech throughout this Gospel. As we read through it together, you will notice an immediacy to the Gospel's sense of time and storytelling. Over the next year, I kind of want to keep a big tally sheet of when the gospel writer used the word "immediately." You will hear how, after being tempted Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness. And, then you will hear that when Jesus began to preach, immediately the disciples leave their fishing nets to follow him. The author will also increase levels of intensity in the story by showing Jesus being utterly surrounded and nearly crushed by crowds of the people searching for healing. People will even break through the roof of a home where he is preaching in order to lower a paralyzed man down to him. Jesus and his followers will have to hide out in the country just to get time to eat.
Jesus will feed over 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. He will walk on water and calm the sea with only his voice. He will raise the dead. He will cast out demon after demon after demon. He will be accused of being possessed himself and, even his family will think he has lost his mind. He will be rejected in his hometown. He will argue with scribes and Pharisees and will make enemies of those who plan to kill him. And, in what may be one of the most galling aspects of this Gospel story, his followers will never even seem to truly understand his work. They follow him but don’t really know who he is. He will ask them. “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” The Gospel of Mark, the gospel with which we begin our Advent season is not serene or even one little bit adorable. It is Jesus at his most misunderstood and frustrated, zapping fig trees that fail to give fruit when he’s hungry and trashing tables of the moneychangers in the temple. It is Jesus preaching about the end of the world.
If you've been able to be here over the last few weeks as we've made our way through the parables in Matthew, this story may sound familiar. Jesus, realizing that the end of his earthly ministry was likely drawing near, tried to prepare his followers for what was coming. He shared with them words inspired by ancient Jewish prophets: “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.” He also told his followers that there may be signs of God's radical in-breaking in the world, but, in the end, no one really knows when God will finally save all of God's people. So, Jesus told his friends and followers, "Stay Awake." You don't want to miss the return.
Now, most of the time, when I hear people talking about staying awake and Jesus' birth, they are usually talking about staying awake to watch out for Santa or to sneak around to find presents or going out for Black Friday sales. It is exceedingly rare that I hear people talk about staying awake so they don't miss the empire of heaven bursting forth around them. I mean, staying awake to wait for Santa is whimsical... adorable even. The radical in-breaking of the Son of Man is awe-inspiring and intense. It is probably not what you would call serene. It is not really what I would pick to preach about when I want to introduce the season of Advent. In fact, I rather talk about almost anything than the end of the World.
Part of my reticence to talk about this Little Apocalypse is simply old theological baggage that I carry around. Too often I have seen "The End is Near" placards used as weapons to shame and demonize theological difference. Too often, I have heard calls for social justice rejected out of an allegiance to a particular kind of end times thinking that decries any "worldly" social change as distracting from the "true" calling of saving souls. I have seen real people's real needs for food, water, health, and equality ignored or used to manipulate them for personal gain under the guise of preparing them for the return of Christ. What is often most horrifying for me are those occasions where people's struggles within oppressive systems are understood not as symptoms of human systems which we must change, but as signs of God's disfavor and judgment. Because of my own theological struggles with these issues, I often avoid apocalyptic parts of the Bible. It seems to have no place with the God of love and justice whom I have learned to follow. I find the end of the world to be disruptive and theologically inconvenient. So, I usually ignore it.
This week, though, it has been hard for me to ignore the end of the world. I spent many hours on Monday night waiting for news, hoping for justice, and watching a city burn. I read the social media timelines of friends and colleagues and scholars whom I respect. I heard their testimonies of faith and read as they shared the fears they have walking out the door every day. I read the prayers they have for their brown-skinned children. I saw pictures of police, armed as if for war, firing smoke bombs into crowds of protestors. I read as a public servant seemed to do all he could do to assure that the unpopular verdict he was preparing to deliver would be given in a manner most frustrating and most tone deaf to the concerns of the community that he was supposed to be serving. It didn't stop Monday morning. As the week has progressed, I have read far more about the hopeless, destructive rioters who burned buildings than the clergy and community lay leaders who have staged countless non-violent demonstrations. I watched the police use a military grade vehicle to protect shoppers at a big box store while using the same kind of vehicle to disrupt protestors who were exercising their right to free speech and free assembly. And, one family wept for their son's life and now believes that they will never see justice, I have heard the voices of many more families who see this as confirmation that they will never be treated fairly in this country.
I suppose that I could have ignored the news coverage. I could have turned the channel and ignored the stories streaming across my computer screen. That is a privilege I have since I live so far away from Ferguson. It's also a privilege I have as a white person who is pretty consistently given the benefit of the doubt by people in authority. I can pretend that this doesn't have to effect me because I'm far away and can insulate myself because of my education and my stable income. There is more than enough commercialized faux-Christmas hooey floating around that I could have distracted myself for months without paying attention to the real suffering that it going on around me. I could have overlooked the end of someone's else's world and it would have only cost me a few dollars and a little bit of my soul. I could have decided that my comfort matters more than other peoples' very lives and believe that really, they probably brought all of this on themselves. After all, it was Thanksgiving and we are getting ever closer to Christmas, and all of this end of the world business is awfully inconvenient. It is not serene and it is not adorable.
The Little Apocalypse reminds us that this is not the season to worry about either convenience or appearances. It is the season to think of the change that came with God's incarnation in Jesus. The power of this Little Apocalypse is that it reminds us that God's in-breaking will not go unnoticed. In this scripture, we hear Jesus, speaking at the end of his life in a way that can help us interpret the beginning of his life and also help us look towards the future empire of heaven that we will build with God. Jesus tells us that the world will be, was, and is now continually being changed because of his presence in it. When God becomes present in the world in a drastically new way through incarnation in Christ, the very cosmos will be changed. 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. All the things we know... all of heaven will pass away, but the words of Jesus will be eternal. And, Jesus' final words in this section are "Keep Awake."
Some might ask, doesn't giving so much attention to the end of the world ignore the needs of humanity right now? At least one scholar I have read would argue that it doesn't at all. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman contends that contends that apocalypticism is, in fact, social justice. It is first and foremost an ideology of resistance, a way of envisioning hope and social justice in an unjust world. Ehrman maintains that in the end, apocalypticism gave hope to the oppressed people by redefining earthly struggles in light of God's involvement in creation. If bad things were happening, it was a sign that forces of evil and destruction were fighting against the Reconciliation and Justice of God. When Jesus called upon apocalyptic theology, he was re-stating a firm belief that God was doing a new thing, creating something new and holy and redemptive out of the old, tarnished world. In the midst of all that wounds, all that appears evil, God will do a new thing. In the midst of Roman occupation and religious corruption, God would do a new thing. In the midst of strained relations and uncertain circumstances, God would do a new thing. And 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.
What better way to begin our time of Advent, our time of hopeful expectation in the midst of great darkness, than with a reminder that God will do new things and that we called to do new things with God. We are a part of this new creation, renewed in God's image, and invited to continue a life of service. Perhaps the demonstrations that began in Ferguson and have reverberated across this nation can direct how we offer service. As people looking to serve as Jesus served, we should the questions of local law enforcement. For example, if as the Daily Beast reported in 2011, the Augusta police force has spent $16,000 of taxpayer money on military grade tactical gear, we should ask if they have they spent a similar amount on community policing efforts intended to build trust with community members. We should be asking if our local police are being taught stop-and-frisk style tactics, tactics that rely on stopping a lot of people with little evidence in hopes of catching a few people breaking the law. These tactics simply increase citizen distrust of police and drastically reduce the police's ability to build healthy relationships in the community. We should also ask if tax money is being spent to prepare our local police for war with local citizens, is there a similar level of support for social safety-net programs that can prevent people from ending up in situations where they will do battle with police?
These are just a few ways that I can see our church community taking part in Advent... that is actively waiting for and participating in the coming of the Christ-child. It will probably be a little messy and not particularly serene. But, if we're honest, the weeks leading up to the first Christmas probably weren't all that serene either. Scholar Kathleen Norris once said that apocalyptic literature is a command to come to full attention to the here and now. Here and now, we are being called to make sure that systemic racism is not circumventing true justice. Here and now, we are called to make sure that peaceful protests are heard. Here and now, we care called to find hope in the darkest of hours. Jesus tells us, “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... And what I say to you I say to all: Keep Awake.” Keep awake. We have a lot of work to do.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
D.Mark Davis, "Images of Hope, Suffering, and Vigilance":
David Lose, "Advent 1B: Preaching a Participatory Advent": http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/advent-1-b/
Pulpit Fiction Podcast, "91: Advent 1B (November 30)Happy New Year Apocalypse!": http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/91-advent-1b-nov-30-happy-new-year-apocalypse
Paul S. Berge's commentary on Mark 13:24-37: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=184
Jan Richardson, "A Blessing When the World is Ending": http://adventdoor.com/2014/11/23/advent-1-blessing-when-the-world-is-ending/
John W. Whitehead, "Drones, Tanks, and Grenade Launchers: Coming Soon to a Police Department Near You": https://www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/john_whiteheads_commentary/drones_tanks_and_grenade_launchers_coming_soon_to_a_police_department_
Andrew Becker, "Local Cops Ready for War With Homeland Security-Funded Military Weapons": http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/12/20/local-cops-ready-for-war-with-homeland-security-funded-military-weapons.html
Charles Epp and Steven Maynard-Moody, "Driving While Black": http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january_february_2014/ten_miles_square/driving_while_black048283.php?page=all
Mark Allen Powell's commentary on Mark 13: 24-37: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2265
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.