‘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.’
Additional reading referenced:
(from The Coming of Jesus in Our Midst by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Christ is knocking. It is not yet Christmas. But it is also not the great final Advent, the final coming of Christ. Through all the Advents of our life that we celebrate goes the longing for the final Advent, where it says “Behold, I will make all things new.” Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent—that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters and one rejoices in the words of the angels: “On earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” Learn to wait, because he has promised to come. “I stand at the door…” We however call to him, “Yes, come soon, Lord Jesus!”
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It’s the first Sunday in Advent, which means this Sunday is all about hope—so let’s talk about the apocalypse! Church, it is the end of the world as we know it. Not the end of the world, period—but we are at the end of a pre-COVID world, and we’re coming into a post-COVID world, something unknown and new.
It’s the first Sunday in Advent, and here I am preaching to an empty church—except for Jan, hi Jan! It won’t be like this forever, but we will be forever changed by this. This passage I just read, exclusively of Jesus’ words is about a new world—a world that comes about after a time of fear and suffering and uncertainty. A world that delivers angels and hope out of evil and cynicism. I can’t promise you angels this season of Advent. But I will promise you hope.
In prepping for this sermon, I read an essay that describes end-time, apocalyptic writing as a “reactionary literature in times of crisis. It continually refashions itself to fit the changing time.” I’ve actually been reading a ton of apocalyptic novels lately, most of them have come out over the past few years—The New Wilderness, Leave the World Behind, Migrations, A Children’s Bible, The Bear, Weather, Temporary and that’s specifically books that were released in 2020! I could go on to talk about apocalyptic books written in the past few years as well—Station 11, Wanderers, The Memory Police, Severance, On Such a Full Sea, The Southern Tier trilogy, The Road… the list goes on and on. I think it says a lot about the times we live in, that apocalyptic writing has been so pervasive in recent years—and nearly every single book I mentioned above is about either climate change or a plague. Talk about refashioning itself to match the time. But one thing all the main characters in these books I just listed have in common is resilience, perseverance, patience, and, even if reluctantly, hope. In all these stories, there is hope that something will be born from the destruction and suffering.
Now this passage in Mark is full of apocalyptic references from the Old Testament. The sun being darkened—that’s in reference to a Psalm. These prophecies of a new heaven and a new earth—that’s from Isaiah. These visions of things coming suddenly in the night—that’s a reference to the prophet Daniel. The gathering of God’s elect—that’s a recurring theme from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zachariah… I’m not telling you this to give you some kind of lesson on the Bible as literature (though it is very interesting for any English nerds out there). I’m telling you this because it means that ends of worlds and crises keep happening, and humankind keeps marching on. I’m telling you this, because rather than feeling overwhelmed by these crises occurring again and again, I’m hopeful because the crises happen, we struggle, we work, and persevere, and we make it to a new world, and we do our best to make sure the new world is better than the previous iteration.
But in the meantime—what do we do? What is Jesus asking of us when he tells us to keep watch, to be alert, to keep awake? At Bible study on Monday night, we discussed the fact that this sounds a little passive, almost. And the actions of staying awake and keeping watch sound a little passive themselves, yes—but there’s a sense of urgency in the tone, I think. Because there is emphasis on not knowing when, and always being on your toes. And you know, I think my absolute favorite part of this passage is the fact that Jesus himself doesn’t know when his second coming will be. “About that day or the hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (As an aside, I always think it’s so wild that certain sects actually attempt to predict the second coming when Jesus himself states very clearly that even he doesn’t know! Absolutely blows my mind).
I think it’s really easy, with everything going on right now, to lose sight of what we should be doing—to lose sight of the needs of our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. As Cordie so beautifully read while I lit the Advent candle of hope, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we are working towards a time when all people are our brothers and sisters—a time when we are no longer divided by beliefs or borders. Church—that is what we do while we wait. We work to bring about that second coming, that Ultimate Final Advent here to earth. We work to show Jesus that we are ready for his return, that we are good, that we are doing what Jesus asks of us—helping our sisters and brothers, being angels on earth. Because when it comes it will be unexpected. Right now, we begin the season of waiting for the birth of our savior, born in secret among animals in a manger, not among kings in a palace to great fanfare. We are waiting for a vulnerable child born in hiding, fearing stigma and violence. We are waiting for the Son, who doesn’t himself know when he will come again. We are waiting, unknowing and humbled.
In that passage from Bonhoeffer’s essay, he says that our whole life is Advent. This liturgical season of Advent serves as a month-long reminder that we are always waiting, and therefore always must remain aware, remain awake, remain alert—and maybe especially, church, remain hopeful. Hoping is not a passive action, church. It takes effort and work to hope right now, to hope in isolation, to hope through computer screens, to hope in the midst of a pandemic. Most of us probably just had very different quiet Thanksgivings. A lot of us probably aren’t really feeling the Christmas spirit right now. It would be much easier to just resign ourselves to cynicism and fear and wait around until everything’s all over. But what will happen if we just passively wait until this is all over? What happens if we don’t do our part? What happens if we pay no attention to God’s beauty around us—to the trees putting forth leaves, to changing weather, to the signs of what’s to come? What happens if we let our apathy take over and we don’t keep our house in order on this life journey? What if we forget that our whole life is Advent? That our whole life must be spent actively waiting and working?
When we lose sight of these things, church, we fall asleep. We become zombies, the walking emotional-dead, wandering the world with no purpose, with no reason, no hope to keep going, to keep working to make sure this world is safe, is life-giving for all God’s people, all God’s creatures.
In one of the recent apocalyptic books I mentioned above, the excellent Severance by Ling Ma, a global pandemic turns most of earth’s people into zombies—but not the kind of zombies that we’re used to seeing in pop culture—these zombies don’t actually harm other people. The zombies in this book become literal creatures of habit. One character in the book, for example, spent much of her time taking selfies in various different outfits to post on social media, and when she catches the virus, she does just that and nothing else—takes selfie after selfie while slowly wasting away. Another character who owned a mall just wanders the mall day in, day out, checking in on the vacant stores, until his body no longer works. If that’s not a perfect metaphor of what could await this society that puts so much emphasis on money and things, especially this time of year, I don’t know what is—the society in which we live seems to fight tooth and nail against everything Jesus stands for. It’s materialistic, it’s cynical; it rewards money and individualism over acts of kindness, charity, and community. It fights to make us ignorant of what Jesus wants from us; it fights to lull us to sleep, to make us apathetic to work that needs to be done before Jesus can return.
In another essay I read this week, about pop culture zombie apocalypses and what they say about the world we live in, writer Rikk Mulligan writes “The worlds of the zombie apocalypse are those of the evening news and cable television, but the potential for both life and love exist through the symbol of hope these stories convey. The real contagion is fear and hopelessness, and doing nothing and hiding or merely praying for the daylight to come.”
Church, I don’t see anyone here, in this community falling prey to the contagions of fear and hopelessness. I don’t see anyone in this church succumbing to cynicism or apathy. I’ve seen the work that Vicky Lawrence did for an adapted community Thanksgiving, giving food and connection to those in need; I’m seeing the work Jeannie Frazer’s doing for an adapted Hartland Christmas Project, making sure everyone in the community gets what they need this holiday season. I’m seeing everyone in this church, on this zoom, adapting, being thoughtful and understanding of the grave reality of the pandemic and continuing to come to church virtually. I’m seeing the work this entire community is doing to keep folks safe, healthy, and well taken care of over this Holiday season and beyond.
Now church, I have a picture I want to show you—a handful of you have seen my office, and there’s a print I have hanging up to the right of my desk. It’s actually a print of a painting done by an old friend of mine who’s an artist, Doug Gately (feel free to check out his art! I’m not above plugging a friend’s art in a sermon)—anyway, let me show it to you, because it really spoke to me when I was contemplating the scripture.
This painting is entitled, “The New World Struggles to be Born.” We’re not there yet church—but look how close we are, and look how hard we’re still working. We’re still pushing that light so that it totally overtakes the darkness. We’re still working and adapting and pushing through so that we can bring Heaven to this earth. We’re not going to let this world zombify us, we’re not going to be oblivious or asleep to the needs or struggles of others. We’re going to actively wait. We’re going to actively hope. We’re going to actively keep watch and pay attention. We’re going to actively work to bring about a new era of peace, of joy, of love, of unending hope.
The Old Testament prophets went through their own ends of worlds, their own wars, wanderings in the wilderness, and they made it through, teaching all who would listen along the way. Just last week, during our combined Thanksgiving service, Rev. Paul Sawyer spoke of dear departed community members who lived through the depression, wars, and made it through, working hard setting things in motion to make this world a better one than the one they were born into. And Jesus teaches us, commands us, to continue to do that. To continue to work, to teach, to push through, to keep watch and to stay awake. We are living through an end-time right now. But I have faith and hope that we will keep awake, that we will learn, and that the next era will be so much brighter.
Church, it’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel hopeful. Amen.