Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, November 29, 2020

YEAR B 2020 advent 1

Advent 1, 2020
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Welcome to the apocalypse!  I mean, welcome to Advent.  It happens every year.  The first Sunday in Advent, we get what is called the “Little apocalypse” as the gospel reading.  Right when we have started with decorating, and baking cookies, and thinking about the sweet little baby Jesus, we get hit with the sun and moon going dark, and the stars falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens being shaken.  And always, “Keep awake!”

I have some clergy friends who say they love these apocalyptic readings, because they make them feel hopeful.  I know, right?  You’d hate to see what makes them feel despair!  But this year—during this never-ending 2020 dumpster fire of disappointment—I actually kind of get what my friends are saying.  Because when we set the scary language inside a scary world, you can see the hope in there as well.  And you see it in the fig tree in this reading.  Everything is going crazy around us, but the fig tree will still bloom.  The daffodils will still come up in the spring.  Babies will be born.  All of which mean, God has not given up on the world. 

This gospel was written almost 2,000 years ago, and God still has not given up on the world.  This reading speaks to us, just as it has been speaking to people for 2,000 years.  And, in particular, it speaks to two other specific groups, besides us this morning.  We could think of it as being addressed to three different audiences:  There’s the group Jesus is talking to, in person in 30AD, and then the ones it is being written down for in 70AD, and then also the ones who are sitting in Massillon in 2020AD—or, in front of electronic screens—on this first Sunday of Advent.

So, first, Jesus is saying these words to people who will soon see him being handed over to his enemies.  They will watch him go to the cross, after being brutally beaten and tormented.  For them the sun will go dark.  The moon will lose its light.  The stars will fall from the skies, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  The people hearing Jesus say these words will in a very short time see the Messiah suffer and be killed.  The one in whom they have put their trust will be taken away.  And, in the very next chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is praying in the garden and when he comes back, what are the disciples doing?  Sleeping!  What did Jesus just tell them?  Keep awake!

So, that’s the first level for this story, the people he is actually speaking to—the disciples.  The second group to consider are those who are alive when Mark’s gospel is being written down.  Even though Mark gives us the earliest version of Jesus’ life in the Bible, it’s written 30 or 40 years after the Resurrection, around 70AD, as most scholars have it.  This was a time of insane turmoil in the Roman world, with a massive Jewish revolt starting in the mid 60’s.  The response to this revolt from Rome was to completely destroy Jerusalem, including the Temple . . . the center of Jewish religious life.  For people living in Jerusalem at the time this gospel was written, the sun and moon have stopped shining, and the powers of heaven have been shaken.  

So, that’s the second group hearing this story.  The ones it was written for.  And then we come to us, the third group of hearers . . . the people who have just had Thanksgiving dinner, and started some Christmas shopping, and begun digging out the decorations, and maybe already have a pine tree standing in our living room.  We’re zipping right along with plans for what food to get, and what presents to buy, and whether or not we’re going to talk to that one relative who drives us crazy every year, and just kind of day-dreaming our way into Advent, when suddenly the Reason for the Season says to us:  Wake Up!  

Keep awake, because you do not know the hour or the day when the Son of Man will return.  It is jarring, I know.  But, at the same time, we’ve been talking about his return each and every week.  Right here, in this place.

And that’s because every Sunday, we proclaim our faith together in one of the ancient creeds of the Church, including a phrase like, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  And then, in the Eucharistic Prayer, we say some version of this: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again. Those little triplets are called the Mystery of Faith.  Past, present, and future.  And it’s the last part—the future—we tend to forget.  Until Advent starts.

Each year during Holy Week, we join in the Holy Mysteries of his death and resurrection.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  But the part we tend to gloss over is that third part:  Christ will come again.  Keep awake!  Christ will come again.

And then what?  Well, Jesus tells us, “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.”  And who are these elect?  Let’s go back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that section we heard this morning:  He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

“These elect” are the ones called into fellowship with God’s Son.  The ones who have been baptized with Christ into the mystery of his death, and into the promise of the resurrection.  Christ has died; Christ is risen.  In baptism you also have died and been raised again to new life in Christ.  You have died.  You have risen.  You are among those whom the angels will go and gather when Jesus comes again.  So keep awake!

Christ has died, and Christ is risen, but what now?  What about this long stretch of waiting for the Christ-will-come-again part?  Are we just killing time, waiting for Jesus to return?  Some Christians do take that view.  For some people, Jesus can’t come soon enough, and they couldn’t care less about the suffering of this world because it isn’t “real.”  You know, it’s all gonna burn, and this present suffering is nothing compared to the glories of heaven.

Well, I don’t know about you, but that approach doesn’t work for me.  A far-away pie-in-the-sky answer doesn’t work because I do not want a replacement for this world.  I want redemption of this world.  God does not promise to replace the world, but rather to redeem it.  In the Apostles Creed we say that we believe in the resurrection of the body, just as Jesus was raised in a physical body.  And a physical resurrection means that something more than a mystical spirit version of us will be raised on the last day.  It means there will be some continuity . . . something of this world will exist in the next.

I am convinced that there will be backyard football games, and great meals with lots of people, and healthy pets, and people whom we have loved and lost who are raised again.  That is not complete destruction and replacement; that is redemption.  And there’s a big difference between the two.  Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to redeem it.  And part of “it” is us.

So back to the first question again:  What’s with all the scary language this first Sunday of Advent?  Why the need for all the doom and gloom just to tell us to stay awake?  We are quite aware that things are not right.  We’ve been wearing facemarks for 8 months.  We’ve seen the empty chairs at the Thanksgiving table.  We know that someone in our family won’t be calling us on Christmas Day.  We see the state of our political discourse, we know people who are out of work, we have friends who are on ventilators, and we have felt the sting of death in losing the ones we love.

For us, here in the year 2020, the sun has been darkened, and the moon has lost its light, and the stars have fallen from the sky, and the powers in the heavens have been shaken.  Things are scary, right now.

Christ has died; Christ is risen . . . and . . .?  What difference does that really make in the here and now of our lives?  Things still hurt.  A lot, sometimes.  And this kind of suffering is enough to make you buy presents, to cling to the joy of Christmas, to throw yourself headlong into the preparation of Advent because, quite frankly, it’s hard to keep your chin up these days.  Maybe that’s why we want to start the Christmas season even earlier each year.  Because we’re hoping that some of the joy and peace of Christmas will seep backwards into autumn, and then further back into summer, and maybe even all the way back into spring.  

But the real joy of Christmas, the true hope of Christmas, is the thing we tend to forget: and it’s that third part of the Mystery of Faith.  It is the promise we can cling to, in order to make some sense of our lives.  Christ will come again.  The first two parts of the Mystery are just a set-up for the third one . . . the part when everything really will be different.  When Jesus returns to redeem everything and everyone.

Christ has died.  Yes.  And . . . Christ is risen.  Yes.  And . . . Christ will come again.  Yes! . . .  May God give all of us the strength to keep awake, and to trust in the fullness of the Mystery of Faith.  Christ will come again, and that is good news!


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