We have entered that hectic season in which the secular and sacred calendars collide. We have experienced Halloween, All Saints' Sunday, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and the First Sunday of Advent all within 30 days - and this does not even count miscellaneous events such as Westminster's Bazaar, the 125th Anniversary Dinner, or our Youth's Dinner Theatre production last weekend: Uncle Phil's Diner! It has been a full and busy month, and the next four weeks portend an increasingly crazy pace - as we make forays to the mall, prowl parking lots for an open spot, pull boxes from the basement to deck our halls and windows and walls, string lights on a tree or around our front porch, wrap gifts and bake cookies, and head out for holiday parties.
Our busy November will soon turn into an even busier December as we prepare for Christmas. But while the world's busyness may seem to be preparing for Christmas, it is seldom preparing for the coming Christ.[i]
In the midst of culture's frantic holiday frenzy, the church calls us to Advent, a season urging us to press the pause button. Waiting is a major Advent theme, as we remember how the Hebrews waited for the promised Messiah, and how we now wait for Christ's promised return. As Christians we anticipate Jesus coming "in clouds with great power and glory" and as an infant to Mary and Joseph. But in remembering the past and anticipating the future, let us not forget the present.
This morning's scripture passage comprises a portion of what scholars call Mark's "little apocalypse," that is, a revealed truth about the end of time. Jesus is speaking privately with four of his disciples who, after their master predicts the destruction of the temple, ask him, "When will these things take place?" And Jesus answers cryptically and descriptively repeating words from the book of Daniel regarding the coming of the Son of Man, and pointing to the fig tree whose leafing branches signify the nearness of summer. There will be signs, Jesus explains, and yet no one but God knows when that day or hour will come; therefore, it is important to be on the lookout, like servants who are awaiting their master's return from a trip.
With its allusions to suffering, earthquakes, and tribulation, this little apocalypse does not impel us to strike the harp and join the chorus, and get us in the merry Christmas mood. Apocalyptic imagery is foreboding - no doubt some of us wondered whether the end was imminent this past August when we experienced a hurricane, tornado and earthquake all in a week's time! Scripture passages like todays have inspired Hollywood to produce its share of doomsday movies such as 2012 based on a Mayan calculation. And inevitably some people become anxious and absorbed in these predictions and signs. Indeed, there are those in every generation who display an interest in the end of the world. In my youth, it was Hal Lindsay's book The Late Great Planet Earth which clung to the best seller list as thousands of people became convinced that the final judgment was within sight. Likewise, today's Left Behind series written by Christian evangelicals infuses fear in an effort to produce faith and 'save souls.' Yet, Jesus did not come into the world to scare people into the reign of God, but to love people into God's grace.
Mark's first listeners heard a message of hope in this passage, and so should we. These first century believers lived in fear and persecution, and the gospel offered words of encouragement and strength. Through these words of Jesus they heard that yes, there would be tribulation and suffering, but these were signs that the Son of Man was drawing near. In the meantime, they were called to hold fast in faith.
We too live in a world of grave distress and terrible disasters: the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant breakdowns in Japan, the famine in the horn of Africa, ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, drought and subsequent wildfires destroying thousands of acres across Texas and Arizona... yet God calls us to trust in God's steadfast love and to live in God's abiding wisdom. While Mark's audience faced persecution at the hands of the Romans, we face a world threatened by war and conflict, by climate change and overpopulation, by illness and hunger and greed. But the watchword for this Sunday of Advent is still Hope, because we believe God's reign has begun in Christ and will reach ultimate fulfillment through Christ. Moreover, Christ's reign is in our midst.
God knows, with concerns over a wavering global economy and cultural norms that suck us into rampant and rabid consumption, we are apt to miss the message of Advent. In our wakefulness to worldly ways, we fall asleep to God's Spirit at work in our lives.[ii] But Christ issues us a wake-up call this morning! In his urging us to keep awake Jesus delivers a clear reminder to keep cognizant of what is important in life. Are we able to hear and embrace this advent admonition?
What does Christ's wake-up call touch in you? A relationship you have refused to repair? How you spend your wealth? An addiction you have avoided addressing? What might God want us to become aware of in our own lives? A nagging depression related to our work? Our complicity in the degradation of God's creation? Opportunities to be Christ's hand and feet by feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless? The scarcity of time we spend with our loved ones?
Perhaps as a culture we need a wake-up call to the meaning of this spiritual season. Instead of gearing up to shop till we drop, instead of maxing out our credit cards and amassing debt, instead of putting on pounds eating too many holiday sweets, Advent invites us to pause, reflect, be present to each day, and wake up to God's presence all around us.
Our gospel text shouts: Wake up! The signs are all around you! Maybe we have been distracted by the Christmas music playing in stores since the end of October. Maybe we have let politics and the ever-lengthening campaign season steal our attention. Maybe Greece has commanded our interest and we fear repercussions for the global economy, including our own.
Maybe here at church we have been so focused on our 125th anniversary and our Stewardship Campaign that we have grown unconscious of the gospel right in front of us. Christ in the face of a visitor, Christ in the joy of a child, Christ in the care of a Stephen Minister, Christ in the kindness of a teenager, Christ in the consolation of a friend.
Advent is the time of year when we get slapped upside the head with the reminder that Christ came in the past as an infant, Christ will come someday in final glory, but most importantly Christ comes to us now, in the present, as Immanuel - Godwithus - comforting us, challenging us, inspiring us, teaching us, leading us, showing us the way and the truth and the life. But beware, or be aware: the busier we are, the more likely we are to miss him. So our work becomes making room in our hearts and lives everyday for Christ - practicing mindfulness, openness, attentiveness, watchfulness.
Advent is not a time for nostalgia and sentiment, but a reminder of the ever present Kingdom of God that is forever breaking into our midst - if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand. But maybe we are sleep-walking through our days. Maybe we just are not paying attention. Jesus would have us hear his words not as a fearful threat but as a hope-filled promise: and what better way to live than in the grip of a promise...to wake in the possibility that today might be the day. To remain wide awake all day long, noticing everything, such as the last yellow leaves on the trees, quivering in the wind, or the vivid pastel hues in the sky at daybreak and at dusk. To search the face of every stranger in case it turns out to be an angel of God, or even Christ in one of his many disguises. What if the call to keep awake was not a call to watch for catastrophic billboards from on high, but to simply notice every day where God is present around us? Friends, Christ urges us not to sleep-walk through our lives, but to wake up to the realization that every day is a gift, a gift to cherish and value, not squander.
Christ promised he would return, and in Advent we eagerly await the return of Christ. But Advent is also a reminder that God has already come to us and is sharing life among us, and that while there may have been a star in the heavens, the presence of God was, and is, found in the ordinary - an infant born and laid in a manger of hay, smelly shepherds coming in from the fields, a life lived among the people of God.[iii]
Wake up! God is always coming to us, and the world's turmoil does not stop us from knowing and experiencing God's reign right here and now.[iv]
[i] Lillian Daniel, First Sunday of Advent, p. 20. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)
[ii] Lillian Daniel, First Sunday of Advent, p. 22. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)
[iii] Katie Z. Dawson, Ministrymatters.com September 20, 2011
[iv] John van de Laar, Sacredise.com 27 November 2011
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