A Sermon Given on the First Day of Advent
Gospel Reading: Mark 13:24-37. Read here.
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Happy New Year!
Today is the first day of Advent, which marks the beginning of a new year in churches that follow the liturgical calendar. While the rest of the world shops Cyber Monday sales and blasts Christmas music from their car radios, the church enters a time of introspection in anticipation of a miracle. In our tradition, the season is often marked by children’s pageants and quaint Lessons & Carols services. A hushed sense of the sacred permeates all that we do.
For this reason, Advent has historically been my favorite season. I love the extreme contrast between my religious practice and the chaos of the world. In this season, I get a clear reminder of the way my faith shapes me differently. The hustle and bustle of the world can be overwhelming this time of year; meanwhile, I am patiently waiting for the Baby Jesus.
I have to admit that this year feels different. After enduring nearly nine months of pandemic, shouldn’t there be a baby already?
We have been holding our breaths for new life. We have been waiting for a vaccine that will free us to hug our loved ones again. We have been enduring the pain of social and political questioning. It feels like time either runs ahead, or slows to a halt. I find myself asking how we got to the end of 2020 so quickly, and then complaining that it will never end! I remarked to a friend over the phone last week that, in a way, the pandemic has left us all displaced. We are wayfaring strangers navigating a new world. Everything feels…different, and I am impatient! I don’t feel like quietly waiting for Jesus to come.
I admit that it has crossed my mind that this is the Apocalypse; I know I’m not alone in this, because a quick internet search reveals dozens of article titles ranging from: “The Four Horsemen of the Viral Apocalypse” to, inexplicably, “The Zombie Apocalypse and Covid-19”.
Epidemiologists predicted that this would be an “Apocalyptic Fall,” and it seems that it has turned out that way. If even the scientists are saying it, maybe something is broken. Maybe it really is the end?
It is within this dizziness and disorientation – and frankly, terror – that we read today’s Gospel reading.
This passage in Mark does not sound like the quaint and quiet Advent I’m used to. I’m not accustomed to singing Advent hymns that go: “in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened.” In fact, this chapter is called “The Little Apocalypse.” Linked to the Book of Revelation, it is full of mysterious declarations and disturbing images. Many centuries of Christians have puzzled over these apocalyptic stories, trying to search it for clues. But we’re often left with more questions than answers.
The more I sit with the text, the less I feel inclined to even look for straightforward answers. I am too disturbed, disoriented, and exhausted to make sense of it.
So what do we do with that?
The word apocalypse means an uncovering or revealing, so the question that really needs answering is: what is it revealing? Thanks in part to the fact that I’ve been taking a class on Revelation this semester, I have a few ideas.
First, apocalypse intentionally disrupts our sense of time. This chapter in Mark includes a half a dozen references to Old Testament prophecies while simultaneously telling us that it’s actually about the future. It removes us from the stable ground of the present. Instead, we are pushed back and forth from the strange and foreboding past to the shocking and uncertain future, like time travelers in a dysfunctional time machine.
Apocalypse also disturbs our self-perception. It makes us take a good hard look at ourselves and those around us, to see everything with new perspective. It also makes us ask if we’re ready for Jesus to come to earth. Like children assessing the play room before their parent comes in, we wonder if we have time to clean up the messes we’ve made.
Finally, apocalypse gives voice to suffering. That’s why some scholars call it the “literature of the dispossessed.” What they mean is that people who write and tell such wild, mysterious, and horrifying stories are trying to find ways to say something true about their grief and struggle. Vietnam veteran, Tim O’Brien, writes about this in his essay entitled, How to Tell a True War Story, saying, “when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.”
Like a war story, apocalypse is disorienting and disturbing precisely because it mirrors the turmoil in our world. It compels every reader and listener to enter in to the story of chaos and brokenness.
So, it seems that apocalypse pushes our senses to the edge. In this way, what it reveals or uncovers for us is the truth of the world as it really is. We know this world well, because we live in it. Rather than be terrified by its mysteries, apocalypse is reaching out and telling us, “I see what you’re going through and I understand it.” And we are meant to be left feeling that we aren’t wayfaring strangers. Instead, we are slightly bumbling, regular humans on an admittedly scary journey that Jesus shares with us.
So why read apocalypse during Advent? Perhaps, because the season of Advent disorients us, too. We exist in a spiritual story in which Mary is still pregnant and yet Jesus has died. In which we wait for Jesus to come, and also come again. In which Jesus is alive and speaking, even though he’s not yet born. This time-warp can feel disturbing, but it reveals to us something true.
It reveals to us that even in death, we can hope. Even in wandering, we are held steady on the path. And even in chaos, we can see the light of Jesus entering in. Maybe today’s Gospel reminds us to “Keep awake” because once we knowingly enter this apocalyptic way of thinking, we’re simply too excited to fall asleep. Everything is different, and we are right to be impatient. Jesus is coming, and, if I may be so bold, it’s about darn time.