November 11, 2012
Mark 13:1-8, 32-3
You might have noticed in recent weeks the members of our choir have been leaving Rockwood Hall during our coffee hour and coming back up here to rehearse the music for their annual December Choir Sunday offering. They will present this during worship on Sunday, December 9, and I encourage all of you to come and bring a friend or two with you for what is always an inspiring morning. This year the choir will sing Wachet auf, “wake and watch.”
The message of this Advent music is the same message that Jesus gives to his followers in this morning’s Gospel lesson.
Wake and watch.
Jesus, of course, gives this advice to those who want to know the future—specifically, when the end of this current age will arrive. Last year we lived through two dates that a radio preacher assured us would mark the end. Now we’re moving rapidly toward December 21, what some would have us believe is the end of the world according to an ancient Mayan calendar. And of course, there were some in both political parties who were pretty sure the world would end if their candidate was not elected.
But here we all are—still standing.
Still hearing the words of Jesus: “Keep awake.”
Sometimes I can be a pretty gloomy person. So you’d think that the scripture lessons we heard this morning would be some of my favorites. They speak of anguish and despair.
The thirteenth chapter of Mark, with its predictions of earthquakes and famines, of wars and persecutions, is often called the “little apocalypse.” Apocalypse, as you know, means “revelation.” It is, in a sense, a literary lifting of the curtain of time so that we can see what’s coming our way. In apocalyptic literature, we enter the realm of the symbolic rather than the literal—a world revealed to us in signs and visions rather than in photojournalism.
It's said that “apocalyptic has a wild sound to it: an end-of-the-world craziness; a catastrophic urgency. The word is used when history seems out of control and ordinary life is hopeless. When you aren't sure whether it is bombs or stars that are falling out of the sky, and people are rushing toward the cliffs like a herd of pigs, the scene is ‘apocalyptic.’ The word is scary and unsettling.”
Now, I would admit that there are times when the world can seem out of control and ordinary life can seem hopeless. The scripture lessons that we heard this morning can sound extremely pessimistic. They grow out of a sense that this world is beyond redemption and that only its complete destruction and the recreating of the whole scheme of things will be sufficient.
Yes, I know, I’m gloomy.
But what I like most about these texts is that they are so filled with hope.
If we listen long enough and closely enough, we begin to hear an astounding optimism: a message that grows out of an unshakable sense that God will indeed redeem not just us but the whole creation.
This peculiar combination of great pessimism and great optimism underlies the deep hope that we have as Christians. The world would have us choose—is the glass half empty or half full? Are you a gloomy, if easily deceived, pessimist or a cheerful, if naïve, optimist? Our Christian faith tells us that the glass, the water, and those who look at it and make judgements about it—along with all of creation—are held in the care of a loving God.
Christians are people of hope. Our peculiar symbol is the cross—an instrument of death—that seen through the eyes of faith tells of hope. One person put it like this: “The cross tells us that nothing is ever beyond hope, that after pain comes healing…And how do we engender hope in others? By living as Jesus lived his life and as he taught us: by feeding and healing, by making peace and loving God and all of God’s creation.”
We recognize that, theologically speaking, the world is, in the words insurance agents use to designate our wrecked cars, totaled. It is so deeply wrong that repair work is futile.
So when we in the church feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, provide medical care around the world, we act not simply to repair but to announce something new: the old ways are shattered beyond fixing. In Jesus Christ the creator God has broken into the creation to begin something new.
The difficulty is that sometimes it's hard to tell the death pangs of the old world from the birth pains of the new.
A world of meaning and purpose and value, a world love and hope and faith comes slowly—but we have the hope that this world has already begun.
Here and there we catch a glimpse of it, often at the strangest times: when you embrace a loved one; when striving for quality, you loose yourself in your work; when you kiss your child goodnight; when you say “enough’ to the violence that plagues us; when you refuse to succumb to the toxic hatred that is buried so deeply in each of us. I think we saw it this past week when the people of Iowa decided not to go along with religious demagogues and voted to retain a Supreme Court judge who had voted to extend the right to marry to all citizens of this state.
A few days before he will be arrested, Jesus is in Jerusalem. As he leaves the temple, one of his disciples comments on the size, the magnificence, the beauty of the buildings. "Hey Rabbi, look at all of this. Pretty neat, huh?"
Jesus looks around and says: “You see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; they will all be thrown down.”
Well, so much for the Jesus whose soothing words comfort us and reassure us that everything is going to be all right. But again, the message of Jesus was always more about hope than about comfort.
When Peter, James, John, and Andrew—four disciples who never seem to catch on to what Jesus is all about—hear what Jesus said, they sneak away and ask Jesus privately: “When will this happen? What signs should we be looking for?”
They want the inside track. They want to know what’s next.
So Jesus says when you feel like everything is falling apart, don’t be surprised. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. . . .there will be earthquakes in many places; there will be famines. . .” and there will certainly be false messiahs offering salvation packaged in every way imaginable.
What’s next? As Gilda Radner used to say, “It’s always something.”
And it’s not over yet.
“You don't know,” Jesus says. “I don’t even know.”
We will never be able to so understand God that we can explain everything or be able to arrange the events of the end of time on a timetable. So Jesus leaves us with one small piece of advice: “Keep awake.”
Wake up, open your eyes, and look. There are many wonderful and amazing things to see. The living God continues to work in unexpected ways, at unexpected times, in unexpected places—even now, even among us. Those who are wise will look around and be ready.
The wisdom that we need for our time does not come from a high I.Q. Nor is it the practical wisdom that shows itself in skillful ability. The wisdom that we need is the wisdom all of us might gain when our eyes are open to the future, when we think beyond the immediate present.
Maybe children can help us this time of year. You know how they can look ahead. As soon as Halloween is over, they start thinking about Christmas. And maybe they change their behavior accordingly. As they look to what seems to be the distant future children can help us to wake up.
As adults, we get caught up in the present. I mean, who can think about Christmas when there are leaves that still need to be raked, when we have to finish the plans for getting together with the rest of the family at Thanksgiving?
The urgent rather than the important usually gets our attention.
The present wins out over the future.
What is overshadows what is coming.
I see this happening in lots of congregations lately. When I read the newsletters from various churches. I often get a sinking feeling. It’s as though congregations are so worried about present dwindling resources they can’t see the opportunities that are coming their way. Stewardship—our joyful, thoughtful response to God's generous giving, our wise care of resources entrusted to us—has become in many churches a whiny pleading for spare cash. Discipleship—the ways in which each of us uses our unique gifts and talents for the greater glory of God—has been reduced in many congregations to guilt trips designed to get a few more volunteers.
When we focus on present problems instead of defining and moving toward future possibilities we get tired. The joy of the Christian life diminishes.
How do we keep awake?
Perhaps we could start by remembering we await a great joy.
The realm of God, if we look at it with fresh eyes, is a place of unbounded joy, of dancing and celebrating. And so we need to take the reality of God seriously once more: listen for the music of the approaching party; if you haven't heard it clearly enough, await the good news of God's forgiving love with torches lit; and do this all with an eye on the future, not just the present.
We keep awake by the way we live in relation to others. We can seek right relationships with our neighbors. We can work to establish social structures that help support strong, independent lives rather than make more broken people.
Justice is not an end in itself. We seek justice because it is what God desires. We seek right relationships to be ready on the day of God.
So tell me. What do you do to stay awake? What is it that lets you keep looking ahead? What is the great hope in which you live?
The poet Robert Francis makes this appeal:
Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep to soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road.
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look. Or tell me clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see.
It sounds like a request to a friend. Maybe it's a prayer. Either way it is a commitment to follow the suggestion of Jesus: Keep awake. God has not yet finished working in us and among us.
. Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, pg. 39.
 The Honorable Frederica Brenneman, Connecticut Conference Annual Meeting, 2003.