Years ago, Prince of Peace was working on a long-range plan. It was an attempt to look into the future and figure out where were going and how we were going to get there.
A lot of people were involved in the process, including Steve Plewes, who was a financial planner. And as we moved along in our long range planning process, Steve was fond of using an expression that he often used with people in financial planning:
"You can't get there from here. But you can get here from there."
And what he meant by that was that you can't figure out a plan for now unless you have an idea of what the future looks like. You can't figure out what you need to do now unless you know what you want to accomplish. Indeed, you can't figure out who you have to be now, if you don't have a vision of who you want to be in the future.
So often, our natural inclination is to focus on the here and now. But every once in a while, we've got to stop and figure out where "there" is. Because whether it's financial planning, long range church planning, or our own spiritual growth, we can't get there from here. But we can get here from there.
And that's why, counter-intuitively, the season of Advent always begins not with the beginning of the Gospel, but with the end. Today's Gospel reading starts us out by reading the very last part of Mark's Gospel before the passion narrative. These are the last words Jesus says before he enters Jerusalem to die.
And Jesus speaks of the last days: "Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the 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."
It's Jesus way of saying, "this is where 'there' is." The end of all of this is that you belong to God. You will be gathered from wherever you are, and whatever has happened. And you'll be with God forever. Nothing and nobody can separate you from the peace and love of God.
And if that's where "there" is, it changes who we are and how we're called to live here and now. And that's why we begin Advent with "there." "There" gives us a vision of what "here" is supposed to be. And because of the vision of "there", "here" is supposed to be filled with:
- A sense of transcendence in the midst of all the mess that so often makes us crazy in the here and now. It's so easy to get caught up in the crisis du jour, that we lose perspective. Sometimes, these "apocalyptic" images of "there" talk about wars, famines, earthquakes - scary stuff that still makes us scared today. But the point is not to scare us, but to remind us that none of this stuff ultimately has the final word. None of the evil of the world is ultimately lasting. God's love and plan for our salvation is lasting, and that's suppose to change how we look at and face difficult realities in our lives here and now...
- Purpose - if "there" is the fullness of God's love and peace, then rather than sit around and wait for it, we're called to be people who give the world a taste of it here and now, without kidding ourselves into believing we can change the world. Nothing "there" suggests that faithful Christians can ultimately do what only God can do, but we can bear witness to it here and now by the way we purposely live as citizens of God's kingdom here in our daily lives...
- Hope - over the last few weeks, and for a few more, we'll hear lots more of "apocalyptic" writings like today's Gospel reading, which are often filled with scenes of judgment and scary images. To really understand the purpose of these writings, though, you have to read them as someone whose life and future seems so bad that, together with Isaiah in today's first reading, you're willing to say, "God, just come down and burn the whole place up." It's into that context that the vision of "there" says, "you're not forgotten, you're not left out, and no matter how bad things are or how bad things get, God has a better future for you and for the world." The message of apocalyptic is always, "God wins." That's it. And when we're confident that God wins, we have real reason to hope. Hope isn't wishful thinking, but real confidence in what doesn't seem possible right now. And that kind of hope changes who were are here and now...
The other great thing about "there" is that it isn't our job to get ourselves "there." In the vision of "there", God or his angels make sure that we get to be where God wants us to be. We don't get "there" by our own strength, wisdom or perseverance.
So our only job is to get "here" from there. And we give ourselves and the world around us a taste of "there" whenever we make "here" different. And "here" is different for us and for those around us when we have a sense of perspective and transcendence in the midst of evil and chaos. "Here" is different for us and for those around us when we live with a sense of purpose inspired by "there". And "here" is different for us and for those around us when we live with the real and living hope that "here" is not the end.