St. John's, Centreville
December 3, 2017
1 Advent B
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The story is told of a family of four boys and their parents, who hiked regularly as a family. The brothers would see who could take the lead and hold it the longest, and who was the fastest. Dad kept up with them to make sure everyone stayed on the trail and stayed safe. When they got to the end of the trail, they would wait.....and wait....and wait for Mom to arrive. It was a family rule that no one could eat lunch until the whole family was together. Eventually Mom would arrive, much to everyone's relief, and they would say grace and eat together.
As they were eating, Mom would ask, "Did you see the family of beavers building their house?" "No," they replied. "Where?" "In the lake that we passed a few miles into the hike." "Lake?" they replied. "What lake?" They hadn't even seen the lake in their rush to their destination.
"Did you see the deer and their fawns?" "No," they replied. "We didn't see any deer. Where were they?" "In that big open field we passed a little ways back." In their haste, they missed so much. If they had taken their time, they would have seen a lot more as they hiked the trail.
Advent is a bit like that. As we begin the season of Advent today, some of us are looking toward Christmas like a destination and counting the number of shopping days, making lists of all that needs to be done between now and then, and being so tired that we can't enjoy the season we are in.
Advent is a time to slow down, a time for reflection, a time for looking at one's relationship with God. And that is so counter-cultural. All we hear on TV is how we need to rush here or hurry there to get the best discount on what we think so and so might like for Christmas. Our culture tells us to hurry up, not slow down. And when we live like that, we miss Advent all together. The journey can be just as important as the destination.
In our gospel lesson from Mark, Jesus tells us to keep alert, to stay awake. He is talking about the Second Coming, which Jesus thought would come soon. But only God knows the day or the hour. We need to be prepared.
Jesus was not giving the disciples this outline of doom and gloom to scare them. Rather, it was to reassure them and give them hope, that no matter what happened, God would be with them.
The gospel of Mark was written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was in ruins. Nero was killing Christians, and Christians were fighting among themselves. Everything was falling apart, and many thought the end of the world was coming.
The only difference between the time of the writing of Mark's gospel and now is that the characters have changed. Over 300 people are killed in a terrorist attack in a mosque in Egypt. The number of refugees and asylum seekers is the highest it has ever been, due to war and poverty. We are threatened with climate disaster if we don't change our ways of treating the environment. We have lost respect for others, especially those who are different from us, and we seem to have a disregard for the lives of others. These are trying days for our world as it was for the world in which Mark was writing.
But with the season of Advent comes hope and expectation. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." When Jesus comes, the suffering will stop. Wars and hunger and poverty and illness and debt will cease. When Jesus comes again, we will be blessed beyond belief. And that is what people hold on to. This is what keeps people who endure incredible hardships going. That is how they make it from one day to the next. Jesus will come again and set everything right.
In the meantime, our job is to watch and to be ready, to stay alert and pay attention to what is going on around us. According to author Barbara Brown Taylor*, there are three different ways that people wait for the Second Coming of Christ.
The first way is to look for the literal end of the world. Many people have tried to figure out when the end of the world will come, by dissecting the Book of Revelation and reading the signs, or by mathematical calculations. Many have made millions of dollars by writing books explaining when the end of the world will come. But Jesus says, "no one knows the day or the hour except the Father."
The second way is to let our awareness of the end times heighten our commitment to the present. In other words, let's make the best of the lives that God has given us and help and serve those in need. Let us be examples of the lives that Christ wants his followers to lead and love our neighbors as ourselves.
A third way to wait for Christ's return is to see that there is not just one end to the world, just as there is not just one coming of Christ. When Jesus died, the disciples thought the world had ended. When Jerusalem fell and Nero began his killing spree, they thought the world had ended. With the Holocaust, people thought the world was ending. The world can end at any time with a declaration of war, with the death of a child, with a bleak diagnosis. Lots of things can end our world as we know it.
But then into our everyday lives, Advent comes with its startling reminder that God has already come into our midst and God is in the midst of our day to day reality. In Christ, God's kingdom has drawn near and made itself known among us. We are called to wake up and take notice.
Advent reminds us not only that God's kingdom is coming, but that God's kingdom is already here,right here, right now.
We live in the midst of a divine drama that is "already" but "not yet". It is "already" in the sense that God sent Jesus into the world to be born of a woman, an event we celebrate at Christmas. It is "not yet" in the sense that the final judgement awaits us. "Already" Jesus has established the means through which we are drawn into relationship with God. But we do "not yet" live in complete communion with God.
And so we begin another liturgical year of living with our Lord, remembering how God came to us in the past, looking forward to how God will come to us in the future, and celebrating how God comes to us every day of our lives. Amen.
*"Gospel Medicine" by Barbara Brown Taylor, page 136.