A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
[Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37]
The season of Advent has begun; and truth to tell, it is my favorite liturgical time of our worshipping year. I say this for a few reasons. One reason (offered to you in the form of a confession) is that there is in me a counter-cultural resistor who protests against the frantic idolatry that something purchased (especially at a discount!) can save us from our aggravating limitations and make our lives all better. And since I am making confession to you, while my resistance does stem from a faithful awareness, I also know that my Advent stance risks being arrogant and prideful, unsullied by all the common blindness. I also must confess sheepishly that I am surely not immune to the tug of buying something or receiving something that on its surface promises to fill in the gaps of my life. Lord, have mercy on me!
Yet, there is a deeper reason for my affection for and need of Advent. Advent describes in no uncertain terms the reality of our lives as members of the Jesus Movement. This is to say that Advent identifies where you and I are now in terms of seeing ourselves and the world within the faith story. What I mean by this is that you and I “live and move and have our being” “in-between” times – “in between” the bookending events of Christ’ resurrection and his ultimate return when the Holy One will be “all in all”.
This experience of being “in-between” is the context in which we follow Jesus, proclaiming him as Savior, and hoping to become like him. And in spite of everything else that crowds this focus out, I believe that this is the fundamental and piercing essence of Advent. You may then ask about how Christmas fits into all this “in-between - ness”. My response is that you’ll have to wait a few weeks for that answer. There are other issues at hand.
The formal theological way of expressing Advent life lies within the phrase “already but not yet”. You and I live in this “in-between” time, a fact that we acknowledge in every Eucharistic worship we share. Acting like some sort of cosmic GPS, the words of the “Memorial Acclamation”1 locate precisely where we are in terms of our life with God. Eucharistic Prayer B (the Communion prayer we will use from today until Lent) puts it this way:
We remember his death,
We proclaim his resurrection,
We await his coming in glory.2
Can’t you just hear Advent’s GPS voice declaring, “You have NOT arrived at your destination!” Because it’s Advent. An image I have for Advent is to see this four-week season in terms of a funnel – a funnel with four stages that narrow in succession. The first stage of Advent opens its wide funneling mouth to the world -- to us, bidding us “Come”. Of course, “come” is what the word “advent” means. The second stage of Advent arrives in and through the unvarnished figure of John the Baptist and his challenging warnings and encouragement. The third stage further refines our Advent experience, noting the joy and hope of recognizing this “already but not yet”, a stage that our Advent wreaths will mark with the illumination of the rose candle. And finally, the last stage of Advent’s funneling is the example of Mary, saying “yes” to God’s invitation to bear the Christ in the world and, thereby, to unleash the radical reality of Incarnation, that is, Emmanuel: God with us: Christmas. Consider these remarks and this funnel image as “Coming Attractions” for the next month’s time. But for today, I want to speak a bit more about this season’s first stage, the large and open end of Advent’s funnel. In today’s gospel lesson, you heard about it and undoubtedly have some strong feelings as a result. On the surface today‘s gospel does not sound very inviting; does it? For many of us, perhaps for most of us, the expression of this first stage is a stumbling block to Advent and, thereby, to our larger understanding of what the entire Jesus Movement is about. What I’m specifically talking about is the 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel, the source of today’s gospel lesson. The lesson seems to reverberate with fire and brimstone; but that is a misleading focus. Mark’s 13th chapter is often referred to as his “Little Apocalypse”. Perhaps, at its reading, you allowed yourself to hear a bit of it before the temptation to mute its frightening sound came upon you. Aside from the fact that this gospel lesson is hard to hear and hard to make accurate sense of, of course it can’t compete with the lure of “Black Friday” and indulging the sweet urge to “deck the halls”. Yet, this is precisely where our problem lies and where the crucial Advent point often gets missed. While we may immediately hear Jesus speaking about the end of time and its imminence, that is not what is going on. Let me tag what I have just said with some academic sounding language, language and a perspective that is necessary to all of us who desire to take the faith and Advent’s place in it seriously. The 13th chapter of Mark is “apocalyptic” in its form and message. The word “apocalypse” (which is definitely a winner in “Scrabble”) means “unveiling”. And here is the point: Apocalypse is not about “the end” of space time reality. Mixing both terms up causes a great deal of confusion and a great deal of distorting distraction. Think of apocalyptic as a prophetic MRI: “prophetic” having to do with what God is doing NOW. With words and pictures, “apocalyptic” expresses the depths of what God sees in a current situation. As I say, what is expressed apocalyptically in scripture is quite different from what is an expression of “the end of space/time reality”. The word for studying and reflecting on “the end time” provides another great “Scrabble” word. It is “eschatology”; and the “eschaton” is that moment of the “end time”. At the risk of sounding too technical, again my point here is that the apocalyptic is not the same as the eschatological. The “unveiling” MRI is not the same as the ultimate consequence of what is pictured. Yes, the two terms and the reality they reflect are most certainly related, but (for instance) what Jesus was saying in this part of Mark’s gospel was not meant to drive the faithful into the streets, wearing sandwich boards with the warning, “Repent: The End Is Near”. Not at all. There is something else going on that Jesus wants recognized; and in a very real sense I think if any sandwich board were to be needed, Jesus would be wearing it, and its message would be “Heads up! The Beginning Is Near.” But as with a woman in labor, new life ain’t all fun and games. New life involves painful transitions and change. Let me put this point another way. Heaven (that is, life completely on God’s terms) is not an escape plan, where the “good guys” are scooped up by Jesus and finally brought to a safe place! Rather, life on God’s terms is the fulfilled covenanted promise of life - perfected, completed, where God is “all in all”. It is in this vein that we need to hear and sing the old gospel hymn with its pertinent refrain: “People get ready, there’s a train a’comin’”… and yet, with Robert Frost remember that “We have miles and miles to go before we sleep.” So, stay awake! The harsh sounding predictions that Mark presents from Jesus’ mouth are certainly meant to be taken seriously, but Jesus is speaking apocalyptically about a specific event that his generation will unavoidably face. Jesus uses traditional prophet, cataclysmic language to indicate a most serious situation, specifically for God’s people. His words are meant as a stunning MRI, revealing the doomed trajectory of those who rely on the familiarity of their own traditions to the exclusion of seizing upon Jesus’ own judgement and presence. Yes, indeed, there was a train a’comin, and it had to do with the imminent destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans. What Jesus’ MRI reveals is the reactive arrogance of folks who use God and the covenant tradition to reconfirm and justify themselves and what they do in God’s Name. Using their sense of tribe to shape the call of God rather than using God’s call to shape the life of the tribe, Jesus implies that this convenient and oft-used form of idolatry will lead to utter destruction – in this case, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and all it represented. In a very real sense, this apocalyptic insight does speak to an “end”; but it is not an end of all life. It is, however, the end of the life the “religious” people and those in power thought was in their control and with which they were comfortably familiar. In a few verses just previous to this day’s gospel, Jesus says as much. In verses 5-7, Jesus sets the proper MRI perspective. He calmly says: …take heed that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet. As I alluded to a moment ago, the end of the Jerusalem Temple came in 70 C.E. (the Common Era). At that time the disease that Jesus’ MRI “unveiled” came home to roost. Like a cancer diagnosis that was ignored, Rome surrounded Jerusalem and crushed any and all pretense of God’s people banking on their Hebrew birthright to the exclusion of taking on a Godly calling, a calling that Jesus embodied. As an aside, I can’t help but wonder to what degree and element that MRI of the Jerusalem Temple recounts something of what is going on now in Gaza. Wars are real, dangerous, and costly. The changes they create speak to the frightening “unveiling” that the lives we have created for ourselves and the fear with which we seek to guard them will all end, amidst a great gnashing of teeth. To this end, Walter Bruggemann, noted Old Testament scholar, teacher, and prophetic voice in our time, writes of this apocalyptic MRI and its current unveiling. He says: The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you by the grace of God. Bad news? Good news? Jesus’ response is, from the fig tree learn its lesson…3 I submit to you that we are called to be God’s fig trees, bearing fruit even in the midst of all the endings that we fear . And let’s be honest, if this work of “fruitfulness-no-matter-what” were easy, more of us would be embodying it now. But as Jesus also says, it is a matter of waking up and staying awake. Blooms and fruit take time and attention; and we wouldn’t want to miss new life’s emergence. So, “keep awake!”. It is our “in-between” time job in following Jesus. And remember: Jesus also said this same thing to his followers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Stay awake! Now it is our turn to take the watch for new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Originally from a Greek poem written around 600-700 B.C. by Epimenides, offered to Zeus in worship, adopted and used by St. Paul in the Areopagus in Athens[Acts 17:28]. 2. Book of Common Prayer. p. 368 3. Mark 13:28