Our theme for Advent is Those Who Dream, inspired by the the opening line of Psalm 126, “When the Lord restored the Fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”
24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 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.
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Let us pray: O God uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen
The lectionary text in the Gospel of Mark scholars call Mark’s Little Apocalypse. That dulcet designation has always made me chuckle a bit. As if we would ever sing, “Have yourself a Merry Little Apocalypse.” This text springs out on the First Sunday of Advent. For those who want a warm cup of tea, Bing Crosby morning, this text comes as a jarring surprise. It’s more like a cue attributed to epic movie director, Sam Goldwyn, “We want a story that starts with an earthquake then works its way up toward a climax.”
Commentaries written in festive, bustling years – such as 2011 – go to great pains to explain to readers that Mark’s Gospel was likely written in a very difficult year. Imagine a difficult year, they say. Imagine Mark writing in 70 AD after a year-long siege of Jerusalem. Imagine that siege ending with the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem, the loss of many thousands of people and nowhere for the people of God to gather. Imagine, imagine, commentators write, a year that defined history so starkly that you can tell in an instant whether something was written before or after. Imagine, they write, imagine that while the siege was going on, instead of banding together to defeat a common enemy, the people of faith turned on each other, and then, and then – in this case, the Romans wiped them out. Imagine. Imagine a scattered and grieving community, the loss of religious rituals to support that loss, the loss of songs to carry the loss. Imagine what people thought was the loss of their whole story.
In Advent years before, say, 2020, it might have taken some explaining as to why Mark’s gospel would have to remind people that God’s story ends with resplendent, cloud-breaking wholeness, why Mark would grab people by the lapel and fix their eyes on God’s cosmic completion, why Mark would rub people’s back with the truth that time, time was never really in our hands, it has always been in God’s hands. Some years we have to be coaxed away from a sense of our own power, teased out of busyness, dissuaded of our invincibility. But for many of us, Covid changed that. That year the virus laid siege to us, upended our sanctuaries and unveiled some tragic ruptures in our country. And since then, under the fog of new wars and shootings and wildfires, we have walked through what I’d call “ambient grief.” This is grief from the loss of dear people in our lives. But beyond that, I am also hearing people describe the loss of joy, the loss of faith in religion and institutions and our country and humanity itself. The loss of a planet. The loss of our story. So, I suspect this Advent is more like the one in 70 AD than we realized. We are hungry for a savior… not a political savior, not a medical savior, but a savior beyond ourselves who can fill our souls with the awe and praise we’ve almost forgotten are possible.
This section of Mark is a particular literary genre called apocalyptic literature. This kind of writing also characterizes the book of Daniel and Revelation. It’s often written during the most anxious chapters of history and rarely makes it onto your Christmas cards. But perhaps you’d be surprised to learn that the word apocalypse doesn’t mean doomsday or hellfire. It means unveiling, revealing, unfolding. It means showing you what was always there. It means finally seeing what you cannot unsee. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Anxious times unveil a lot of what was already there before, but now you know. Hard times reveal something that was true before, but now you have to decide something. Hard times awaken you to something that maybe you’d dozed through before but now you are red-eye alert to them. It’s the spiritual rolling back of the rug so that you can see life as it actually is and participate with God in a bigger dream.
Like it or not, it is often the heartbreaking chapters of our lives, those times when like John O’Donohue says “we lay low to the wall,” it is often then that we see most clearly who we really are and who God really is.
Julian of Norwich is thought to have written the oldest surviving book written by a woman in English. She lived through the 100 years war between France and England, the pandemic known as the black death and the subsequent peasants’ revolt of the mid 1300s. She herself fell ill and nearly died. Suffering was everywhere. Ambient grief. Because of that, I suspect, many in her day saw God as punishing and wrathful. But Julian experienced God as a mighty love … that pursues us into every nook and tear-soaked cranny of our lives and is made known to us there. Nothing made this more clear to her than the person of Jesus himself, who did not hover above the fray, but entered our suffering and pulled back to veil to reveal the beating heart of God in complete solidarity with us. From the worst of times, she wrote this beloved prayer, “And all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
We like to blame the last few years for punishing us, like some alien invasion, but it is showing us, revealing to us, what was already there and can no longer be avoided. Division and racial pain and our impatience in this country have been there. Frailty and illness and death have been there. The last few years have given us an opportunity to talk about this honestly. And then we get to see what also has been there, such as the beauty of the slower, more subtle things in life. Like humility and determination. Like forgiveness and old-growth relationships such as the ones found in this church. Like real conversations. Like a relationship with God that cannot be manufactured. I remember the exact moment I realized you can make sourdough bread without store bought yeast. When I learned that leavening agents were all around us and had always been, though I never realized it. Through these hard years, I believe God has been building in us the small steadying muscles of trust in a savior who has always been hyperlocal, Immanuel, God with us. Not way out there, but right here.
One of the regular attenders of Sunday Morning Scriptures likes to talk about apocalyptic texts in the Bible, and said, “You know, we think apocalyptic texts are strange but I think there are probably many little apocalypses in life, times when God is unveiled to us.”
How true that is. Here’s a big one that stands out for me. In March of 2020, my Mom was in Duke Hospital battling cancer. Hospitals were rumbling in the final days before the siege of coronavirus began. But in a quiet room on the 9th floor, we received the news. The news from Mom’s oncologist that sadly the best of their chemo options had been overrun by cancer. The oncologist even cried a little bit in telling us this, which I appreciated deeply. She sniffled and shuffled out of the room, bowing to us a bit as she left. As the door clicked closed, I lost it. Then, from her hospital bed, mom put her arms up in that parentheses hug that we all gave each other during the pandemic. All of a sudden, I was 10 years old again and I actually crawled into her hospital bed and cried hard on her scrawny chest. She said, “It’ll be ok. You’ll be ok.” Lying there with my head on her chest, it was like I could almost hear that truth coming to get her, breaking through the clouds and stars with power and glory. We held that moment for what felt like an eternity. The outside world was grinding to a halt with us and we could almost hear the skidding. And then she said, after a labored breath, “Well, at least I won’t have to deal with Christmas decorations this year.” I stopped crying, completely stunned by this adorable and trusting and completely unexpected admission, and she said, “What, too soon?” And then this enormous laughter erupted between us, probably the fullest laughter I have ever felt in my life, laughter that felt like an earthquake from the heart of God, tears flowing like lava but this time also tears of joy. Mom smiled from the midst of our mini-apocalypse on the 9th floor. And that’s all I can think about when I hear: “And all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
What is being revealed to us is not that we are fragile or messed up or awkward or lonely or casually cold or tired to the bone. That has always been so. What is being revealed is the nature of God in Jesus Christ, whose love is powerful enough to bring the whole enterprise of creation to completion, whose love is local enough to show up at every table and bedside, that love waking us up with a chuckle from heaven when we had planned on despair. That love unveiled for you on the cross of Christ, that love revealed in the empty tomb. That love reaching out arms of love to bend the world toward heaven.
Advent hope is built not in cushy times but in lean times and hard times and little apocalyptic times when we are forced to see things as they are. But there, we see God as God is, a baby cry in the stable of Bethlehem, the laughter of a mother who never thought this was possible, and the spirit in starlight saying, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”