Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
It’s the Hap-Happiest Season of All…there’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for roasting and caroling out in the snow……It is a happy time of the year, I most heartily agree! The cherished ornaments given to me over the years, and ones I’ve made or purchased, all have memories connected with them. Each has a story, and so as we begin to decorate our home, there is a warm connection to past Christmases and an undeniable sense of love and of getting ready for an important event that involves dear people, food, music, and time together. Given all of this, why do we begin our Advent gospel readings with this piece from Mark, that features Jesus talking about darkened sun and suffering – of, it seems, end times. Advent is not Christmas, my friends.
Each of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, have defining characteristics. As we begin this new year, with the first Sunday in Advent in year B, we hear Mark – whom we will hear all year and his focus on discipleship, especially in difficult times. Struggle is a noticeable motif for Mark and he often promotes, for us, the listener, a new way of perceiving reality. For this liturgical year, therefore, one of the gospel themes will be an urgency to promote this new way of perceiving what is happening in the world. Mark uses apocalyptic stories in which he tries to expose falsehoods while revealing Jesus’ invasive new order. For Mark, the life of faith is no picnic – or “hap, happiest” life of all. We heard today and will hear this year, themes of apocalyptic nature. This life of discipleship, says Mark, is not something we can become complacent about. It is serious and hard work which demands on-going vigilance…especially in difficult times.
But what about this word “apocalypse”? We Anglicans sort of scoff at the notion of being taken up at the last days, don’t we? We tend to think that that sort of belief is not for us. But the word, in ancient Greek, apokalypsis, literally means “an uncovering or a disclosure of knowledge or a revelation.” In a religious sense, it usually means something hidden, or a vision that makes earthly realities make sense, and for the gospel writers, especially Mark, that revelation is found in the coming of, and the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
For Mark, Jesus was God’s incursion into a troubled world. Jesus came to bring a vision of a different reign. Faith, Mark cautioned, is not just a matter of mastering doctrine. It is the desperation, urgency and tenacity that manifest themselves in people who behold the well-being and divine blessing Jesus brings and live their lives based on it. Jesus brings that sense to the whole world both as an infant and in the second coming, for which we continue to wait. But, perhaps, in our day-to-day life, the reality of Jesus’ presence in a world of division and hunger and violence is lost to us. Jesus’ presence can and will make the reality of our earthly life make sense, if we are open to that revelation…but sometimes we are lost to it.
On Thursday, I attended our Diocesan Council meeting at D-House in Seattle. The twenty-member council always begin the meetings with a Bible study, and this meeting was no different. We read, several times, this passage from Mark and listened for what it was saying to each of us. Being watchful and staying awake were prominent responses. Then one man said, “I’m having issues this week with my own privilege.” What? He went on to say that the revelation of sexual misconduct in people like Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer and Al Franken were bad enough, but, for him, a Minnesotan, the bitter blow came when Garrison Keiller, almost god-like in Minnesota, was accused. This insightful council member spoke rather passionately about the fact that, in his white-male privilege, he has missed seeing that women all over the place are objects for many men…often good, but powerful men, who have abused the power they hold, made horrid decisions and then acted on them. He had missed, in his life of privilege, that it was even a possibility. He is young enough to not hold the “boys will be boys” argument, but old enough to be a sensitive adult and to know life well. Was he not watchful or aware or observant enough? Did his status of privilege blind him? And his big question he worried, out loud to us ….”Is there any part of their story that is in me, and that I can’t see due to my privilege?” And, he added, “Does the church wrestle with these issues as well?” “What else,” he asked, “am I missing? What else, that’s right in front of me, do I fail to see?”
We, like our ancestors who lived during the time of the writing of Mark, live in difficult times. The notion of the apocalypse that we heard in our gospel lesson today may be for a first gift of Advent…it can be, for us the uncovering of what we are blind to. And in all the struggles of our time, what is it we might fail to see? What part of what’s happening now would we rather not perceive? That may be our Advent focus.
As your priest, your pastor, I want nothing more for you that an Advent filled with as much quiet and contemplation as you can manage. I want you to sit by a fire, with your homes all decorated, reading your favorite book, while sipping cocoa during a snow storm. I want for you joy and peace and quiet. But, I also call you to an Advent of real searching for the uncovering of what Christ’s coming, both as an infant and in the second coming, means to you, and perhaps to us, as a beloved community of Christ… and what it may mean to our world. So, maybe the cocoa sipping in the snowy scene is just not possible. Advent is not Christmas, not even pre-Christmas.
To perceive what we fail to see, an observant perspective is important. Being watchful, and keeping awake to what is happening in the world around us and, yes, contemplating, perhaps, what we might fail to see. Listening to the story of God’s people in scripture, who also lived during difficult times, and knowing how they wrestled with a life lived in faith is part of gaining perspective as well. What will living faithfully during difficult times mean for us? What will be revealed to us in Advent? It may be a surprise…as it was for my friend on council…. Because, Advent calls us to the undeniable fact that nothing much ever turns out as we plan it….perhaps because, in our blindness, we fail to see the reality of what is happening.
Take something as simple as a race and the human capacity to endure…or to plan to endure. The Rev. Anna Tew, in this week’s Sermons that Work, recounted a documentary called The Barkely Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young, and she described a 100+ mile endurance race run over 60 hours in the Tennessee mountains. It includes five loops of 20 miles, though the participants often remark that each loop is actually closer to a marathon, or 26 miles. This endurance-eating race is about 1/3 on trails, and 2/3 off trails, and runners often get lost. The loop goes over the mountains and through huge briars, and over the course of the race, runners gain and lose 60,000 feet of elevation, for a total of 120,000 feet of elevation change. To complete the race takes five loops, and almost nobody completes the race…though certainly all plan to. If they sleep at all, it’s for only an hour or two, over the course of that 60 hours. On top of that, the race is more difficult given that the start time is soft. Runners must turn up at a certain day and time, but the race start varies according to the whims of the race director. A conch shell being blown – anytime within the “gathering” 12 hours - indicates that the race will start within an hour…This could be anytime between midnight and noon. Sometimes the race starts in the dark, sometimes not. The race director is quoted to say, “People who have trouble with any of the various last minute or informal race details are not going to do well on the course because, no matter what, the race is not going to happen the way you planned it.”
Rev. Tew commented on the race’s connection with Advent. Keep awake, be alert, and remember: this, readying ourselves for the coming of Jesus is going to be difficult. Nothing’s going to happen the way we planned it, so be watchful and observant, release your sense that it must happen a certain way, and look for God’s revelations….particularly during times of trouble. What God reveals to us is often not what we plan.
The coming of Christmas, one of the happiest seasons of all, brings up in us a sense of longing and urgency and the desire to work hard to ready ourselves for this holiday that is coming whether we are ready or not. And while we stress over the coming Christmas, Advent calls us to prepare for something much larger. Advent calls us to pay attention to life around us, to be watchful, awake and observant to a world, even as it is wracked with suffering, violence and hunger.
Mark described a story of the sun being darkened and the stars falling from heaven, of a scene of the end times. Our ancestors called out for a Savior, and we, in the church, wait for the return of one. Our ancestors wondered if things might be as they were forever…and I suspect we do too. But especially during Advent, we look more deeply into what is the reality of life around us, of what is being revealed…and so, in the darkest part of the year, do keep awake, and be observant. Advent’s message is one of urgency, but also of hope because Advent’s call reminds us that though the night is long and difficult, the dawn is coming – and with hope and joy. And for that, we give thanks.