Advent I – November 30, 2014
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
We enter Advent this Sunday…. a time of preparation…and of waiting for the birth of God who will be coming to us in a most unexpected form… a precious, helpless, hungry child who will spit up and need regular diaper changes just like every other human baby.
As we begin a new liturgical year, with its focus on the Gospel according to Mark, we are not given a warm an fuzzy story, to prepare us for the arrival of “Emmanuel” … of “God with us”…. rather we are given a lesson known as “The Little Apocalypse.” What is that about?
Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
The Gospel according to Mark was written around the year 70 CE, about 40 years after the crucifixion. The early Christians were, at that time, Jewish Christians whose temple was the center of their spiritual universe. Mark was writing right around the time the Roman Empire destroyed the temple. This was not the first destruction of the temple, a temple originally built by King Solomon nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus. This destruction in the year 70 CE rippled in the memory of the people… into past traumas… to the temple’s first destruction 650 years earlier when the Babylonians sacked the city, demolished the temple, and sent the people of God into a 40-year exile during which they wept by the waters of Babylon. Experiences of pain and trauma rippled from past experiences of loss and exile in Babylon into the present disaster. After the return from Babylonian captivity the prophet Isaiah was writing from his raw experience. One can imagine, having returned to Jerusalem… after decades of yearning form home, to arrive… and wander a landscape of desolation and ruin. Isaiah wrote:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and fire causes water to boil
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
That was Isaiah. Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” was written at another time of great tribulation. The word “apocalypse” means “to lift the veil away”.. to reveal…In the Bible there are three books that are fully identified as apocalyptic: Ezekiel and Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, and the newest book of our New Testament canon, the book of “Revelation” – which means to re-veal or expose, to pull back the veil…to make clearer … Apocalyptic literature is not a script of what exactly will happen in the future…. It is written after or during a present situation of great hardship and travail… It talks about what was has, or is currently happening… to give hope for the future.
The book of Revelation was written at the end of the first century during emperor Nero’s deathly persecution of early Christians. The author of the book of Revelation is believed to be John of Patmos, also known as St. John the Divine… not John the Baptist or St. John the Evangelist of the Gospel of John. Apocalyptic literature is not meant to provide a script and full clairvoyant setting for the future… it is meant to give strength and hope that a better future is laboring to be born.
It is no wonder that during our times of increasing change, hardship and groaning… that voices of the great “Rapture” are rising up… I can only imagine that this is happening as a means of finding some comfort, thinking that “others” will not “make it”… that others will be left behind… in order to gain some sense of structure or control amidst an overwhelming sense of chaos… comfort in belief in a divine “plan” to alleviate a deep sense of fear and vulnerability. My mind then goes to the cartoons and jokes about the prophet carrying a sign saying “The End is Near!” How many of these have we seen them?
A joke that I particularly enjoy on the topic is:
A priest and pastor from the local parishes are standing by the side of the road holding up a sign that reads, “The End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it’s too late!”
They planned to hold up the sign to each passing car.
“Leave us alone you religious nuts!” yelled the first driver as he sped by.
From around the curve they heard screeching tires and a big splash.
“Do you think,” said one clergy to the other, “we should just put up a sign that says ‘Bridge Out’ instead?”
But maybe we are missing the point about the end of it all… Such images and fears have been with us for centuries. The particular so-called popular Christian variety of an immanent rapture, during which unbelievers will be left behind, originated as recently as the 19th century. Before that, apocalyptic revelations were messages of hope… hope that what is so very hard now will pass away. There is hope for a fresh start… hope in new possibilities amidst the trauma we, in our time, are experiencing … violence, war, racism, the pain of recent events in Ferguson, the intensification of climate change… Amidst this time of tribulation we do not need to fall into despair that our destiny is “the end” full stop…God is calling forth a new way, a new creation, and we are being called to “wake up!” from complacency and to be nudged out of paralyzing fear… because there is another way…. and paradoxically… a little child is going to show us the way.
A English professor gave an assignment to his class of freshmen. The assignment was to write a five-page autobiography. The professor was particularly struck with one of the essays that started with the sentence: “Last year, I awoke from a coma that had lasted for 18 years. The coma was called ‘my life.’” [The professor wrote] From my vantage point of years it is hard to imagine that childhood and youth could be viewed as a “coma” yet [the student’s] awakening brought him to a new place.
The student went on to say… how he had:
“fallen into the hands of a spectacularly gifted teacher who got in my face, grabbed me by the neck, shook me up and down, and made me take, for the first time in my life, an honest look at my life.”
Sometimes it is simply life’s pain and hard lessons that grabs us and shakes us from our stupors, inviting us to look with fresh eyes at what has been, what is, and what could be… and once we are shaken awake we will never be the same. We are being called to wake up to our lives and to re-engage with one another and with the world.
Advent… is a time of preparation, and awakening, ….a time to open our eyes and our hearts to see our friends, and neighbors, and our world in a new light as we all struggle to find hope in these times of confusion, uncertainty and growing darkness… a time to recognize the little apocalypses in our own lives as we struggle to make ends meet, or to care for a loved one, to find some simple rest amidst life’s labors and the pain of loss. In this Advent – may the truth of our present situation… of our little apocalypses…. help pull back the veil that we may wake up from our stupors and know the hope that is laboring to be born in our hearts, in our world, and in our faith… The religion of Christianity, the religion of at whose center is the living Christ… is a religion ideally drawn into being by God but prone to very human flaws and failing. Our God calls the whole of our being, the whole of our institutions, into a new birth.
I would like to close from some words of John Philip Newell who is a past leader of the Iona Community in Scotland and an author whose most recent book, “The Rebirthing of God,” will be read by the Women’s Spiritual Growth Group here at St. Paul’s sometime in the new year. He says of our faith:
In this uncertain time, there are signs of what a reawakened Christianity might look like. Whether they come as if from a dream within our household’s slumber or from an even deeper place, from the realm of death where the only thing to do is let go into the Mystery from whom we have come, there is a new vision emerging, And in it we can trace the features of a reborn Christianity. We can see that there will be a reconnecting to the earth, a reclaiming of compassion, a revision of Light, a recommitment to the shared journey of faiths, a discovery of spiritual practice, a rededication to nonviolence, a reentering of the unconscious, and a reuniting with love. “You must be born anew,” says Jesus. It is the coming forth again of what is deepest in us. It is the rebirthing of God.
My our little apocalypses speak to us of what is, and give us hope for what is to come… And may this time of waiting and preparation… this time of Advent… be one of depth and meaning… I pray you a most blessed Advent…
In an interfaith world more modern terms are being used to refer the calendar. CE = “Common Era.” Older notation would be AD “Anno Domini” – “The Year of Our Lord.” You will see the newer term “CE” being used more often, especially in museums.
 Source unkown.
 John Philip Newell, John Philip Newell, The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, Woodstock, VT: SkylightPathos Pub., 2014, pg. 124.