PRAYER: Holy God, enter into this space today and bring us to full attention. Remind us that we cannot prepare for your coming if we’re not awake. Enter into our hearts and show us how we can give our full attention with love and compassion. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.
I was looking at a website this week that posts daily newspaper headlines from around the world. I’m sure you won’t be surprised that by and large, the headlines were pretty consistent. Most of them had to do with the Israel / Hamas war and the temporary cease fire that happened this week. Some mentioned the fact that over 14,000 people have been killed since the October 7 invasion.
Still, there were some newspapers that did not lead with international news, some was more localized. In Roanoke, VA, for example, the headline read, “Millionaire Businessman Convicted.” One newspaper in Louisiana had a headline that read, “Firm facing questions over large oil spill off LA Coast.” Another headline I read said, “Insurance Companies Leaving Flooded Businesses ‘In Limbo’”.
There’s not a lot of good news that we see when we look at the headlines of our daily newspapers or watch too much TV news coverage. And there’s a danger we face when we spend too much time looking at headlines like that. We tend to see nothing but violence and vitriol. No matter which news outlets you choose to follow, their bread and butter is found in stoking flames around us. That’s what attracts viewers or readers. Watch any of the major 24/7 news outlets and you’ll see wall to wall coverage of the politics of fear and exclusion.
As we enter the Advent season, we all want – we all hope for peace in the world. Israel and Hamas, Ukraine and Russia. There’s violence in our own communities. Now we have to worry about artificial intelligence and what that means for our world. It all feels very dark. It’s no wonder when we read passages like this from the Gospel of Mark that touch upon apocalyptic imagery, we start to think that we’re coming awfully close. It must be soon. Things are getting dark… very dark.
It causes our fear-level to increase. Maybe we have a fear of our own families not getting along during the Christmas holidays. We worry about the future in so many different ways. And the more we worry, very often, the darker it feels.
This is what the world would have us focus on or be awake to. In Advent we start with “keeping awake” for the hope that Jesus brings. Originally, Advent was a somber season. Its original intent would fit right in with our daily headlines and news coverage. Its liturgical color was purple to mirror Lent. It was a season of fasting, repentance and waiting, not Christmas carols and shiny tinsel and all the stuff we think of today.
In many ways, the Advent season is like a jolt. The news of Jesus’ imminent arrival is invasive and it’s time to think about new and fresh possibilities for our human experience. It is in the spirit of the original tone of Advent that we get the jolting passage we heard today for the first Sunday of Advent.
This passage is often referred to as the “little apocalypse.” We might read this passage and be reminded of scripture like what we read in Revelation or in Daniel 7 through 12. When people hear the word “apocalypse” they may think of the “end of the world,” or those god-awful series of books from the 70s and 80s that tried to convince us that we are in the midst of end-times right now. However, the word “apocalypse” literally means “revelation” and we do not always know what that revelation will look like. Even in this passage, Jesus says, “about that hour or day no one knows.” Advent is about the coming revelation of God into the world and into our lives anew. But even so, when we focus too heavily on the headlines of the day, we can’t help but feel like it’s getting pretty dark out there.
That’s because apocalyptic literature speaks into situations of despair or crisis using imagery that brings the reader from where they are now to somewhere else (perhaps in a combination of literal, metaphorical, and allegorical ways). It may not always point to “the end of the world” but it does point to the end of the world as we know it. In times of despair and crisis, change to the world as we know it can be a source of hope.
We do well to remember that the Gospel according to Mark was written during one of these times, around the time of the destruction of temple in Jerusalem. The writer uses this story to help the early Christian church combat what is going on in the world around them, to remind them of the hope they have in Jesus despite the apparent destruction.
I heard a story this past week about a man here in Hunterdon County who’s about my age, a few years older perhaps who, about 40 years ago when he was in his 20s, committed a crime. He sexually assaulted a child. When he was in his 50s – so about 10 years ago – his past caught up with him and he got arrested. He went to trial, was convicted, and went to prison.
Now, In the time between when he committed his crime and when he got caught, he became involved with a church, he had a house, a wife, and a steady job. Inside of an afternoon, he lost all of those things… except the church. The church stood by him. Even though there is absolutely no doubt that he did the thing he was accused of, the church body made a decision to remain connected to him by visiting him while he was in prison, and then after he got out, continue to be connected with him, even though he no longer lives in the area.
Look again at the opening words of our passage: “But 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.” How many times in our lives has it felt like that for us… that the sun is no longer shining, the moon is dimmed, the stars have fallen away. Maybe we shouldn’t be looking at apocalyptic language so much as a communal experience, but as a reminder that we all face despair when it feels like our world is coming to an end. For that man, everything in his world came crashing down in an instant, but the people of Christ, the people who proclaim love above all things… stood by him, offering a life line… a ray of light.
Advent is an invitation to stay awake as we wait for and recognize God’s inbreaking. Even in the midst of darkness that seems to overtake us. Four times in the passage Jesus tells the small group of disciples to stay awake/alert during a time of destruction and chaos. They are to stay awake and look for signs of Jesus, the Son of Man, who is their hope – and ours. The alternative to staying awake, as Jesus says in verse 36, is being asleep. In Jesus’ warning not to be found “asleep,” there is a caution against becoming complacent or cynical. Given the realities of the world today, we too can become complacent or cynical by either thinking that everything is okay or despairing that it never will be.
We are called to “keep awake” looking for signs of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. We are told to stay awake as preparation for the coming of God’s reign. That’s what Advent is: an invitation to stay awake as we wait for and recognize God’s inbreaking. If we think of it this way, staying awake becomes an act of hope and trust, rather than an act of cynicism or fear. When we do not stay awake to signs of Jesus and his reign, we are allowing cynicism to determine our outlook on the world.
The other night when we got home from our Thanksgiving family gathering, I found a man trying to sleep in our pantry. His name is Larry and he’s homeless. Larry and I spent about 45 minutes on the phone trying to get him into a shelter, which we were eventually able to do. When we finally had a warm place secured for him, I drove him to Flemington and dropped him off.
Here’s what I want you to understand: I had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with my family. Plenty of food, some laughs, and football. Love was certainly present. But as I drove home from Flemington after dropping Larry off at the shelter, the only thing that I could think about was the fact that I had just encountered God. I could have easily just kicked Larry out of the pantry and gone back to my house and gone to sleep. When we are asleep, we miss the opportunities to see God – to meet Emmanuel, God with us – in and around us.
What headlines did we not see in the news this week? What are the good things that no one printed that happened in your life? As we “prepare” for Christmas (presents, decorations, meals and so on), what one thing can we commit to doing this Advent to prepare spiritually for Christmas, for the ‘coming anew’ of Jesus into our lives and world? Staying awake is both being alert to the signs of Jesus’ reign in our world/community and to the opportunities we have to participate in those signs and the bringing of the kingdom.
Throughout the season of Advent, I want to invite you to find the space to awaken to Christ in this season by engaging in a very simple spiritual practice. Spend five minutes each day to be still. Take several deep breaths, then focus on each of your five senses, one at a time: What can you see around you? What do you hear? What do you feel against your skin? What can you taste? What do you smell? And then, once you are grounded in the moment, offer thanks to God for the things you have noted. Practice this every day and seek wakefulness and attention to God’s presence.
Ask yourself what would happen if the church left the community tomorrow. What do you suppose would happen? If the church left the community tomorrow, what would happen? Are we a sleepy or sleeping church? How are we awake to God? The focus on staying awake in this passage leads us to following where God leads, to going out and living in response to God and flowing from our spiritual foundation, not out of a desire to remain relevant, to keep existing, or to secure ourselves as a presence in the community, but as witnesses to what God is doing (whose reign is already and not yet).
Advent is an invitation to stay awake as we wait for and recognize God’s inbreaking. Together, we can break away the darkness. Together, we can share the light that God offers us in Emmanuel, God with us. Together, we can keep awake.
To God be the glory.