December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Have you ever played the mirror game? You’re paired with another person, usually as part of some ice breaker. One of you is the leader, and the other has to mirror every move. When you play the game, you have to notice everything. To be in sync, you have notice the signs that movement is about to occur: a twitch around the eye; the movement of a finger that suggests that the arm is on the move; a twinkle in the eye that means something tricky is about to happen. Remember the game. It will help you understand this strange reading from Mark’s gospel
At the beginning of Mark 13, a book called the “little apocalypse” because Jesus is talking about the end of history as we know it, the disciples are looking the wrong way. This little band of disciples had only been in Jerusalem a short time, watching people come and go from the temple, and they’re in awe about the splendor of the place. Like good tourists, they say to Jesus, “Wow, it’s so beautiful. Look how large the stones are. It’s amazing that they got them in place.”
And Jesus says, “Well, you’ve noticed how great these buildings are. In a short time, not one stone will be left on top of the other. Everything that’s grand is going to be thrown down. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light. Stars will fall down from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will shake.
Can I do a little history with you? Remember Jesus words, “Stay awake.”
The gospel of Mark was written right before the temple was, indeed, torn down stone by stone. At the time Mark is writing, everyone could see it coming. Society was being ripped apart, both from the outside and from the inside. The things that they had counted on were about to be destroyed. The world they knew was already passing away. The church felt caught in all of it. It was overwhelming. It felt catastrophic, and they were poor and had no influence. Peace and security were code words for crushing opposition and silencing dissent. The days of Rome’s republic were over, and the empire was ruled by Caesar’s class, who could pull all the strings. The Senate still function, but only to adopt legislation that extracted wealth from the empire, all of it usually packaged in the grand language of the old republic and always pitched as good for the citizens.
This little group who listened to Mark’s storytelling yearned for the day when Christ would come in his glory; when God would set things right, and gather them from out of their suffering and take them into glory. It’s important to hear these apocalyptic texts from down under—stories told in dramatic and sometimes secret code so that they can speak truth about power.
The end of the world is bad news for those who do well in the world as it is.
The end of the world is good news for those that don’t do so well in the world as it is.
We’ve certainly been watching the stars fall, from morning shows, from the radio, from the Senate, what I heard Gayle King on CBS call “a reckoning that isn’t over.” Likely, those who have been engaging in harassing and abusive behavior will be terrified that more is to come, that their darkness is going to be revealed in the light. Others, the ones subject to the abuse or silenced for fear of reprisal, find hope in this reckoning. The only way that worlds of abuse and the manipulation of power can continue is if they remain hidden, if no one will watch or speak the truth. In a way, the church is this community of people that is watching and noticing what’s really going on, not just what leaders or politicians tell us is going on. We’re listening to the stories of those down-under, at the edges, on the borders, in the weeds.
What’s interesting if you’ve ever listened to those who are unaccustomed to power or privilege, there’s much more hope, much less trust that the world is going to work right, much less surprise about some of the hatred that has surfaced in our society lately. People at the center tend to put their trust in their own abilities to make things right, often unaware how they are hurting others. People at the edge have more capacity to see God at work.
Of course, all of us stand sometimes in this center where we’re blind, but sometimes we find ourselves at the edges, when we, too, feel like it’s the end: slammed doors, bad news delivered by text, the doctor’s invitation to sit down, pink slips, broken promises, congressional votes, families divided, dreams abandoned.
Advent is always honest about these things, but points us to something more. Just like the fig tree putting forth leaves suggests that summer is near, there are things going on right under our noses this very day that point to God’s arrival among us.
Our theme for Advent this year is “Practice hope.” It’s like playing the mirror game: attending to the life right in front of it with a profound expectation that something is going to move; something is going to change, something is going to be revealed, and we want to be ready to move with it.
There may be stars falling out of your bulletin. Write a word or sentence about where you have noticed hope. Set it in the night sky at the back of the church where the rest of us can see what you’ve seen, and draw hope that God is already at work.
All of us get caught in the splendor of Jerusalem, the glare of the culture’s myths, the lies of leaders, the privilege of having it easy, the gluttony of the season, the despair of life tilting out of control, and we start to nap. We start to get overwhelmed, to turn away and close our eyes.
This is not the last time Jesus would tell his disciples to stay awake and watch what’s happening. In the garden, on the night in which he was betrayed, they all fell sound asleep. In reality, Jesus words in Mark 13 aren’t about the end of the earth. They’re about the cross. When Jesus died, the temple in the curtain was torn in two. Many believe that the curtain was embroidered with the cosmos, the sun, the sky, the stars, rending at Jesus death.
And changing the trajectory of history.
Largely, the disciples missed it all, the saving of the whole world, the love of God poured out. On the surface, the cross looks like another victory for Rome. Yet, for those with eyes to see, it marks the boundary between the old world and a new one.
Jesus wanted the disciples to see behind the curtain, uniting the holy of holies with the world of sun and moon, stars, and fig trees, and locked doors. He didn’t want them to see death on a cross as the end. He wanted them to see God’s healing, binding their wounds, forgiving their sins, opening their futures. The end of the world wasn’t something off in the future. It was something that occurred right before their eyes.
Maybe Jesus understands we need the shock of this revelation, like two paddles on the chest of a someone having a heart attack. Shocked back into life; surprised into wakefulness, pulled back from the narcotic race to the finish line.
So, in Advent, in these inky and dark days, with all their uncertainty, the church plays the mirror game. It tenses its spiritual muscles and waits to catch even the slightest movement; it cocks its ear to the tiniest cry; it holds tight its core and waits for labor. And the body of Christ gets ready to move, to be born…again.