SERMON: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord.” – Psalm 19:14
Advent 1 Mark 13:24-37
This chapter of Mark contains two interwoven themes – One thread warns Christians to prepare for an imminent apocalypse. And the other offers counsel of another sort: believers need to stand firm, stay faithful, and prepare for the long haul.
The chronology runs through unprecedented suffering, to total darkness — the sun, the moon, and even the stars cease to give any light.; next the Son of Man comes with power and glory; finally the angels gather the chosen ones. And we might say that the “generation” that experiences all these things (mentioned in Mark 13:30) is simply the followers of Jesus who continue the movement he began: that movement will not be extinguished but will endure until all is accomplished.
This is how we start Advent, the season often marketed as joyful, carefree and full of abundant living. Yet this passage points us to the somewhat less jolly, bigger picture story of which Advent is a part. For the birth of Christ cannot be separated from his death, the light of the world had to come into darkness, and there is suffering as well as hope.
When we take these themes into our understanding of Advent, we can see far easier how we might fit in, than if we stick to the saccharine stress of shopping and searching for that perfect Hollywood Christmas – which, and maybe it’s just me, leaves me a bit cold. There is something far more real about the message Mark points to in this passage, as well as something far less comfortable as we see the Advent season played out around us as a time of many conflicting expectations.
Advent is not just a liturgical season of the church year. It is a reality of life. It happens in all sorts of ways. It comes at various points in life, not just the four or five weeks before Christmas. We live in the tension of suffering and hope of what might come next. We live in times of both darkness and light. This season is a reminder that we should not deny that darkness, should not sugar coat it and sweep it under the surface. Advent is a time when we take darkness head on, knowing it will not ultimately win. In Advent we live in between what was and what will be.
Many of us might know what it is like to enter the darkness. All change, whether welcome or unwanted, brings some kind of loss. Every decision leads to a little death – a loss of something that might have been, a path left untravelled and as we journey through life we each collect and carry with us these little griefs, as well as the large, life changing ones. And too many will know darkness that is held in the scars of illness or attack, physical, emotional and mental. Advent is a way that the church says you are welcome, you are part of this story, however much light you can see.
I remember being told as a teenager that church was where you left your baggage at the door and praised God. As I got older and had my own doubts and my baggage got heavier I wondered why God wouldn’t want to see any of it, why couldn’t I bring it in? And I wondered how I could praise with only half my heart and very little of my mind left once all else had been discarded at the church door. Thankfully I found the Psalms, and their blatant, ranting, and whinging. Faith requires us to learn to lament and it was in claiming my baggage that I could praise God with my whole self, bruises and all.
Advent is for those who feel left out, let down and lost. It cries out in honest recognition of the suffering humanity carries and declares ‘there is more to come’.
What this season reminds us about darkness is that we can never go back to the way it was before the lights went out. God does not undo our life. Nothing is swept under the carpet. Nor is it offering pithy platitudes which say it’ll all be ok and life will definitely get better. Sometimes it just doesn’t. Instead God redeems our life. Sometimes we see this now, sometimes we wait for the time beyond our days. In ways we can see and ways we can never imagine.
Advent is not so much about the losses as it is about the hope and coming of what will be. That’s why it’s not all doom and gloom despite the apocalyptic warnings Mark throws in to our gospel reading.
Of course there is more – Yes, Jesus says that ‘after the 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’. But he continues and makes clear we are not supposed to simply back, grit our teeth and bare it and wait. There are several challenges laid out in Jesus’ words.
“Be alert,” Jesus warns. He commands us to “Keep awake.” Darkness is not our enemy as much as is falling asleep. I wonder whether in way we fall asleep whenever fear controls our life, when busyness is equated with goodness, when entitlement replaces thanksgiving, when we choose what is comfortable rather than life-giving. Whenever we think our life is over, that darkness is our final reality, that we have been abandoned, or that loss and darkness are our only reality, I wonder whether it is then that we have fallen asleep.
Too often we allow the darkness to deceive us into believing there is nothing worth waiting or watching for. So we close our eyes. We fall asleep and we become part of the darkness. This is not just a challenge to us as individuals as much as it is for us as a church. Are we keeping people awake?
Waiting and watching for Jesus in our midst is not about passivity. His words in this passage commend readiness and alertness, not patient inactivity. And I am reminded of Jesus’ word in Matthew 25 verse 35: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…’ How often when waiting for Jesus do we miss him entirely amongst us? There’s a wonderful proverb that says ‘A candle is a non conformist. It says to the darkness, I beg to differ.’ Are we people of hope, through our words and deeds are we reassuring those in the dark that the light will come?
Advent challenges us to give up our usual sources of illumination, to let go of our habitual ways of knowing, and to question our typical ways of seeing. Often this requires us to be quiet and listen. Stop being so quick to give answers and let the questions linger. To be open to the surprises and unexpected twists and turns that can reveal love and life anew to us. St. John of the Cross, a 16th century mystic and poet, says that ‘silence is God’s first language’. Maybe this season is a time to brush up on that language.
The Advent journey is not a Hollywood sugar coated one. For the incarnation itself happened in the midst of the mess and brokenness of the world, under occupation, in conflict and exclusion. God came and was revealed in amongst the suffering.
So now is the time we look darkness in the eye, our eyes open our hearts awake, in the hope and faith that Christ’s presence, our healing, and salvation, are always taking place in the dark and messy parts of life. We have not and never will be abandoned to the darkness.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Amen.