Friday, December 2, 2011

Advent 1, November 27, 2011

Mark 13:24-37

24 "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

As some of you might have guessed, Saturday night is not exactly my most restful evening.  While I set two alarms, I really do not need either.  Instead, I typically begin waking up at around 4:00 am and by 6:00 am or so, I have given up the battle to try and get back to sleep.  I take some comfort in knowing that there is not a pastor with whom I have talked that does not undergo this same experience, and no doubt, it is similar for before really important workdays for everyone.  It is on these sorts of mornings that I do not need Jesus to tell me to stay awake, I already have it covered.
            To be sure, we can hear these words as a call to that sort of anxious attentiveness, staying awake for fear that something awful might happen, like a church full of people waiting to begin liturgy and yet having no pastor there to preside.  Certainly, there does indeed seem much to fear in today’s reading, where a darkened sun and falling stars will usher in the end of history, an ending whose time is beyond human attempts at predicting or manipulating. And that this cataclysmic event is expressedly outside of our attempts to control or understand, see the disastrous events in the church’s history at determining this as evidence, well that only raises the stakes, to say nothing of the anxiety.  So, we are told, keep awake, stay alert, for the Master will return at an unanticipated time, everything will change in the blink of an eye, and when this will happen is not up to us nor can we scan history to determine whether or not we are close to this event.  If that is not enough to keep you awake, I am not entirely sure what would be. 
            But that’s also the catch, isn’t it?  I mean, really, who can sustain that level of anxiety-induced alertness for a drawn out amount of time?  There is not enough coffee in the world to keep us all awake in this way, and sooner or later we all end falling asleep, taking an unintended break or simply being overwhelmed by the busyness of daily life.   Personally, the fitful nature of my Saturday evening sleep is always balanced out by the sleep I get on Sunday night. Really, if this keeping awake, maintaining alertness is solely up to us, we end up like the disciples, falling fast asleep as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And while we no doubt hear these words of Jesus to “stay awake” as a threat, I wonder if that reveals more about us than about the actual words.  For really, this call to staying awake, this call to vigilance and attentiveness to God’s activity in the world, this is actually a complete gift. Before it is a call to attentiveness, it is a call to defiance, a call to regard a lot of the noise in our culture for what it is, utter nonsense. It is not an inducer of anxiety, but rather anxiety’s relief.  For listen again to these words, “ but about that day or hour no one knows . . . only the Father.”  And while this certainly should give us all the ammunition we need to glibly shrug off those who explicitly claim they have divined the world’s ending, like Harold Camping and that whole fiasco last May, the implications of this statement reach further indeed.  For there is no question that we, both individually and as a whole culture, have a tendency towards making dooms-day type predictions.  You turn on the television to catch a bit of evening news, and it feels like news anchor is screaming the world’s ending at you.  Yes, while they might not explicitly say so, the fact that politicians are behaving poorly or that the economic structures are being protested, this is all intended to feel as though the world were coming to an end,  because the more anxious we become, the more that these forces are able to manipulate us.  Try as they might, though, history, our lives, simply cannot be manipulated in this way.  Try as cable news channel might, there is no way to determine the course of history, nor to predict where this is all headed.  Life, reality, is a lot less stable, a lot more vulnerable than that, which is something we all know and experience on a daily basis.  But this vulnerability, built into the very fabric of existence, does not mean that we can predict where any of this is headed.  So no, there are no signs to be read in the heavens or on the airwaves.  This knowledge is not ours to possess, and even if personal tragedy or difficulty at work makes it seem like the world is ending, we are given sure knowledge that this simply is not the case. 
            And though these predictions will be stubbornly refused by the God who reigns in both heaven and earth,  that does not mean that we are left without hope.  For Christ says this as well, “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”   Meaning that, whatever the future may hold, may look like, it is in Christ’s strong and gentle hands, hands that in having been pierced through, now hold all things.  Yes, for whatever the future may hold, it is indeed held by the Christ whose words endure forever.  And what wonderful words they are: words like you are forgiven, you are remembered, you are beloved by your Father and you kept securely in God’s care.  This is what your future looks like, whenever it may come.  It looks like the Christ who suffered all things for your sake and promises you his steadfast presence amidst the chaos and unpredictability of this world.  So yes, keep awake, keep alert to the fact that Christ has already told you all you need to hear and that in him your future has already been secured. 
            And it is in knowing this future that is Christ we are given back our present, with a new freedom to live more deeply into our lives and the lives of others.  No doubt, the troubles and fears and worries still persist, but we need not live as though they were the only real things in our lives, and isn’t that where we really get into the most trouble with stewardship?  When we are convinced that our fears and worries are the only real and genuine things, we tend to hold our money, hold our time, and hold our skills and abilities, as closely as we possibly can.  After all, one never really knows, does she? It is so very easy to be seduced by this siren song of anxiety, to succumb to the fear and be less giving.  Even as those fears try and ease us into an anxious sleep, try to dull our senses to the goodness of God, Christ’s presence remains, calling up out of our slumber, calling us into the peace that he alone can give and giving to us the only genuine security in heaven and on earth, namely his words.  You, dear people of God, you have already been given this freedom and this security; it possesses you more strongly than you can possess anything.  This does not change the fact that we live in difficult times, sometimes simply struggling to get by.  The facts about the economy and all the rest remain stubbornly the same.  But the question, as we prepare to make our pledges next week is this: what does it mean to live as though our only real security is in Christ Jesus?  Not our money or our economy or anything else.  How does his love and care change the way we relate to all that he has given us?  These are not questions I can answer for you, but I look forward to seeing what you come up with.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

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