Outside the church doors, the Christmas season is at hand. Twinkling lights decorate street corners and shop windows. Christmas songs play on radio stations. Television commercials count down the shopping days. Santa has arrived at Macy’s. Even our Starbucks cups have turned a jolly red. Inside these church walls, though, we are not in the Christmas season yet.
Instead, we are in the Advent season – a time of watching and waiting, hoping and longing, preparing our hearts and minds for the birth of Christ. Inside these walls, we will not tell the Christmas story or sing carols of Jesus’ birth until our Christmas Eve services. Inside these walls, we observe a time of stillness and silence, following the ancient tradition of the church that teaches that waiting expectantly in the darkness prepares us to rejoice at the coming of God’s light into the world.
Perhaps, like me, you live with a foot in both of those worlds. Perhaps, like me, your moments of meditation on hope and peace, your moments of holy anticipation, are mixed and mingled with the chaos of getting Christmas cards out and Christmas cookies made. Perhaps, like me, you seldom experience darkness without the glow of an electronic screen. We live with a foot in each world; one foot stands in the frenzied, commercialized, materialistic Christmas of the secular world. The other foot stands in the lovely, but perhaps idealistic, church world with its call to slow down, wait, and watch in the darkness.
As if to drive home the distinction between the solemnity of Advent and the forced merriment of the secular Christmas season, our calendar of readings for the day gives us a very challenging passage. Not an image of the expectant mother Mary, not a prophecy of a child called the Prince of Peace, but something much wilder and more jarring. Jesus says:
But in those days, after that suffering,Well, that sounds terrifying. Suffering, stars falling from the heavens, the darkening of the sun and the moon – the end of the world as we know it. Our reading comes from what is known as the “little apocalypse” of the Gospel of Mark. In this section of the story of the life of Jesus, Jesus’s ministry of teaching and healing is coming to an end, and he is preparing for his passion – his trial, suffering, and crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities. Jesus is promising his followers that the darkness and ugliness and suffering and evil that lie ahead of them are not the end of the story, but the beginning. Preparing for his death, ending his earthly ministry, he tells them a parable of servants left behind while their master goes on a journey. “Keep awake,” he bids them, “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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”
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.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 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.
To some of us, perhaps those words sound frightening. To me, they often sound frightening. I like the moon and the sun and the stars just where they are, thank you very much. I like organization, plans, and routine; I like things in alphabetical order; I do not especially like surprises. The promise of this passage is change and disruption, the Holy Spirit sweeping through the world like wind and fire. The promise is that God is going to blow through creation like a wild wind, knocking down the orders and systems and structures of this world. When I hear these promises, I envision my life like a meticulously constructed house of cards, fluttering to the ground, and I quake with awe and dread. It can be hard to hear this promise as good news.
But if we remember the situation to which Jesus is speaking, I think we can see that this is good news. To a little band of frightened followers who are about to watch their beloved teacher be tortured to death, Jesus says: everything is going to change. God is coming.
To a world broken by crucifixion and colonization, poverty and slavery, Jesus says: everything is going to change. God is coming.
And to us, Jesus says: everything is going to change. God is coming.
The challenge for some of us might be to remember that this is good news. If we live in relative comfort, as most Americans do, it might sound like bad news, or at least very frightening news. Jesus promises that God is going to knock down and rearrange all our little structures and set the world right. That is good news. God is coming.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, some of us at my church hand out bag lunches to the hungry folks of our neighborhood, and that work gives us joy and satisfaction. But Jesus promises that everything is going to change, and instead of standing in line for a meager bag lunch handed out by well-meaning church folks, people who are hungry will sit down to a grand feast at the table of God, and there will be no more sandwich line. That is good news. God is coming.
Some of us get to walk through the world without worrying that we are being judged by the color of our skin. No one has ever assumed I was a shoplifter, or that I got hired because of affirmative action. I’ve never been stopped and frisked. I can stop thinking about racism, if I feel like it. But for some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, racism is an ever-present reality that colors their interactions every day. Jesus promises that everything is going to change, and we will all be known and seen as children of God, and there will be no more white privilege. That is good news. God is coming.
Today we observe World AIDS Day, remembering and mourning and praying and crying out to God for the end of AIDS. We give thanks for the work of organizations and people that have worked tirelessly to end the AIDS epidemic. Jesus promises that everything is going to change, and there will be healing. There will be a day when AIDS is a distant memory, something students study in history books, like the bubonic plague. There will be a day when the AIDS organizations we partner with have nothing to do but close their doors and archive their documents. That is good news. God is coming.
As the people of Ferguson cry out for justice, our nation is having a conversation about law enforcement, and racial profiling, and military-grade weapons on small-town streets. We are seeing tear gas fired on peaceful protestors. We are seeing riots, which Martin Luther King Jr. called “the language of the unheard.” We are hearing the voices of mothers of black sons, who fear that no matter how good, or law-abiding, or successful, or polite their children are, they will never be truly safe. We are hearing the voices of black men and women who have lost their trust in the systems that are supposed to protect us all. We are hearing of the mutual mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement officials, the festering wounds of four hundred years of racism and the lasting scars of slavery, a broken system that resists change and harms every single one of us. Jesus promises that everything is going to change, and swords will be beaten into plowshares, and the lion will lie down with the lamb, and we will live in peace and justice and community with one another. There will be no more war, and no more guns, and no more senseless killing. That is good news. God is coming.
Generations of Christians have read these apocalyptic passages and misinterpreted them, assuming that they were living in the last days, calculating dates based on numerology and astrology, quitting jobs and burning bridges in preparation for Christ’s return. That is not what this passage calls us to. Jesus tells us that no one – not even him – knows the day or the hour when the work of God will be made complete, and the world healed and set right, and the structures of inequality knocked down.
Our job is not to calculate that date which even Christ does not know. Our job is to be faithful to God’s vision for the world. Our work is to live as if we were servants of Christ, left in charge in the meantime. Our work is to set our hands to healing and feeding, set our words to ending racism and sexism and ableism and transphobia, set our minds to advocating and educating for the end of AIDS, to ending violence, to doing the work of peace and justice. Our work, in this season of Advent, is to live and work in hope.
We are called to live with compassion and integrity, to be bearers of truth and light. We are called to do the work of God so that, if we were one day to see the heavens shaking and Jesus coming in power and glory to knock down all we know and set all things right, we would quake with awe, but not with fear. We would look up from the work which God began, and Jesus continued, and entrusted to us, and as it came to completion, we would see that everything was changing and we would say, “Finally! Thank God!”
Photo: Ashley Rose