Listen to our service and sermon below:
As we wait for your coming, O Lord, keep us awake to your presence, keep us alive to your love, keep us aware of your power to work wonders in us and through us for the sake of your world. Grant us hope. Amen.
It is always a little bit of a jolt to arrive at the beginning of Advent and have to read Scriptures about the end of the world. Here we all are, just looking for a little joy and peace and hope and love and light, and instead, relentlessly, the first Sunday of Advent always says: wait! first! let’s talk about the end of the world! Advent always begins with a bang.
Today’s Gospel lesson comes from a section of the Gospel of Mark referred to as the “Little Apocalypse.” Standing on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, Jesus, looking at the Temple, predicts its destruction, predicts the persecution of all who follow his Way, and then describes the end of the world. “The sun will be darkened,” he says, “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.”
Ah! And happy Advent to you!
It isn’t the feel-good message we may be hoping for at this time of year, but those images of cosmic disturbances, catastrophic endings, and a world in darkness certainly do resonate with present reality, don’t they? Every week feels like we’re on the edge of some new cataclysm. In this past week alone, we’ve dealt with so many different kinds of breaking news that it’s difficult to keep up. It’s overwhelming. It can make us feel helpless. Many of us find ourselves dealing with levels of rage, or fear, or anguish, or all of the above, beyond what we’ve ever experienced before. It’s traumatizing.
So it may be a jolt to come to church this morning and hear words not of comfort, but of crisis. They are not the words we wanted. But they are the words that are true.
Many years ago, I experienced a different kind of shock. I was in my twenties, hanging out late one night with a close group of friends. It was well past midnight, and we had just finished watching a scary movie. We stayed in the living room chatting, deep into the night, when one of the guys in the group, Chris, got up and went to the kitchen to wash dishes. The rest of us stayed in the living room, fully absorbed in our conversation, when all of a sudden, there was this loud, hard, rapid, banging on the front door. The door absolutely shook. We could see it. And we all screamed. And I don’t know which scared me more – the banging on the door, or hearing all the screams of my friends, and my own scream. I’ll never forget the look on my friend Watt’s face – he was sitting closest to the door, and I can remember his lunge away from the banging as he screamed, his eyes became huge, his mouth peeled back in fear as he shrieked. But mostly what I remember is the way the color absolutely drained from his face – I don’t think I had ever actually seen that happen to someone in real life before. I assume it happened to me, too, because I could feel that cold fear in my stomach, where all my blood and adrenaline had gone, too.
The banging stopped and there was this long silence while we all stared at each other, wide-eyed. And then suddenly, on the other side of the door – laughing! And then our friend Chris’s voice, “It’s me! Let me in!”
What? We didn’t let him in. Not at first. We just stared at each other. What was going on? Wasn’t Chris in the kitchen? We could actually still hear the water running. But no, he was not in the kitchen. Turns out he had been in there washing the dishes when, hearing how thoroughly engaged we were in conversation and completely oblivious to anything other than what was happening right in front of us, he decided to play a little trick on us. He left the kitchen faucet running and tiptoed out the back, and came around the front, and banged on the door, in the deep of the night. And now there he stood laughing on the porch, saying, “Let me in!” And we were caught between anger and relief. Finally we did let him in, and eventually we laughed along with him, and we’ve been laughing about it ever since.
The thing about a door is we don’t always know what’s on the other side of it. Is it a threat? Or is it a friend? What’s on the other side of the door can be a mystery, hidden from sight until the door is opened. A door is a boundary that can keep somebody out, or let somebody in. It’s a barrier we have to make a decision about – we have to take some sort of action with a door, before the threshold can be crossed. Will we open the door, or not?
When Jesus spoke of the darkened sun and the unlit moon and the collapsing stars and the shaking skies, his words were not meant as threat but as promise. In the midst of all this world-ending destruction, the Son of Man will arrive, sending angels to gather the elect from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. Whatever destruction, whatever darkness, whatever the suffering, whatever is shaken, whatever has collapsed – there is no place that God will not go to seek and to find and to gather up the beloved, suffering people. There is no length to which God will not go, no step God will not take, no chasm God will not cross, to gather us in.
In the midst of all this talk about things that end, Jesus then talks about green and growing things. He says, just as you know that a fig tree
putting forth leaves means that summer is near, so also when these horrifying, world-ending devastations happen, you will know that the Son of Man is near – at the very door.
Think about that. It’s a puzzle, really. Or a mystery. That the things that seem the most horrendous, shocking, and appalling – these very things are the signs that God is near. When things seem the darkest, God’s presence is actually closer than we realize. When things seem the sickest, God’s healing of the world is actually at hand. This is not to say that God causes destruction. It is to say that we can be assured that, wherever there is destruction, where there is dysfunction, where there is death – God is already near.
Jesus was speaking explicitly about the end of time, but his words are for our time, too, and for all times, in whatever little apocalypses we face. In all of our endings, Christ is already coming to us. He is at work in every loss. He is present in all our devastations. When our world has shattered, he is already coming to gather us up. When we are shaken, when even our faith is collapsing, he is near, at the very door. The door between heaven and earth, the door between horror and hope, the door between who we are and who we will become. He stands at the door, and he knocks.
We have been through so many breathless bad news cycles in our world lately. So much of the world as we have known it has ended, or is ending, that it’s hard to know anymore what is worth fighting for and what we just have to accept. When Jesus talked with the disciples about the end of the world, he said heaven and earth will pass away but no one knows when, not even him. And because you do not know when the time will come, he said, you have to keep alert. You have to be on the watch for him, like a doorkeeper who watches the door when his master is gone and may come back at any time, and suddenly. You don’t know when he will appear, so you have to pay attention. “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Or, to put it in modern parlance: stay woke. “Woke” is a word from African-American Vernacular English that means alertness to injustice in society, especially racism. In recent years, especially since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, it has become a word not just of awareness but of action. To stay woke is to be on a journey towards acknowledging injustice, repenting of complicity, fighting to dismantle all forms of inequality and injustice, and becoming a part of the healing of the world.
For some of us, the call isn’t so much to “stay woke” or “keep awake” as it is to “get woke” or “wake up.” This, too, is part of the bang that Advent begins with: wake up! Whatever part of you is asleep to reality, whatever part of you is numb to possibility, whatever part of you is closed to hope, whatever part of you is shutting your eyes to your life, or your ears to the news you don’t want to hear, it’s time to wake up. It’s time to open our eyes, even though it’s dark out. It’s time to pay attention, even when you can’t imagine that God is really present in this mess. It’s time to trust what we cannot see – that God is with us. And it’s time to be about the work of ushering God’s love across the threshold into our hurting world.
Look. This is the truth. The things we cannot bear – the shattering, the collapse, the dark, the end of the world as we know it – these things are not the end, but the beginning.
Listen. Stay awake. Something is coming. Someone is at the door. What will you do?
 I am indebted to the Reverend Jan Richardson for this and other of the insights that helped shape this sermon. See specifically, “Advent 1: Blessing When the World is Ending” “Advent 1: Through the Door,” and “Advent 1: A Decade at The Advent Door,” all found on her Advent website: www.adventdoor.org.