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Preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, U Street, NW Washington D.C. (field ed site) on November 27, 2011.

1st Sunday of Advent, Year B (RCL): Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

                  I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  ... about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

I know the time change that happened a few weeks ago, when we “fell back” from Daylight Savings Time to Eastern Standard Time, affected some people in an odd kind of way.  While an extra hour of sleep sounds really good (if you’re smart enough to use it), you may be someone like me, who is annually prone to that seasonal affected disorder when the days grow short and evening comes earlier.  Our moods are affected as we cope with the change in light at new times of the day and night.  We need some time to improvise, to adapt, and to overcome.  Well, now comes another change in the way we mark time, especially in our Church.  Let’s check our calendars, shall we?  

Today is Sunday, November 27, 2011.  The service bulletin says today is the First Sunday of Advent.  So we know there’s something looming on the horizon in about four weeks from now.  It’ll be Christmas.  But today marks other transitions in our Church calendar.  In the Revised Common Lectionary, we move from Year A to Year B, and we turn from Matthew’s Gospel to focus on the Gospel of Mark.  

So, is everybody alright?  Are you all where you should be?  Is this the correct time?  Is this the right place?  Does everyone feel okay?  I hope so.  

But it does seem as though we are so obsessed with time these days.  

So what would you do if the world were to end tomorrow?  Jesus, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, which is referred to as the ‘Little Apocalypse,’ seems to be warning his disciples about the end time, and it's not a lovely picture.  “In those days, after that 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.”  There’s plenty of doom and gloom to go around!  It's all quite vivid, something we might read in fantasy novels or see in Hollywood movies.  But that's the problem.  What are we to do with this kind of passage?  It may have stirred the early Church into action as they had come to anticipate Jesus’ return at any moment, or maybe even during different panic-ridden periods in the Middle Ages; but do we really think it still makes sense, let alone attracts any notice, today?

Well, in some circles, it certainly does.  Earlier this year, remember all the media attention paid to Harold Camping, the American Christian radio broadcaster.  Camping had applied numerology to his interpretation of biblical passages in an attempt to predict ~ and heavily promote ~ the end-times with Jesus returning on May 21st.  When that didn‘t happen, Camping claimed a “spiritual judgment” had occurred, and that Christ would finally return on Oct. 21st ~ just last month.  Again, nothing happened, similar to other apocalyptic dates Camping had forecast back in 1998 and 1994.  There are others who have predicted the end of the world.  

Not too long ago, you may recall the scare known as “Y2K.”  Then I worked for Visa USA, the bank card company, managing a small technical support team responsible for deploying new interface software to all the telecommunication endpoints of our national payment systems network.  Fifteen months into a two-year rollout which was already 85% complete, it was determined our software was not fully Y2K-compliant; so we quickly scurried around for the remaining nine months, redistributing a new version of software believed necessary to keep our U.S Network working on January 1, 2000.  Not quite a apocalyptic end of the world, but the international financial community did endure some serious ‘pucker-factor’ as the new millennium came and went.

Next year, many will begin to worry again about apocalyptic times as we near Dec. 21, 2012, the predicted end of the world according to an ancient Mayan calendar.  I’ll point out that this, of course, would coincide with the timeframe for a certain second vocation candidate for Holy Orders ~ standing right in front of you ~ who prays he might be ordained a priest by his bishop in the Diocese of Virginia.   (God Willing, and the people consenting, of course!)

All this cogitation regarding the end-times continually runs rampant.  That's part of the problem.  So many have predicted the end of the world and Jesus' return to great fanfare and failure that anyone who dares make such a claim is quickly received with great skepticism and almost always becomes the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes.    

Yet they are partially right.  These predictions may not be accurate about when the end-times will occur.  However, they are correct that one of the promises of Scripture is that Christ will return, that God will bring the creation God fashioned to a good end, and that everything we tend to think of as permanent is more fragile, more vulnerable, than we typically like to imagine.  We get this, right?  Witness the changing of the seasons as autumn leaves continue falling; or the sudden, unexpected death of a dear friend; or an illness which requires a long recuperation; or the countless reports of global climate change.  There are moments when comprehension of our fragile, impermanent world and lives violates the defense of denial that we've carefully woven for ourselves.  

So what would you do if you knew the world were to end tomorrow?  Would you seek out and find that long lost friend or dear family member from whom you are estranged and hope for a reconciliation?  Would you want or need to finish something you started years ago?  Would you tell your family, friends, and neighbors one last time how much they mean to you, and make positive that each person hears from you how much you truly love them?  Would you embrace the Heart Of Your Heart in one long, never-ending, tender embrace?  What would you do?

Taking some time to consider this question has a profound way of clarifying what we value and sharpening our priorities.  It's a good question to ponder as we stagger back from the banquet table of Thanksgiving and begin that headlong sprint toward Christmas. Why?  Because it's so easy to get so caught up in the cultural pressures brought on by incessant holiday advertising to have that perfect Christmas.  We fear we may lose a sense of not only what Christmas is all about, but lose something of ourselves along the way as well.

Lest you feel this is yet another one of those well-intended diatribes about the true meaning of Christmas ~ No, it isn’t.  I am as human as the next person and have my own challenges in trying to not get too caught up in all the secular trappings of this holiday season.  Instead, amongst all the requisite planning and scheduling, between the parties, shopping excursions, writing of Christmas letters and cards, gift wrapping, and the endless preparation of food ~ all that festive nuttiness that many, truth be told, both love and hate ~ I invite you to allow yourselves, and others, some Advent space, where we all might find some stillness, to stop, listen for and experience some quiet, and to remember first and foremost who we all are: Beloved children of a most gracious and loving God!

Here's where Mark's somewhat confusing and alarming Gospel passage has something to say to us.  With all the apocalyptic predictions about the coming end, Jesus tells his disciples (and us): “...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”  Jesus goes a bit further, to compare our situation to that of servants who do not know when their master will return and yet are expected to be prepared for it.  One way to understand this mini-parable is as a call for constant vigilance.  I believe there's something to that. We are indeed called to seek our Lord, at all times, in all ways, and in all places ~ whether at the end of time, or, as we heard last week from Matthew, when facing our neighbors' need, we feed the hungry, offer drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit those who are in prison.

Perhaps there's something else happening here as well.  As I explored this passage, I found the specifics of Jesus’ warning illuminating.  “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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”  Let’s reflect on the timing here about the coming of the end.  

Today’s Gospel passage in Mark precedes the Passion of our Lord.  It is curious how Mark breaks up the different scenes which culminate in the crucifixion of Jesus.  First, there is the Last Supper which begins with, "When it was evening, he came with the twelve..." (Mk 14:17.) Next is the time of Jesus' prayer and betrayal in Gethsemane: "And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy" (Mk 14:40). Why are the disciples so tired?  Because it was the middle of the night.  Later, there is Jesus' trial before the chief priests and council and Peter's denial in the courtyard: "But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, 'I do not know this man you are talking about.' At that moment the cock crowed for the second time" (14:71-72a).  And finally leading to the trial before Pilate: "As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate" (15:1).

Another way to read this command to watchfulness is to hear Jesus declaring that his return -- when the heavens shake and the sun is darkened -- is precisely that moment when he is nailed to and raised up on the cross and we see God's love poured out for us and all the world.  Whatever, whenever, and however the end of the world may come, that is, that end is both prefigured and realized right here, as a man who goes to the cross out of love for us and all of God’s Creation.  For this reason, theologians throughout the ages have rightly declared Jesus' cross as the pivot point of history, for in that instant, one age ended and another began.

There is a folk legend regarding the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther.  At some point, he was asked about the end of the world.  More to the point, Luther was asked what he would do if the world ended tomorrow.  In response, Martin supposedly said, "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree."  Like Martin Luther, we also who are fully confident of God’s love for us and comforted through God’s promises about the future, are called to invest in this present time, now, in the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and causes all around us.  Because we have God’s promise from God in the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord that, in time, God will indeed draw all of God’s creation not just to an end, but to a good end.

So remember how you answered the question: What would you do if the world were to end tomorrow?  Guess what?  You need not wait for the end to do what you can do now.  Love the ones you want to love: finish the work you had begun; seek to be reconciled with those you need and who need you; be faithful to all the people and tasks that surround you; undertake some new, small and wonderful, great endeavor.  So again, I encourage all of you to plan time each day apart from the busyness of this holiday season so you can remain alert and be awake to the simple, the silent, and the small.  

For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again, all in the name of love.  We are the beloved children of an Almighty God, who gives us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and to put on the armor of light.  We are those for whom Christ died and for whom Christ now lives, along with all of God’s blessed creation for whom Christ will come again!

Let us pray:

Eternal Creator, with you each moment of life is full of wonder and surprise.  We pray you make us watchful as we await the coming of Christ.  Grant that we may not be found sleeping in sin, but awake and rejoicing in your newness of life.  Through the same Jesus Christ our Savior.  AMEN. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                        - Margaret Gay MacKinnon Godfrey


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Nov. 28th, 2011 08:22 pm (UTC)
Advent Sermon
Once again you have delivered God's word in a wonderful way. Again you have unveiled a very difficult passage from the Gospels in a way that your congregation can see the difficult made easy. Keep it up and let Christ guide your thoughts, words and voice as you speak from the pulpit. Love, Dad
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )