Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
30 November 2008
1 Advent, B
Let us pray. We all long, O God, for greater clarity. We need our hopes strengthened. When you do not rend the heavens and come down to vindicate us, open our eyes to your all-sustaining intimacy with us. When unfolding events delight and disappoint us, teach us to embrace them as tokens of your own dream for a time when cares give space for celebration. Amen.(Human Rights Campaign, Prayerfully Out in Scripture, http://www.hrc.org/scripture/week.asp?action=print&page=11-30-08_)
Good morning, church family and visitors. I would like to start this morning by letting you know how envious I am of any Roman Catholic friends who are addressing congregations for their first time today: our Roman friends’ lectionary starts at verse 33, with “Beware, keep alert.” I think I feel about how Tate felt when I wrote the wrong verses for him to read at the Wesley. Rather than reading about love Tate was left reading about sin, licentiousness, and vile covetous creatures. Erin and I promptly rectified that as best we could.
And so I stand here today in the pulpit at St. Mark’s preaching to you for the first time about the destruction of the world, salvation at the end of days, and an exhortation to stay watchful. While I may envy Roman men who are not having to preach on the destruction of the world, at the same time I feel a little sad for them; today, as our altar guild has helpfully and dutifully reminded us, is the First Sunday in Advent. This season we’re entering into today has two or three major themes, depending on how you slice a theme.
The first one (or two) are about waiting. While some friends of mine have had their Christmas trees up since before Thanksgiving and retail locations forgot Thanksgiving and went straight into Christmas mode after All Hallows, it’s only Advent. We are waiting and looking for the coming of the Christ child. Furthermore, we are watching and waiting for the fulfillment of the Reign of Christ, which we celebrated last week, at the end of days. And finally, Advent is a season of repentance, though it is a more joyful penitential period of expectation than the Lenten season.
Our Gospel reading today begins, as I have already noted, with Mark’s discussing the destruction of the world at the last days. We’re in Advent. It’s what you should expect. Natural phenomena stop behaving as they ought and the angels are sent from heaven all around the world to gather the elect – the baptized. Mark’s original readers know that judgment for the wicked is also a part of the end of days, but Mark doesn’t include this in his narrative, though his readers throughout time have.
By doing this Mark is telling those reading him – both his original audience and his present one – that rather than think about the pending judgment of those who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do or their enemies, they are to be watching and waiting for the reign of Christ. Mark’s saying that the Christ’s people will be gathered “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” is indicative that all saints, dead or alive in this physical body, will be gathered up to join in Christ’s eternal reign.
Over the course of time, critics of Christianity have pointed to the supplying of judgment by believers and accused us of caring too much about resentment and focusing on how the downtrodden of society will be raised up while those who are first here, as it were, are made to be the very worst sense of last. While the Gospels speak of the last being first and the first being last, Mark’s prophesy here does not. Mark’s presentation of the end of days is something that all people, regardless of the station in society, need to hear: hope. Christ is coming, and all his chosen will be gathered up. They are to cling to hope when they endure hardships for the sake of the Gospel, but Mark doesn’t intend for them to plan and look forward to the destruction of those doing the persecuting.
From talk of the destruction of the world, our text moves into a section regarding the eternity of Christ’s words. Mark tells the people – and us – that as the events he’s just talked about are beginning to happen, know that the end of days is approaching. In the same way a fig’s blossoming is a sign of the changing of the seasons, so is the destruction of heavenly bodies a sign of the end times, but cling to hope: heaven and earth will both be destroyed, but Christ and Christ’s words are timeless. He has assured of us of our salvation at the end of days, and his word is enough. He himself is the Word of God, greater than the prophets who spoke on behalf of God.
From a message about the eternality of Christ’s word our story moves to what I see as the crux of the text, although it is actually two parts that have been joined together in Mark’s overarching narrative. First is a stand alone statement: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Mark was talking, clearly, to those who in their context were preaching the impending coming of Christ based on the way they read scriptures, saw signs, or looked for fulfillment of various prophecies. I think that Mark is also clearly talking to those who read the Bible today looking for ways to make modern events fit into various prophecies so that they can publish books about predicting when Jesus’s return. No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Although that verse is a stand-alone statement, the rest of the story hinges on it: “Be aware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 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. 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. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
The point of this discourse from Christ is that we’re supposed to be living watchful lives. Jesus is here talking about himself going on a journey, the same as he did a few weeks ago in the parable of the talents. And in the same vein, we the baptized, are the slaves who have been left with our tasks to work on and complete as best we can before the Master’s return.
When I was in high school my parents would leave my brothers and me at home in Phenix City while they went to work on the tree farm on weekends. Before Mom left on Saturday morning she would make a list of things that were to be done before her return: cutting the grass, cleaning my room, washing the dishes, vacuuming the living room. She got back at about the same time every weekend, so I would plan accordingly to get the tasks done, or at least tell myself that’s what I was doing. On more than one occasion, I decided to go to my friend Annie’s house to get online instead of getting the jobs done first. Most of the time that worked out. Sometimes I would call her cell phone – or better yet, she’d call me to let me know where she was between Phenix City and Abbeville. There were times, however that Mom came back early. The worst was if she came back early and I was…still at Annie’s house, with only half the list completed.
Don’t hear me saying that my mother was a slave driver. Hear me saying that I knew I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, and you all know that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. And rather than seeking to find out what our absolute last deadline for getting our task completed, we should stay intentional about doing what we’re supposed to be doing as God build’s God’s Kin-dom here and now while we contribute all the ways that we can.
All this talk about doing what we’re supposed to be doing begs the question…What are we supposed to be doing? Fr. Jeff talked about that last week in the Reign of Christ Sunday Gospel text: caring for the least of these. Furthermore, children of God, we’ve taken vows as to what we’re supposed to be doing, as well: proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; striving for justice and peace among all people of the earth; seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we do these things, we do what we’ve been told to do. Being faithful servants doesn’t require knowing when the master will return. Being faithful Christians doesn’t require knowing when Christ will return.
When we do what we’ve been told do we live a life of watchful, waiting expectation for the Reign of Salvation that didn’t end on the cross, but continues on to the fullness of time. Living a watchful life is looking with hope to what God is doing in the present as God ushers in God’s Reign. In this season of Advent, I invite you to regularly examine your conscience and assess how your behavior reflects or neglects conduct expected of those who have chosen to follow the Rabbi from Galilee. And I invite you to be intentional about examining only your conscience. This is especially important for me: living a life as a faithful servant is done without regard for the faithfulness of others or a concern for what judgment our enemies may get. It is only about how we fulfill the tasks that have been given to us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.