“We have arrived!” the couple announced as they stepped onto the beach to start their vacation. “I have arrived!” the confident fresh-out-of-college grad declared as she leaned back in the seat of her new office chair at her first ‘real’ job. A man in his late 60’s who travels widely to preach, teach, and consult said to me recently after we both had arrived at our destination after long flights, “I used to think travel was the epitome of success…” It was the signal that he had somehow arrived as a valued member of his field. Do you know that feeling? Now he’s less than enthused about all the travel associated with the demands of his presence. The Apostle Paul was quick to say, “Not that I have arrived…” when it came to understanding every mystery of faith… “but I press on…” hoping that someday, he may ultimately arrive fully in the Spirit of Christ. What does it mean to arrive? At Christmas, we speak of Jesus arriving as God in the flesh. For us, Advent, the season leading up to Christmas which we launch today, is a time of preparing to arrive. How will you arrive at Christmas this year?
How will you arrive? That is the big question we will hold together in this space during the season of Advent. The word Advent is rooted in the Latin word for coming. For Christians, it is an expectant season of watching and waiting – celebrating the coming of Christ to the world in that stellar way with mangers and shepherds, innkeepers and donkeys, starring in children’s plays all over the world at this time. It would also be fair of me to wish you a “Happy New Year!” as Advent launches the beginning of the Christian year. Sort of an ironic time to start our new year, yes? My friend Liz Myer-Boulton writes about this in her commentary on the season. “You might think the year would begin with the trumpets of Easter, or the softness of Christmas Eve, or the fires of Pentecost – but on the contrary, we begin in the shadows of despair, war, sorrow, and hate. For it’s precisely there that the God of grace will arrive, and accordingly, it’s precisely there that God’s church is called to light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love against those shadows.” We lit just one of those candles this morning – just one – the beginning of light that is so needed in such darkness. Advent doesn’t flow from a New Year’s Eve party that sings ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at midnight but instead, “O Come, O come Emmanuel – and ransom captive Israel – that mourns in lowly exile here – until the son of God appears.” That has a little different feel don’t you think? We may even argue that it’s less of an overflowing hope and more of a desperate plea.
This is the context of Mark’s gospel lectionary reading assigned for this day. The lectionary is a tool that helps an individual or community cover the gamut of the scripture-gift matching important themes with important seasons. And it is such a tool that says, “Here. This crazy-hard text from Mark’s gospel is one you need to consider on the first day of the Christian year. Happy New Year!” This passage falls under a style of writing we call apocalyptic literature – apocalyptic meaning uncovering or revealing. It is utilized throughout scripture by the likes of Daniel and, most notably to the widest audience, the work of Revelation. It’s a style that is likened to a child crawling up on the lap of God and watching intently as God turns page after page of a pop-up book full of poetic imagery, cryptic and symbolic language and evocative visions of hope when all seems hopeless. Jesus – who is our noted teacher in this pericope (or passage) by Mark – employs this style of prophetic story-telling that would have rung many familiar bells with his audience; something important for us to note as we deal with an ancient and sacred text.
Albert Schweitzer, famed medical missionary, theologian and musician of the early twentieth studied the organ in Paris under Charles Marie Widor. The two of them were together often and on one occasion in 1899, Widor confessed to Schweitzer that he couldn’t understand Bach’s chorale preludes. He said, “The mood of the music keeps shifting unpredictably.” “Naturally,” replied the young Schweitzer, “many things in the chorales must seem obscure to you, because they can only be explained by the texts that go with them.” Widor didn’t know that Bach’s chorale preludes were designed to go with particular Lutheran hymns. Once you understood the texts behind the music, the music itself became clear. It would be like listening to the instrumental soundtrack of Jurassic Park without seeing the overlay of those amazing dinosaurs. You may sense some change in mood but the images partner with the music to create a particular mood, context and understanding. To read this passage from Mark without some of the understanding of the context makes it seem more like a mad lib where we just plug in random nouns and adjectives creating a funny sounding story.
Mark’s gospel, the earliest written of any of the gospels, was written around 70 CE – during, or just after the disastrous Jewish revolt against Roman imperial occupation in Palestine. Mark’s world was shattered – all stability gone. R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” played like a broken record – only no one felt fine. The Roman armies squelched the rebellion and, most notably destroyed the Jewish temple which, for the Jews, was nothing less than the sacred heart of the world. In the midst of this catastrophe, Mark writes this gospel account recognizing the need for hope in the chaos. To really hear the text or scene that accompanies the soundtrack Mark is playing, Liz says we have to enter the desolation and shock “alongside the traumatized soldier, the displaced refugee, the pregnant teenager, the heartbroken addict.” Maybe you know exactly how this feels right now. If not from your own sense of personal grief, heartache, or despair, the state of the world presents this tension to us with breaking news upon breaking news. As I was working on this message, my phone bings: “Breaking news, Michael Flynn pleads guilty to lying to the FBI…” If it’s not the politics of tax bills, collusion-possibilities, or the threat of nuclear war, it’s an update about the latest sexual abuse allegation. Glennon Doyle Melton said it well, I think. “Men are not the enemy,” she said. “ Toxic masculinity is.” We all have to take inventory in times like these, in fact, in all times. We have let politics, selfish ambition, and the so-called “locker-room talk” run as some sort of parellel story to that of the gospel of Jesus instead of letting the two intersect. We must let the way of Christ truly rule our thoughts about the care of our nation’s citizens and rectify the atrocious cultural notion that “Boys will be boys.” We are in a state of unrest, chaos, and bewilderment. This sort of context is where the gospel writer Mark lives; these are the depths from which he attempts to proclaim the good news. It’s no wonder, in a world of devastation, that a people would want Jesus to return to clean up the mess. I have prayed such a prayer, at times out of sheer exhaustion of it all. “Fix it! Jesus!” You start to wonder what it was like for Elijah to just be strolling along with his buddy only to be yanked out of this world by a fiery chariot; pulled to the heavens. I’ve been leaving the moon roof open in my car just in case. It’s not all that surprising, then, that many in Mark’s day, and many in our own, were obsessed with the second coming of Christ.
Preaching great, Fred Craddock, dropped some wisdom when he said, “Many people are obsessed with the second coming because, deep down, they were really disappointed in the first one.” We know the story of that disappointment, yes? Jesus could not be the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for – he was too passive. He wasn’t a warrior. He didn’t write enough angry political rants on social media. Instead, the first coming of Christ was this baby that we fuss over at Christmas. Could God be any less aggressive? A baby? (I won’t ask new parents to answer this question right now. Too soon!) As an adult, Jesus didn’t say, “Nuke your enemy.” He said, “Love them.” He didn’t say, “Use your privelge to get ahead.” He said, “Make your privelege the gift of serving the underprivledged.” And so, we are probably all guilty of praying for Jesus to return like the Messiah everyone wanted the first time – a “Fix it, Messiah!” with power and force. I think Jesus, in speaking to us about the state we are in today, would say, “Refer to my words the first time around. They still hold.” Now, I think Jesus would offer new insight if he were in the flesh today. I think his “Parables: The Early Years” would still apply but I can only imagine the potency of the parables he would tell us today. How would we be shocked into a new understanding of the realm of God? His words are the only thing with staying power. He says so in this passage. “Everything in life will pass away – ebb and flow – but my words will always hold true.”
When I think about all of these things coming going, I think of trendy fads that have popped in and out of our lives through the years. You probably have some favorites over time. Bell-bottoms, Razor Scooters, Livestrong wristbands, The Crimper, flash mobs, “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts, speed dating, sideburns, Tebowing, Pogs, the “Macarena.” Don’t be offended if I named something you’re still holding onto. I’m not cool enough myself to keep up with what’s in and out. Fads are simply, according to official definition, “An intense but short-lived fashion; craze; notion, manner of conduct, etc., especially one followed enthusiastically by a group.” How about this one: Pet Rocks. Anyone have a pet rock? Over a six-month period in the mid-1970s, 1.5 million pet rocks were sold. They were smooth stones sold in cardboard boxes with a nest of straw and breathing holes. They were rocks! The rock would even come with a training manual that would provide the owner with all of the instructions needed to properly care for their ‘pet’. The manual could contain all kinds of commands that you could use to treat your pet: “roll over,” “stay,” and even “sit.” Needless to say, the pet rock wouldn’t do anything but sit there so that was the only command that worked. And sane, normal people — teachers, lawyers, stock brokers — went to work, and they had a pet rock on their desk. Gary Dahl, inventing the Pet Rock after listening to his friends complains about their pets one night, laughed all the way to the bank with the millions he made on rocks in the 1970’s. Crazy things catch our fancy, do they not?
The apocalyptic elements of Scripture like we’re dealing with in Mark’s account today, have set off some fads of their own over time – this obsession with many predicting the end of the world – all of which, so far, have fallen flat. Many think this must come with fear – “Fear God! Pack your manna sandwiches for December 19th or you’ll be left behind in this hell hole of a world.” Some just treat it like a game or a chance to play a Nicholas Cage character in real life. Why predict such a time? Think of the money and time that have been invested in such an endeavor. A few years back, radio preacher Harold Camping studied the Bible and came to the conclusion that the world would end May 21, 2011. After sharing this prediction with his listeners, he used millions of dollars of their donations to put his message on 5,000 billboards. Camping estimated that 7 billion people would die. May 21 came and went with no return of Christ. Camping’s followers expressed astonishment and disappointment. Some denounced him as a false prophet. He amended the date to October 21 which also didn’t pan out well for him. In his biblical study, he must have missed this passage where Jesus, himself, says, “No one knows the day or hour, not even me.”
And ever since, generations of folks have prayed, “Lord, come!” It would be such a relief, wouldn’t it? But our Christian faith was never indented to be an escape route. Apocalyptic literature can remind us of our mortality. It can create some focus, some needed perspective. But, our lives aren’t to be like one giant Escape Room like that of the latest recreational craze. If anything, this passage on the first Sunday of Advent should ask us to consider how we hope to arrive at Christmas. What would be important for us to do? What would be important for us not to do? For what are we to be held accountable? If we’re not just throwing up our hands until Jesus’ returns and are actually to be the Body of Christ as Jesus expects us to be, at minimum, we should take care of the choices we make… And… if his words never pass away, his greatest commandment should guide our choices – Love God. Love neighbor. What would it look like to honor that command with new intentionality between now and Christmas? How could you embody hope to the world that would move the meter from ‘lonely exile here’ to ‘the thrill of hope’? I think that’s the Advent movement we should press for this year. From the Advent hymn we sing today that says “O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here” to the Christmas beauty of the song we’ll hear on Christmas Eve – “The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…”. How do we get from here to there with that spirit?
I so want you to have that thrill of hope when we light candles and raise them high on Christmas Eve. It will take some effort to get from one lit candle today to one thousand that may fill this space on Christmas Eve. It comes with the words you choose to use yet this afternoon. It comes with being more generous today than we were yesterday. Jesus says it comes when we stay awake – fully alert to the chance to be a positive hope in so many places we’ll be this week that try to command something other than the complete love of God and neighbor. Will you take that intentional step toward Christmas today? Vietnamese monk, Nhat Hanh said, “I have arrived. I am home. My destination is in each step.” I feel more than fine to leave the end of the world as we know it to God almighty. That is God’s to do. What is ours to do? We’ve just hung the greens as a way of saying, “This season is different. It’s started. And I’m ready to pay attention to what it means for my life… for the world.” Today you decide how you want to arrive at Christmas. Our first steps from this place this morning begin to tell the story of just how that arrival will be. “Keep awake. Be patient. Hope for the Lord to come again and again and make his presence known in the way you live.” Are you up for the waiting and watching and stepping in faith? It may be the only way to arrive at the manger with the thrill of hope.
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 http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2017/11/27/keep-awake-lectionary-commentary-advent-week-one. Most exegetical insight for this Markan passage comes from Salt Project’s work here.
 Schweitzer story as shared in Mark for Everyone. Tom Wright. The University Press. Cambridge. 2001.
 Info on Pet Rocks, Harold Camping and association of fads to this Markan text inspired by From Fad to Foundation, work of Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer, for Homiletics.