Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Waiting in the Dark." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent.

"Waiting in the Dark"

Mark 13:24-37

Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, the scripture readings the lectionary gives us aren’t about angels bringing tidings of great joy.  That will come later. Today, we’re asked to consider the end times, or at least what will happen in the future.
            Over the centuries, there have been many predictions about the end of the world, but they’ve been wrong. We’re still here.
            Some of us may have taken a peek at the last pages of a book, to see how it ends. Over the centuries, many have longed to get a look at the “last page,” to know when and how the end of time will come.
            The followers of Jesus, too, wanted to know about the future. Earlier in Mark 13, the disciples ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”[1]
            Jesus told them, “Beware that no one leads you astray,” and he says that the future is not ours to know.  In today’s lesson, we hear Jesus say, “About that day or hour no one knows…. only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…. Therefore, keep awake-- for you don’t know when.  Keep awake.”
            In Mark’s “little apocalypse,” there’s no mention of the end of the world…no indication of final judgment…no call to flee daily realities and responsibilities-- only the promise that the Son of Man is near.

            One of the places I'd like to visit someday is Ireland.  Around 500 A.D., the southwestern coast line of Ireland was the end of the known world--   which someone suggested may be why it's dotted with prehistoric stone circles and the ruins of ancient monasteries. 
            One of these monasteries was built on an impossibly steep rock island eight miles off the coast.  For 700 years, the monks there practiced a strict, ascetic way of life.  They survived the weather and raids by the Vikings.  They hauled stones to build 2700 steps up the mountain's dizzying height-- to the prayer huts on top the mountain.  They'd climb up to the mountaintop to pray...   and to watch for Christ to return in power and glory.
            In the eleventh century, a somewhat more relaxed form of monastic rule came into fashion on the mainland.  When the European orders of Benedictines and Augustinians arrived in Ireland, the local tradition of small, independent monasteries began to die out.  In the thirteenth century, the last of the monks got into their boats and rowed away from their rocky outpost.
            Nobody knows for sure why they left, but it's possible that they just got tired of waiting.  As Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, seven hundred years is a long time to watch the horizon for the second coming.   It's a long time to keep your fasts and say your prayers at prescribed times throughout the day and night.              It's a long time to live in strictly disciplined community with one another-- especially when word reaches you that the monks on the mainland have made some changes.  They're eating better and sleeping later than you are.  They've decided they can be in the world a little more without being of it--   especially since it looks like they're in for a longer wait than anyone had expected.[2]
            Centuries later, we can sympathize.  Few of us spend our days watching the horizon expectantly for Christ's second coming.

            The earliest Christians thought the Second Coming would be immediate, and they lived accordingly. But more than 2,000 years have passed since God came to dwell among us in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus hasn't come back.
Waiting is hard.  Waiting has always been hard.  The Bible is full of stories about what faithful people did while they waited.  It’s full of promises not yet fulfilled. 
            Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets were writing and talking about waiting for one who would be like a light for the darkness.   Those who heard the prophets were weary with impatience.  They wanted the Messiah now.  They yearned for God to be on their timetable.  For years...  for centuries...  through the events of history, God's answer was, “Wait."  
            In the prologue to John's Gospel, John the Baptist said, “I am not the light, but I come to tell you about the light that is to come."   The crowds were so anxious for a Messiah that they wanted John the Baptist to be the Messiah.  Again, God's message was "Wait"...
            The Christian year begins in dark times.  The days keep getting shorter and shorter, and the darkness keeps increasing, and it looks like darkness rules-- until the earth rounds the bend on December 21. That day, the Winter Solstice, can be a sign to us that longer days are coming, that light will be increasing and darkness will be decreasing.
            The disciples were looking for certainty-- a sign.  They needed to know that the world was in God's good hands.  When the cosmos collapsed and every light in the sky was put out, they were to remember what he had told them.  They were to remember that God is Lord over darkness as well as light.   They were to watch-- even in the darkness-- for his coming.
            By the time, Mark wrote his words down years later, it seemed that the end was very near.  The stars were still in the sky, but the headlines were as bad then as they are now.  Jerusalem was in ruins.  The temple had been destroyed.  The emperor Nero was persecuting the Christians in Rome.  False messiahs were setting themselves up on every street corner, each of them claiming to be God's anointed one. 
            It felt like everything was falling apart...  and those who had believed in Jesus must have wondered if they'd been fooled.  Surely this wasn't the way things were supposed to turn out.  Not this chaos!  Not this darkness!
            That's when Mark told them the story again, writing it down so they wouldn't forget:  how Jesus himself had predicted it all...  how he had tried to tell them that they couldn't have a new world without letting go of the old one.
            It was and is the good news of the end of the world:  when the end comes, it won't be because God is absent-- but because God is very present...   because God is coming in great power and glory to make all things new.
            In the meantime, our job is to watch, Jesus says.  Not to watch out.  But to watch-- to stay alert...  pay attention...  so that we aren't snoozing when the time comes.

In the midst of all the pain… suffering… confusion… injustice…and chaos in the world, the people of God are called to proclaim the Light that out-shines all darkness. Once we’ve been touched by the Light, we’re called to be bearers of Christ’s light, to carry the light out into the world.
            The military has developed special goggles that help people see in the dark.  In a place that's totally dark, you can look through the goggles and see.  Something in the goggles picks up and concentrates the light that would be too faint to see otherwise.
            Isn't that a wonderful parable for the church?  There's always some light in all darkness, even if we can’t see it. As a community of faith, we can pick up the beacon of unseen Light and help the world to see it more clearly. 
            The God we know and trust calls us out of darkness-- into the Light that overcomes the darkness.
            The good news is that darkness does not have the last word.  Jesus, the light of the world, has come and shines in the darkness....  and the darkness does not and will not overcome it.  
            So, stay alert.  Stay awake.  When we live as if the Lord might return at any time, we have nothing to fear.
            Come, Lord Jesus!

[1] Mark 13:4
[2]I'm indebted to Barbara Brown Taylor for the monastery story and this line of thinking, which appear in Journal for Preachers, Advent 1996