a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Year B]
Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37
Right after graduation from high school I took a trip to visit a friend who lived just outside of Paris. We basically just hung around the city a lot but one day he wanted to show me this expansive forest just outside of town where there was good hiking and nature. After several days in the bright lights of a big city, it sounded like a nice change of pace. He packed his camera and I packed snacks and we set out on the commuter train, which we had gotten fairly comfortable at riding.
At one of the stops on the way there, three nefarious-looking characters boarded our car and started to stare at us. Just before the doors opened at the next stop, they jumped us. Right there in front of everyone, trapped with nowhere to run, we got mugged, and all of the other passengers just watched. They beat us up a little bit, took my watch off my arm as well as my brand new Yankees hat I had just gotten as a graduation gift and had just gotten broken in. The more we tried to resist, the rougher they seemed to get. They felt our pockets for money and took all of that and they were getting ready to make off with my friend’s camera when the doors to the train opened and they bolted off into the alleys of the city. My friend and I stood there, stunned and shocked. We went from feeling safe and happy, with a full day of fun ahead of us, to being frightened and disheveled and directionless, all in an instant. We had no idea what we were supposed to do, how to take hold of our situation, where we could seek help. We didn’t speak the language, we held no currency. We were foreign men, surrounded by the sounds of people we thought didn’t care.
Never before and never since have I so wanted the sky to open up and be delivered. Never before and never since have I so wanted justice and yet also felt so helpless to do anything about it. I didn’t want to go to the forest anymore. I just wanted to get back home, but neither my friend nor I were able to think straight enough to do that. We needed to wait and hope that someone would recognize the mess we were in and help us.
That, in a nutshell, is how Advent begins. We may think Advent begins with buying a Christmas tree or hitting black Friday sales, or even lighting a candle, but really it begins with a hope that the sky would open and someone would come down and straighten things out. Advent begins not so much with a crime, of course, but with a reality check that we are helpless foreigners here in this life, stuck on a train of misadventure, vulnerable to all kinds of harmful situations and horrible impulses that are larger than we are.
It is not just Advent that is set up this way. Each year, in fact—no, each day of a Christ-follower’s life should probably begin the same way: with an honest assessment of how out of control things are. Each day should probably begin with a sincere confession of just how vulnerable we are because then we would also be aware of just how much God protects us, how thoroughly God loves us, how ready God is to deliver us.
God’s people ancient Israel knew this feeling all too well, and their words are ours today, the first lines of Scripture we hear as a new year begins. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We find them standing in their own land having returned from many years of exile far away and yet feeling like aliens. None of the dreams of peace and order they had envisioned had materialized. None of the prosperity that had hoped for had come to fruition. There was chaos in their culture and corruption in their leaders. Famine was taking hold. They felt mugged by the rough world and by their own inadequacies. They are at this point aware that there is nothing they can do to change any of it. They cry out to God, from whom they are feeling so distant,“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” And then we have these great lines about God arriving and even making the mountains tremble, the very God who sculpted those mountains. God’s people wait that God to come and remake them like a potter who works clay. Fascinating images of a God who loves the earth but who can smash it and then get his hands dirty and refashion it to his own desires.
My bet is that many of us feel this same way about 2020. By almost all accounts it has been a crazy, out of control year and we want a re-do. Pandemic, economic ruin, societal upheaval, political uncertainty, the Washington Football Team doesn’t even have a real name. In fact, I saw a meme shared on social media this week that featured a photo of a well put together Tina Fey, grinning from ear to ear and holding her knees with confidence as she sits on a desk next to a some photos from from a movie where she is yelling and stress-eating and having a nervous breakdown. Her face is contorted in a grimace and her mascara is running. The contrast between the two is stark, but humorous. Beneath the photo where she is is clean and confident it says, “Pastors in January 2020” and, as you might guess, the words underneath the worn-out and falling apart Tina Fey say, “Pastors in November 2020.”
It’s certainly not just pastors. It’s teachers and principals and nurses and physicians and moms and dads and school children and small business owners and restaurant workers and government officials and law enforcement officers and the elderly and the immuno-compromised and those who’ve lost loved ones since March and those who believe coronavirus is a threat and those who believe it’s an overblown hoax. It’s just about everybody this year. (Except meme makers. It’s been a banner year for meme-makers). But for everyone else, 2020 began with such hope and now every day seems to drag on and we hear of another thing that we can’t control, another piece of bad news. With all kinds of cracks in our social fabric, the human family is in a situation that is far beyond any human’s ability to straighten out, and we can’t even pull ourselves together, even once the trials of 2020 are over. “O that God would tear open the heavens and come down!”
But when it comes to waiting for God to act we do not wait with fear. When it comes to the mountains quaking, Jesus’ followers have nothing to worry about. As tough as things are both inside of us and outside in the world, we do not wait as if no help will come. We are people who have been claimed by one who has waited for us on a cross, who has already waited through the intense abandonment of crucifixion without any rescue. We know our God is triumphant. Good Friday has over and done with. We are confident our God can tear open the sky and come down because God has already rolled the stone away from a tomb. And in all things we anticipate the return of this risen Lord to who will fully restore the world to the vision of love and justice and prosperity God has for all of creation.
It occurs to me we all happen to be waiting for a vaccine right now. What an Advent symbol! That seems to be the magic cure, if you will, that thing will restore things to the way we’re used to living. In the past few weeks I, like most of you, have been encouraged by the announcements that progress is being made on this front. Testing is almost finished and next will come distribution. Maybe we should have a vaccine wreath. It is at the gates, you might say, ready to be let in.
Guess what? So is our Lord. He, too, is ready to burst onto the scene with his cleansing and healing power, with his wide embrace to love and restore. Maybe we can learn how to wait for him from the way we are waiting for a COVID vaccine. We persevere, we continue our daily rituals of mask wearing and good hygiene, we encourage one another knowing that eventually, and probably sooner than we realize, it will all be over.
This Lord Jesus himself reassures his followers precisely of this just before his death. It will all be over before you know it. Be ready, and be at work. And even though there will be times of great suffering in the world, even though turmoil will be so great it may feel as if stars are falling from heaven, his words will not pass away. We will always be able to depend on Jesus’ words, no matter how much stay at home orders change and numbers fluctuate. We trust that in the meantime God is still forming us, like a potter, to be ready. God is shaping us to be ready to live in the new normal, the new, perfect, everlasting normal that God has planned.
I’m glad to say that someone did step up to help us that day on the trail terminal. Two girls, of all people, saw our situation and offered to take us to the police. They couldn’t have been older than 18, probably about our same age. We never would have imagined that out of all the people on that train car—the various businessmen returning from work, for example, the older folks who would have been our parents’ age, the women with the large, heavy handbags that clearly could have been used as weapons—that the people who would come to our rescue would have been these two young women. They told us not to be afraid, walked us to the police station and then got in the car with them to go on an elaborate hunt to find the perpetrators, which they never did. Then they gave us money for the train ride back home. My friend and I felt somewhat redeemed, and thankful we did not ignore or turn down their offer to help. Later that week my friend’s dad gave us some money to take them out to dinner to say thanks.
So comes the Christ, unexpectedly, tearing open the heavens (if he has to) and coming down, and most when we need him. Be ready. Watch. And wait.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.