Benjamin Franklin once opined: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” If you are a Christian in a congregation that follows the lectionary – the proscribed readings for the liturgical year – you can be certain you’ll hear the passage in Mark 13: 24-37 or something like it on the first Sunday of Advent.
Just as we gear up to celebrate the beginning of the Christian year, we read about the end of history.
We expect the joy of the season and are told to “run for the hills.”
We look forward to getting the tree up and buying the presents…why bother?
We’re waiting for the Christ child in all its blessed innocence and we get the apocalypse.
We want to relax into the season and we receive a warning: “Stay awake – because the Master of the house is coming and you do not want to be asleep!”
This may even be more important than missing the sales!
Goodness gracious, there is dissonance in this text. I don’t know if I want to sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” ever again.
It has always been this way. There is dissonance in our lives. There is dissonance in the world. Always tension between what is and what is to be – dissonance between our present reality and our future hope or horror – and getting to the hope may not be easy!
The earliest Christians really thought the end time would be in their time. The fall of Jerusalem seemed to portend the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds with great power and glory, sending angels, gathering the elect.
And through the ages there have been believers who thought that Jesus was coming back in their day. We hear it even in our day.
Certainly fundamental to our faith as Christians is this trust that Christ will return, that all things in heaven and on earth will be reconciled to the Divine Will – that indeed the New Jerusalem will be established and God will dwell among people – and death will be no more.
And as the generations and millennia have passed, thoughtful Christians have had to adapt to the extended time line of expectation. How do we live in the meantime, keeping awake, maintaining the faith?
In this and every season we live and love, worship and serve, act with compassion, generosity, hope, faith, claim the gifts of the spirit and live fully and joyfully – but always with the tension, the anxiety that comes from reading read the newspapers.
We proclaim that the trajectory of history bends towards God – and the one who Created all will claim all. But it gets hard sometimes.
For in each and every age and into every life – none of us are spared – there is an ending and a beginning:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to weep and a time to laugh
A time for love and a time for hate.
Into every age and life there come times of horror, moments of great disturbance in which you and I are called to remain faithful even as it seems – and in a way actually is – the world is falling apart.
Today in Adult Education, Gerri Beal (Tim Beal’s mom!) led the class on Dietrich Bonheoffer – the German martyr who was killed by the Nazis for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler.
But Bonhoeffer was a great theologian and teacher who returned from safety in the United States to Germany to train the pastors and Christian teachers who would have to rebuild the church in Germany after the war.
Europe was falling apart. The world was coming unhinged. Evil seemed to have the upper hand. Germany, the very heart of Christian Western civilization was coming unglued, walking in goose step precision behind “Der Fuhrer.”
The German Christian Church called Hitler the fulfillment of God’s purpose. These were dark days, suffering days: the stars were falling, there was no place to run, nowhere to hide.
And into that horrific time Bonhoeffer and others were staying awake and preparing for the next age. The true church of Jesus was meeting in secret places. And some few Christians were hiding Jews, knowing that they faced death for doing so but it is what Christians were called to do.
Right in the midst of the horrors – Jesus Christ was coming, was present in the suffering church.
And it is certainly nothing like it was in the 1940s – but today we live in the midst of the horror of radical Islamic terror. If you are a Christian, or Muslim (for that matter), Druze, anyone living in the fertile crescent, not willing to convert, or follow narrowly defined Sharia law; if you are a woman and not willing to remain indoors, if you are a girl who wants to go to school, if you are a reporter – you will die.
Oh my, there is darkness in our world, this day. There is fear in our world this day. The stars are falling, the powers are shaken.
Ebola is still out there. The immigrants are at the gate (or so some fear.) The President is destroying the constitution. Police shoot young black men in Ferguson and a young boy on a swing in Cleveland and we don’t know what or who to believe.
Our world as we know it seems to be coming apart at the seams.
And yet into this age, you and I must stay awake, and act as if we really believe that Christ rules, that the kingdom is present anytime there is peace, justice, and humility. Anytime a stranger is welcomed, a prisoner is visited, a drink of water given – Christ comes.
This is not a time to be passive. Christ is still looking for his elect – those who look to him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
And in everyone’s life there comes a time when it all seems so hard, so very hard – a diagnosis, a last Christmas, a first Christmas alone, a betrayal, life as you know it changed forever. We simply don’t know when, truly, it could all come crashing down.
The reality of the present moment calls for us to dig deep, and hang in there, and stay awake, accept community, and weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh, and worship, and keep the faith even if you don’t believe. Fake it ‘till you make it, and get up in the morning, and love the people who stand before you, and rejoice in the Lord and again I say rejoice.
You see those who stay awake for Jesus, stand in the midst of the flux and dissonance and hold it all in like some troubled pregnancy wondering, “What, O Lord is going to be born?”
And the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is this: into these changeable times God is present, God comes, God calls, God builds, God is. And we are asked to stay awake firm in this reality and not give into to any other reality.
And so we break bread and remember the night when Jesus came to realize what his call was – where his faith in Abba would lead – that the end of his life was mere hours away, and that at noon, darkness would cover the whole land.
We share the cup – and lift our eyes, and rise up and claim the promise that God is coming and God is here. Emmanuel! God has never left! And we are called to be the community, to be the people, to be the person in this age when the heavens are rattled, and things look dark.
Indeed, it is the “end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine!” Because soon we will get the chance to come to the manger and look in and see the face of God and sing “Silent Night, Holy Night!”
So let us eat the kingdom feast – because we know what is ultimately coming, and so we strengthen ourselves for the living of these last days in the midst of years to come, taking in all the beauty and the joy, standing firm in the midst of all the tensions and strife, living as kingdom people awaiting the coming of the King.