With Power & Great Glory
Scripture - Mark 13:24-37
We are waiting, God. We are waiting to hear your word. We are waiting to sense your presence. Open our hearts, that we may be renewed by your grace & transformed by your love. Amen.
Reread 13: 24-26.
A few weeks ago, I went to visit a clergy friend of mine. He wanted to show me the new fellowship hall that is under construction where he serves & then we went into the church, where a curious thing sat on the altar. It was a fat white candle sitting in a deep dish with a spiral of rusted barbed wire climbing the air around it. “What is that?” I asked him, thinking it had something to do with a prison ministry. “It’s a symbol I came across that really spoke to me,” he said, carefully touching one of the sharp barbs. “See, the light has already come into the world, but there is still work to be done. There is still darkness between us & the light.”
There is not any barbed wire around the candles we put on our Advent wreath, but in their own way they remind us of the same thing. There are 4 of them, one for each Sunday before Christmas. With one candle lit they tell us when our new year begins, & that we are on a different timetable from the
rest of the world. There are plenty of other calendars that shape our lives – school calendars & fiscal calendars & national calendars, all of them with their own values & concerns. The Christian calendar focuses on the life of Christ, & what his life tells us about our own lives with God.
Maybe you have noticed that this Christian year of ours begins in the dark? From midsummer on the days get shorter as the earth spins away from the sun in its annual orbit. With the end of daylight savings time earlier this month, nighttime takes over. Then it gets dark by 6 o’clock & every day the dark comes sooner. By the time the earth rounds the bend on December 21, it is the shortest day of the year, less than 10 hours long.
One thing Advent tells me is that people of faith know it will get darker before it gets light. That is what our calendar teaches us, beginning when it does. Week by week we will light new candles, but even as we light them darkness will increase. We also know that the sun will come back, just like we know that God will be born in a stable in Bethlehem. These are sure facts of our lives, but so is waiting in the dark. Anyone who has ever hungered for morning knows that. It will come, but it will not be rushed. You can prop the clock right by your face on your pillow. You can count to 60 five hundred times & it will not change a thing. Night creatures will still rustle in the leaves outside your window. Your heart will still beat like a drum in your ears. Morning will come, but it will not be rushed. Our job is to wait without losing hope.
That is what Jesus told his disciples in Mark 13. There were only 4 there to hear him – Peter, James, John & Andrew – the inner circle, the first 4 to drop what they were doing & follow Jesus. They just had walked with Jesus to the Mount of Olives & sat down with him there, looking across the Kidron Valley at the great walled city of Jerusalem, with the temple crowning it at its highest point. Jesus had told them that the whole place would come tumbling down one day soon, & they wanted him to tell them when. How would they know when the center of their universe was about to collapse?
That is when he told them about the dismantling of the sky, how the stars would fall from their constellations like diamonds from a broken necklace, how the sun would be smudged & the moon snuffed out before they saw the Son of Man riding the clouds with great power & glory. He did not say it to scare them. He said it to comfort them. They needed to know that even something as frightening as the end of the world was in God’s good hands. When the cosmos collapsed & every light in the sky was put out, they were to remember what he had told them. They were to remember that God is sovereign over darkness as well as light & they were to watch – watch even in the darkness – for his coming to them in the clouds.
By the time Mark wrote his words down some 30 years later, it seemed that the end was extremely near. The stars were still in the sky, but that was about all. The headlines were as bad then as they are now. Jerusalem lay in ruins. The temple was destroyed. The emperor’s favorite pastime was thinking up inventive new ways for Christians to die & there was fighting among the Christians themselves, with whole families being torn apart by their conflicting loyalties. False messiahs were setting themselves up on every street corner, each of them claiming exclusive access to the mind of God. Everything was falling apart, & those who had believed in Jesus must have wondered if they had been fooled. Surely this was not the way things were supposed to turn out. Surely God had intended a nonviolent renovation of the world – a sort of huge urban renewal project – with loyal believers in charge. Not this chaos. Not this devastation. Not this darkness.
That is when Mark told them the story again, writing it down so they would not forget: how Jesus himself had predicted it all, how he had tried to tell them that they could not have a new world witho letting go of the old one, which would have to crash & burn before anything fresh could be born of its ashes. It was & is the good news of the end of the world, a piece of the gospel most of us would just as soon forget, but there it is: when the end comes, it will not be because God is absent but because God is very present, having come in great power & 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, to pay attention, so that we are not snoozing when the master comes home. There are at least 3 different ways Christians have gone about this job in years past. For some, watching means looking for the literal end of the world. There are whole books you can buy on the mathematical formulae contained in the Book of Revelation, with good advice about how to be in the right place at the right time. The only problem with this approach is that it tries to discover what even Jesus himself could not discover. I assure you, Jesus said, that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. And yet with his next breath he took it back. But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven & not the Son. Only the Father knows. Some people say that phrase was added much later, after generations & generations of believers had passed away & those who were left wanted to know what the delay was all about, but if Jesus was fully human, it was true: even he did not know the mind of God.
Another way Christians have settled down to watch is by letting their awareness of the end heighten their commitment to the present. In colonial New England, I read, a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness by a sudden eclipse, during which many of those present panicked & others moved to adjourn. But one of them said, “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world, and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought.”
Yet a third way to watch for the end is to suspect that there is not just one end to the world any more than there is just one coming of Christ to look forward to. When Jesus died, his disciples believed the world had ended. When Jerusalem fell & Nero swooped down on the young church like a mad vulture, they believed the world had ended. In a manner of speaking, the world can end any day of the week with a declaration of war, or the death of a child, or a grim diagnosis, & watching for Christ’s coming again in power & great glory can become the only light in such times, when sun & moon & stars have all been snuffed out.
Whichever of these ways makes the most sense to you, they have one thing in common. The one who is coming is not an enemy but a friend. He may come in the light, but he may also come in the evening, or at midnight, or at 3 in the morning. Darkness does not stop him, & it does not have to stop us either. Our job is not to lie in bed with pillows over our heads or to shove all the heavy furniture in front of the door for fear of the darkness outside. Our job is to light the candle wrapped in barbed wire & set it in the window. Our job is to watch for the one who comes to us with healing in his wings & to open the door for him before he raises his hand to knock. Who knows when that will be? No one, that is who. Watch, therefore. Take heed & stay alert. For what he says to us he says to all: Stay alert!
Let us pray. In these days of Advent, we are waiting. We are waiting for Jesus, God’s love come to us. May our days of waiting be holy. May our time of preparation be patient & watchful. May our Advent season be filled with wisdom. May we be alert & aware of God’s work in our world, trusting that the work God has given us has meaning. Amen.