"Good News for Insomniacs"

Sermon November 30, 2014

Mark 13:24-37 


Today we begin a new year together and this season is steeped in irony. We are waiting in darkness for the cries of a newborn to fill the night, but lights are going up everywhere, Christmas music is playing and sales started before Thanksgiving because we need to get started if we are going to get it all done before Christmas. I didn’t know about the season of Advent until I was in college. When I discovered that there is a whole season of preparation for Christ to come, I was flooded with relief. I realized that rather than shopping and baking (two things that don’t come easily to me), what I am supposed to be doing right now is waiting in the dark for Christ to enter the world again. But I can’t stop that nagging voice that asks me when I am going to decorate, or bake, or shop, or fit in all those parties. I feel like a Grinch because I don’t want to fill up my days and nights with all that. I want to hibernate and light a candle while I wait for the magic of this season to appear. I know that others love all the parties, decorating and gifts. I have always regretted that I’m not one of them.


It is also ironic that this season begins not with some sweet scripture about the coming of a baby and how lovely that will be. Instead, Advent begins with a “little apocalypse” and warnings of how we are to be prepared. It reminds me of the bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” The Gospel of Mark was written at a tumultuous time in history. Followers of Christ were persecuted. After what was believed to be a Jewish revolt that involved much of the city of Rome being destroyed by a fire, Nero went after the Jews and systematically destroyed them. It wasn’t safe to be a person of faith in the city at that time. We hear about the signs of the end of the world and don’t find them to be very comforting today, but it may be that those to whom it was written found comfort in these words from Mark. They were still waiting for Jesus to return. Somehow words like these might convince them that the world is in God’s hands. We may not be able to see how this will play out and we may not know when, but we can take comfort in knowing that God is at work and our job is simply to pay attention.


I say that as if it is simple to pay attention. I think it is harder than ever to pay attention. We don’t often find people really attending to things anymore. When we wait in line, we are checking our phones. When we are at home, the tv is on. How do we pay attention today? Even in conversations, it is hard to find people really listening to each other. What does it look like to pay attention in this season? I am really torn between wanting to be sure I show up prepared on Christmas with the right gifts and wanting to be sure my heart has made room for Christ to show up in the midst of darkness bringing hope and peace. It seems to be the nature of the season that it is one of contrasts. As Martin Copenhaver said, “Advent eventually takes us to a babe in a manger, but begins by traversing the cosmos” Taking the words from movie director Cecil B. DeMille, “Start with an earthquake, then build to a climax.” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol 1, p. 21) Does it strike you as ironic that a story that builds to a dramatic finish with a baby in a stable started with the end of the world?


In some ways, that is how this works, we have to be able to hold the tensions and contrasts in this lifetime and it can be quite a challenge. One of the tensions of this season is the joy and external décor while on the inside many struggle with deep pain. My friend Jan Richardson’s husband died last year on Dec 2. As she prepares for the anniversary of this horrific day, she finds herself caught in this conflict. She writes, “The ending of one’s personal world is not the same, I know, as The End of the World that Jesus describes here. Yet the first Sunday of Advent invites us to recognize that these endings are connected; that the Christ who will return at the end of time somehow inhabits each ending we experience in this life. Every year, Advent calls us to practice the apocalypse: to look for the presence of Christ who enters into our every loss, who comes to us in the midst of devastation, who gathers us up when our world has shattered, and who offers the healing that is a foretaste of the wholeness he is working to bring about not only at the end of time but also in this time, in this place.”


For years, Jan has graced the world with her writing and art. She writes blessings that leave me stunned in their beauty and honesty. For this Sunday, she writes:


Blessing When the World is Ending


Look, the world

is always ending




the sun has come

crashing down.



it has gone

completely dark.



it has ended

with the gun

the knife

the fist.



it has ended

with the slammed door

the shattered hope.



it has ended

with the utter quiet

that follows the news

from the phone

the television

the hospital room.



it has ended

with a tenderness

that will break

your heart.


But, listen,

this blessing means

to be anything

but morose.

It has not come

to cause despair.


It is simply here

because there is nothing

a blessing

is better suited for

than an ending,

nothing that cries out more

for a blessing

than when a world

is falling apart.


This blessing

will not fix you

will not mend you

will not give you

false comfort;

it will not talk to you

about one door opening

when another one closes.


It will simply

sit itself beside you

among the shards

and gently turn your face

toward the direction

from which the light

will come,

gathering itself

about you

as the world begins




It is our job as people of faith to live in the tension. It is our task to allow God to be God when it seems that we have no need of God and when it seems that God has up and left the planet. We must learn to live in the places where the pieces do not fit neatly together. If this season is one of pain for you, you are not alone. If this season brings you great joy, may you be blessed as you share that joy with others. There isn’t much of a script. In fact, there is one phrase to guide us through these next four weeks: keep awake!


This may come as good news to the insomniacs among us. The call is clear: pay attention. Do not forget to prepare for Christ’s coming. This requires a kind of deliberateness on our part. We can be sure that God is indeed with us. The word Emmanuel reminds us that we are not alone. God is found here in the prison cell, in the hospital waiting room, in our loneliness, in our despair and in our joy. God comes to us in the darkness of this season bringing hope and holiness. Remember that darkness is a place of gestation. New life is cultivated in the darkness of a womb, seeds are cultivated in the darkness of soil, and the darkness of this season becomes a birthing ground for us. Rather than rushing to turn on all the lights, perhaps we can practice sitting in the dark for a bit and waiting for the gifts that come. We can trust that God is here with us and that God will come to us in the places of fear and regret. Our task is to keep vigil. Our task is to wait. Our task is to trust. Our task is to hope. Keep awake.