December 3, 2017
Mark 13:24-37, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
“Searching the Shadows”
What are the words we most need to hear when we are in crisis? I’m guessing none of us would choose words about end times or what we often call the apocalypse. Both the Psalm and Mark were written for a people in crisis. The people in Mark have been shaken to the core by the Roman occupation and destruction of the Jewish temple. The temple was the heart of the world for the Jews. Marks’ gospel is a message of hope proclaimed in the midst of catastrophe. “To really hear it, we have to listen from a position of desolation, chaos, and bewilderment; we have to listen alongside the traumatized soldier, the displaced refugee, the pregnant teenager, the heartbroken addict. This is where Mark lives; these are the depths from which he proclaims his good news.” (http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2017/11/27/keep-awake-lectionary-commentary-advent-week-one)
Knowing that background, it is still true that Jesus has a strange way of comforting people. He doesn’t say, “There, there. It will be ok.” Instead he says, “You are miserable?? It’s going to get worse before it gets better. You have one job until then – keep awake!”
It is funny to me that we read these words in this season where the days are shorter. Does anyone else find yourself sleepy when it gets dark outside – even if that is super early? Why would Jesus tell us to keep awake in a season that it is difficult to keep our eyes open? Keep awake is a way of telling us that hope is more than a quick fix for any of the issues we face today. What God has in mind is much more cosmic than we can even imagine.
A disciple asked, “Is there was anything I can do to ensure enlightenment?”
The master answered, “No more than you can make the sun rise in the morning.”
The disciple asked, “Then what is the use of all these spiritual exercises you prescribe?”
The master replied, “To make sure you’re not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
Following Christ may mean many things, but today’s scripture boils it down to one thing: keep awake. This may be the simplest (yet most difficult) set of instructions we will ever receive. On the one hand, we can be relieved that it isn’t some long list of things we will never be able to remember.
Just last week, we were given a list that was quite a bit longer: feed people, give them something to drink, welcome them, give them clothing, take care of them when they are sick, visit them in prison. It is easy to worry that we might not be able to do all of those things. But look again – there is only one message in that text as well – pay attention. Because if we are paying attention, that is, REALLY paying attention, we will see Christ in each person we meet and THEN we will know how to respond to them. In essence, the reading from last week is much like the one today. Jesus was telling us to watch for him in each person and then we will know what to do.
Today, we are given a very simple mantra for Advent: keep awake.
I have to say that “keep awake” is a whole lot easier to remember than buy presents, decorate, bake, go to parties, give to charitable organizations, sing carols, and all the other things we do in this season.
Let’s be honest. We don’t live every day as if Jesus might show up any minute. What if we did?
While on a South Pole expedition, British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton left a few men on Elephant Island, promising that he would return. Later, when he tried to go back, huge icebergs blocked the way. But suddenly, as if by a miracle, an avenue opened in the ice and Shackleton was able to get through. His men, ready and waiting, quickly scrambled aboard. No sooner had the ship cleared the island than the ice crashed together behind them. Contemplating their narrow escape, the explorer said to his men, "It was fortunate you were all packed and ready to go!" They replied, "We never gave up hope. Whenever the sea was clear of ice, we rolled up our sleeping bags and reminded each other, 'He may come today.'"
That is what this season is about – living with hope because he may come today. Some will say that it isn’t going to happen today because our calendar says he shows up as an infant later this month. But the message to us here is that he can show up anytime and while we wait we have one job to do – keep awake.
My friend Jan Richardson wrote a beautiful book of devotions called Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas. In this season, we are searching the shadows, peeking into the darkness and reflecting the light wherever we can. Today we lit this candle of hope as a profound act of defiance in the face of all the forces that cause despair. We often treat advent candle lighting as a sweet little action when in fact it is really countercultural to say that in this season when we cannot see what comes next, we will trust in the light of God to lead us through.
Sue Monk Kidd tells about when her daughter was small and got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal, she burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. "What exactly will you be doing in the play?" her mother asked her.
"I just stand there and shine," her daughter answered. Sue Monk Kidd says she has never forgotten that response...
The refrain “let your face shine, that we may be saved” happens several times in Psalm 80. That is what we are searching for in the shadows in this Advent season, the shine of God’s reflection in our midst…the light that shows us the next right step.
If we can stay awake and focused on the light of God, we can reflect that light to the world. Jesus is clear in his call to keep awake and watch for the next step. We have to trust that when we take that step, the next one will be given. Everything we do is an act of faith. There are no guarantees.
In the middle of the night, while many were sleeping, the Senate passed a tax bill. We don’t yet know all the ramifications of the bill, but we worry about those Jesus called us to care for – the ones on the margins, the poor, the unemployed. We worry about those who will be hurt by cuts to social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We worry about the future of public education.
This week, we announced the Ministry Leadership Team and Finance Committee recommendation to close the preschool at the end of this school year. We will vote on this recommendation at our January Annual meeting.
On Friday evening, a young woman asked Rosa Johnson about the times in which we live and Rosa reminded us all that these times are not new. Hope is found in God who has sustained us for generations.
We live in uncertain times, but we are not the first to do so. We can trust that God is in the shadows and will show us the next step. We are called to keep awake in the coming months. God will be with us with each step we take.
In the Advent season, we light candles. We wait and we watch. God is in the midst of it all. During World War II, a Jew imprisoned in a concentration camp inscribed these words on a wall of a cellar in Cologne:
"I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
"I believe in love, even though I don't feel it.
"I believe in God, even when [God] is silent."
God is with us in the waiting. God is here even when we cannot see what comes next. Christ may come today. Our job in this season is to keep awake.