An Advent Apocalypse

This sermon was recorded as a dialogue with Rev. Sarah Harrison-McQueen of Central UMC, Ballston.

Scripture: Mark 13:24-27

Allie: Hey Sarah!

Sarah: Good morning, Allie! 

Allie: It’s really cool to be doing this series with you. Our churches have always been so close and so similar, and we’ve been able to take advantage of that before, we’ve swapped pulpits a couple times, and now “these unprecedented times” have opened up this new way for us to partner in worship. 

Sarah: Yes, I’m surprised to discover there are some hidden blessings in the challenges we face with virtual worship – and the opportunity to collaborate with you has been really fun! Planning his worship series for Advent with you really helped me get excited for this season. I was having a bit of a hard time this year because I love Advent and was feeling pretty sad about all the ways Advent would be different this year. There are so many things I love about Advent – especially the music and the decorations.

Allie: Yes, I love the whole feeling of the season, and I especially love the stories we tell. What’s your favorite Advent scripture, Sarah?

Sarah: I think it is when the Gospels quote from the Prophet Isaiah, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.” That scripture really captures my imagination. What’s your favorite?

Allie: I think mine would have to be the Magnificat, the song Mary sings when she’s pregnant with Jesus, about how God is turning everything upside down. How about this passage we just read from Mark 13? Have you ever heard anyone say that one was their favorite for Advent?

Sarah: Definitely not. It’s kind of weird to hear this apocalyptic reading during a season when we’re thinking about hope, love, joy, and peace. It’s in the lectionary, though. That means for churches who follow the three year lectionary cycle of scripture readings on the First Sunday of Advent they’ll hear a version of this story from Mark 13, or Luke 21, or Matthew 24. So, some committee of scholars thought it made sense for us to hear every year about an Advent Apocalypse.

Allie: It is kind of weird, and it’s easy to forget there is a reason it is tradition to hear these texts in this season. 

I’ve always loved this season leading up to Christmas, but growing up, as I began to learn more about Advent and how it was a season of waiting and expectation for the birth of Jesus, there was something that didn’t quite add up for me there. Because Jesus was already born 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. So what does it mean to wait for something that already happened? What does it mean to expect something that’s a done deal?

Yes, there’s value to living out this waiting and expecting and to telling the story of the birth of Christ year after year, but it began to seem like I was missing something. Fleming Rutledge, an author of an Advent book I’ve been reading, said, “For many years, I thought that during Advent, one was supposed to pretend that Jesus hadn’t been born, so that we would be more excited when Christmas came.”[1] I guess I did too.

I was in college when I learned that Advent isn’t only about waiting for the birth of the baby in the manger in Bethlehem. It’s also about waiting for the second coming of Christ. Advent is also the season that teaches us what it means to wait for and expect this thing that hasn’t happened yet. 

Sarah: That’s really helpful to remember that when we talk about “waiting” in advent we aren’t just pretending the baby Jesus hasn’t been born yet, but that we are actually waiting for something that hasn’t happened yet. But, when we start talking about the end of this age we live in sometimes that can feel a little uncomfortable. We don’t usually talk much about the Second Coming in our mainline tradition.

Allie: That’s true. Of course in our churches we all come from lots of different places and traditions, and so some of us may be more comfortable talking in those terms than others. But on the whole we don’t tend to get too apocalyptic in mainline Protestantism. I think we’re scared of sounding too out there, like those street preachers always going on about the end of the world.

Exactly. During Advent, I am usually much more comfortable talking about the Angels who appeared to Mary and Joseph – it’s new for me to consider the angels mentioned in our text today from Mark 13.

Jesus is talking to his disciples in one of his many attempts to prepare them for the future that will come following his death and resurrection. At the beginning of Chapter 13 Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. His disciples are impressed by the setting – after all, they believed this is the place to go to enter God’s presence. But, Jesus knows that one day this physical temple will fall away. And, this could cause a crisis of faith if people expect to find God in a place and then that place disappears – where do you go to find God then?

This entire chapter takes place in Mark’s Gospel just before the Passion narrative which tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus knew that his disciples would have their whole world thrown upside down by the events to come – and he tries to prepare them. When the world as we know it comes to an end it is easy to feel confused, and possibly be lured away from the truth by false messiahs and false prophets. So, Jesus warns them of what is to come – both the fall of the temple, and also at the end of time when it seems like the world is ending.

This text can feel a little scary to think about “in those days…” but it also can simply be a little confusing. On the one hand, it seems like Mark is telling the listener to expect to see this for themselves and to be prepared for the end of the world at any moment – on the other hand, it could be read like Mark is emphasizing perseverance through the hardships of this life because this isn’t going to happen tomorrow. 

So, our text gives us no clear indication if the Second Coming of Christ will happen in a minute or in a million years. When I was a kid, I remember seeing cars with the bumper sticker sharing a warning letting people know that, “in case of rapture this car will become driverless.” While that bumper sticker points to a theological understanding outside our tradition – the idea of a “rapture of the saved” with the unsaved “left behind” – it does still remind me that there is value to remembering that Christ has promised to return again to this earth. I think this season of Advent gives us a chance to turn our focus towards the future that God has promised.

Allie: There’s a reason I think many of us don’t usually want to focus on that future. For one thing: it seems really far away. Jesus hasn’t come back in 2000 years, so why should we think it’s going to be tomorrow? People are always trying to guess and predict these things, but so far, they haven’t been right. 

And the other thing is: maybe I don’t necessarily WANT Jesus to come back and usher in the end of the age. This age is OK, right? This year itself has been a little rough, but in general, I want to work and enjoy life with my family and my friends. I want to write a book. I want to visit Argentina someday. I want to spend summer vacations at the beach with my kids. So: I guess I want Jesus to come back someday, but not too soon. I have plans. 

In other words, I think, I’ve gotten complacent. 

Sarah: I can understand feeling complacent. I think 2020 has knocked a lot of us out of that complacency. And, I can imagine that for someone whose life is constantly filled with hardships, that this text could actually bring some real comfort. There is powerful hope in this text to folks experiencing their world falling apart, or when it feels like the whole world is on fire.

Allie: Yes, in a lot of ways this whole year has felt kind of like the apocalypse, hasn’t it? We’ve been on lockdown, hiding out from a potentially deadly disease; we’ve seen pictures of the makeshift morgues in hospital parking lots; we’ve gone long stretches of time without seeing other people; we’ve seen the continual reports of violence targeting people of color and the mass protests that have followed; and it feels a lot of the time like our country is on the verge of a complete breakdown along party lines. I agree that maybe one of the unexpected gifts of this year is that it’s shaken us out of our complacency. Nothing in 2020 is how it should be, and we need a reason to believe it won’t always be like this! And so when I pray “Come, Lord Jesus,” this year, I mean it: Come, and make this better. Come, and defeat the evil of this plague. Come, and give life back to those bodies in the hospital parking lot. Come, and judge our racist acts, and grant justice to those who have been oppressed. Come and turn things over and heal our wounds as a people.

2020 is a year when I need to be able to find hope not just in looking back at something that already happened, but in looking forward to something new. 

Sarah: Yes, one of the interesting experiences of 2020 is that all around the globe we’re all looking forward to something new – and for the first time in my lifetime that means millions of people are waiting and hoping for the same thing to happen as we wait for a Covid vaccine. 

Allie: Yes, and of course as the church that’s our job, to be waiting and preparing for God’s Kingdom here on earth, together. So, over the next few weeks, we’re going to get to talk about what it means to wait, and what exactly is this apocalypse we’re waiting for. Sarah, I hope this series will be able to lend new purpose and new reason to hope to this season. As the famous theologian Karl Barth once said, “What other time or season can or will the church ever have but Advent?”[2]

Sarah: Thanks be God, Amen!

[1] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, p. 58

[2] Rutledge, p. 7

All Other Ground is Sinking Sand

Scripture: Matthew 7:24-27

It’s been a year this week. I heard Kai Ryssdal say that on NPR at the beginning of Covid and it seems to fit now as much as ever.

When I was doing my worship planning for this fall, I intentionally left this week blank with the note “pastoral response to election.” As I sat down to write this week, though, I just kept thinking – how do you respond pastorally to something when you don’t even know what’s happening? Here at the end of the week, now, we do know that Joe Biden has been declared the winner, though there are probably still recounts and perhaps legal challenges that lie ahead.

I don’t claim to know what all of you have been feeling this week, but I do know it has been a week of feelings running high. Maybe at different times this week you’ve felt anxious, hopeful, afraid, angry, relieved. I have felt all of these things this week too. I know for some of you, this election season has caused or heightened rifts within your own families. I know there are those of you to whom it has seemed like this race was a referendum on your identity, your family, or your rights. There are perhaps those of you who watched a speech last night by a vice-president-elect who looks like you or your children, for the very first time. I also know there are those of you who are worried about other things going on halfway around the world while everyone seems so riveted to this one thing. I imagine most of us, on either side, feel a little bit of despair when we realize again just how deeply divided our country is.

And what I thought was no matter what, in the midst of all of this, what I wanted to do today is to remind you that Jesus Christ is Lord: not Biden, not Trump, not anyone else we will ever cast a vote for. None of them will usher in the Kingdom of God here on earth, and what’s more, none of them will prevent it. That’s why we’re celebrating Reign of Christ Sunday now, two weeks early in the Christian year, because I think it does us good no matter whether we are celebrating or grieving or still anxious about the future to remember that this one thing holds true. And while we may have certain hopes for our country, our ultimate hope is always in Christ alone, and not in anyone else’s promises to us. As the hymn goes, On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. Those are words that have been playing over and over in my head this week as I’ve needed something to hold onto.

But then I began to wonder if I did want to preach that today. To simply proclaim that Christ is Lord in a world that is suffering may seem like a way to absolve ourselves of any concern about what’s actually happening on the ground, here and now. And we are not absolved of that. It may sound good to think that we can stay calm and hopeful, fixed on heavenly things, while the storm of politics swirls around us, but politics are about people’s lives. For some of us the decisions made at high levels about immigration, racial equality, LGBTQ+ rights, the economy and healthcare are very personal. And for those of us for whom it all seems less personal, if we’re going to love our neighbors, we have to care about the politics that affect them too. That statement, of course, goes far beyond one presidential election.

It’s complicated, though. I’m sure we all like to imagine that our own political beliefs and values are perfectly aligned with God’s will for our country and our world. One of the frustrating things about the Bible, though, is that it doesn’t always do a lot to directly support our specific policy positions.  This was something we talked about a lot in Bible study last year when we were studying what the Bible has to say about immigration. The fact is that the Bible never sets forth a God-approved border policy. Why should it? At the time the Bible was written, borders weren’t the same as they are now. Certainly kings and nations marked out and fought over territory, but if you traveled from one land into another, there was no checkpoint where you had to stop and show your passport and your visa. At the same time, we read in the Bible over and over how God commands God’s people to treat the foreigner among them as one of their own. It’s up to us to figure out the specifics of how that applies in our modern context, but any Christian conversation around immigration has to start there.

At the same time, we’re all tired, right? We don’t need another sermon telling us yet again that we need to do more and work harder to make this world a better place no matter who’s in charge. We need a sermon to give us reason to hope in something bigger than all of us and bigger than all that divides us. On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. I hear those words and can visualize myself, standing strong, no matter what storms may come.

I think it’s interesting, though, to hear what Jesus actually says in this passage from which that hymn borrows its image. This comes from the very end of the Sermon on the Mount, after Jesus has taught the crowds all his most famous teachings: Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t judge. He wraps it up like this: “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock.” The counter-image, of course, is that of a builder who built their house on sand, and when the storms came and the wind blew, the house collapsed.

It is striking to me that our firm foundation here, which holds up against the storm, is not our strongly felt or loudly expressed faith in Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. It’s whether we hear his words and put them into action. It’s whether or not we actually turn the other cheek and refrain from judging and love our enemies and our neighbors. And – you know – not just the neighbors we want to be able to have over for dinner without it being awkward, but especially the neighbors who are the most vulnerable as the winds of politics blow.

And at the same time, how can we do any of those things if Christ himself is not that solid rock on which we stand – if our ultimate hope isn’t in him and this Kingdom that he invites us to be part of? If we don’t believe that these everyday acts of heeding the words of Jesus are part of something bigger, are pointing to something bigger, that really is different from anything we know?

Christ is Lord. We cast our votes and check the news and hold our protest signs and call our representatives, but in the end, every other person and every other thing in which we put our faith will disappoint us.

We cling to that hope in this midst of the storm, and then, we face into the wind and take a step, following as he leads toward justice, and dignity, and mercy, and love.

We still don’t know what’s to come – between now and January, or even after. It’s still hard to see where our country as a whole is going. But the good news is our promise is not the American Dream, not Biden or Trump, not blue or red, but in Christ and the grace he gives us to live fully as part of the Kingdom of God, right here, right now.

All other ground is sinking sand.

Jesus 2020: Citizenship

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

We’ve now spent the past six weeks talking about times in the Gospels when Jesus gets political. We have heard Jesus fight with religious leaders over interpretation of the law and debate with them about taxes. We’ve seen him stop a sham trial and work a miracle for an enemy officer and get political in his preaching in synagogue.

The political issues Jesus deals with in his own ministry are very often not ones we find ourselves grappling with today. I’m pretty sure that neither working on the Sabbath nor the legal aspects of divorce have come up in any of our recent presidential debates. I do hope that as the final day of voting draws near, we’ve been able to hear the more eternal values that undergird Jesus’ politics: good news to the poor, protection for the vulnerable, commitment to our neighbors’ flourishing, our ultimate commitment to God in all aspects of our lives.

Today we come to the account of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of Hosanna. It will be a familiar one to most of you, but it is a little strange to read it at this time of year. But I thought this passage was a fitting end to our series on the politics of Jesus, because there is perhaps no more overtly political act that Jesus performs in the Gospels than this entrance into Jerusalem.

A few weeks ago we read the account of Jesus’ interaction with a Roman military officer who came to Jesus seeking healing for his servant, and I expressed my own struggle with that story – that as much as Jesus gets in the faces of the religious leaders of his own people and says “woe to you,” he never says “woe” to this Roman officer, even though this officer is part of this ultimate oppressive system of empire.

We see hints of Jesus’ own brand of resistance to the oppression of empire in the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, when he tells people that when someone makes them walk one mile they should walk two; or if someone sues them for their coat they should give them their shirt as well, these can all be read as ways to quietly expose the cruelty of the system by taking it to its logical extreme. But it’s in this Palm Sunday text, I believe, when we start to hear clearly Jesus’ final answer to Rome.

Scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg (The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem) would have us imagine that there was not just one, but two parades that day. From west of the city, the Roman army would have been marching in, ready to keep any would-be freedom fighters in line as Jerusalem prepared to celebrate its annual festival of liberation. They describe it like this: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums” (p. 3).

And meanwhile, from the east, one man rides into the city on a donkey colt, surrounded by a ragtag group shouting their hosannas. Save us, Hosanna means.

Jesus, intentionally or unintentionally here, is acting out a scene described by the prophet Zechariah: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem,” God says through Zechariah, “and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.”

From the west, the war horses snort. From the east, a king enters his city in humility and peace.

One parade, you see, is a parody of the other.

And the question for everyone watching is whose entrance into the city do you hail? And the bigger question wrapped up in that is who do you name as Lord – Jesus, or Caesar? And the question that comes from that is where do we claim our citizenship – in the empire, with all the protection and security it has to offer? Or in the Kingdom ushered in by this humble, peaceful king?

Jesus never led an uprising against Rome – thought plenty of people hoped and expected that he would. But he did resist it: not just Rome itself but all of the trappings of empire. He resisted it by inviting people to live out something different. He told them it was possible to say no to the idols of power, peace ensured through force, status, hierarchy, the amassing of wealth on the backs of others: all the things on which empire is built. Instead he said it was possible to live by the values of love, mercy, self-sacrifice, a belief in God’s abundance, and solidarity with the poor.

America, of course, is not Rome – not exactly. I’m sure that many of us would say that we love this country. Some of us were born here; some of us have chosen to be here. Some of us have worked for the government. It is possible to love America, I think, and not put our trust in the trappings of empire. It is possible to love one’s country and still claim one’s ultimate citizenship elsewhere.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, we should not think that it will save us.

A seminary classmate of mine recently put it this way in a Facebook post, referring to one of the recent presidential debates: “Sure, I’ll vote,” she said, “but I prefer not to waste my one wild and precious life obsessing over political theater. I’d rather use my time, energy and power to actually CREATE and PARTICIPATE in alternative possibilities. That’s why I serve as a pastor of a tiny church, it’s why I’m so excited to be more connected to my neighbors in South Durham…: these are real, tangible, immediate spheres where another way of living is not only possible, it is ALREADY HAPPENING. Vote and then go keep living as if God’s new reign of mercy and justice were already here (because it is); we’re going to need a lot of us pulling in that direction together in the coming years.”

What happens Tuesday will not save us. But there’s one who will, and he comes now, riding on a donkey, exposing the power and grandeur of Rome for the lies they are, inviting us to join an entirely different parade.

And to him, we shout Hosanna.