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

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