A Word of Hope (Advent 1) ~ 12/03/17

A Word of Hope
Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
December 3, 2017 ~ First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

We don’t begin Advent with the birth of a child. We begin Advent with an apocalypse.

As I mentioned prior to reading from Mark, this morning’s passage is part of a longer section often called Mark’s “little apocalypse.” Now, sometimes the lectionary plops us down in the midst of a scene, in the middle of a story already unfolding. That’s the case today. Prior to our passage, we hear this:

Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead you astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them…For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.”
(Mark 13:5-9, 19)

And today we heard that in those days,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
(Mark 13:24-25)

You know what? Maybe there’s quite enough suffering and darkness around us already, thank you very much; maybe we can do without Mark’s so-called “little apocalypse” this Advent. But, as always, we are invited – urged, even – by the lectionary to hear and consider even the parts of Scripture that are confusing or unwelcome. And that’s because we believe that even there in those sometimes hard words lies a gift.

And so, this morning, we read this rather depressing passage from Mark. Because what if that feeling of pressing darkness, that feeling of being overwhelmed by all that is wrong, is exactly why we do need Mark’s “little apocalypse” today?

Let’s start with that word apocalypse. In common usage, an apocalypse is a catastrophic end-of-the-world scenario. It’s a word that evokes fear, or even terror, because as we have come to understand it, an apocalyptic pronouncement foretells destruction and calamity.

But the Greek word apocalypse actually means “revelation.” An apocalypse is an uncovering, an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling. The genre known as “apocalyptic literature” is perhaps best understood as “crisis literature.”

Let’s put it all in some context.

First, there’s Jesus’ context. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus has entered Jerusalem with his disciples for the festival of Passover. The words we heard this morning are spoken by Jesus as part of his attempts to prepare his disciples for his upcoming torture and death. The death of the Messiah? Crisis.

Next, there’s Mark’s context. The unknown person who wrote this gospel, who we call “Mark” for convenience’s sake, wrote some 40 years after Jesus’ death. And that’s important because in the year 70 the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. It’s hard for us to understand just how central the Temple was in first century Judaism. It was the locus of worship, but also of commerce, power, and relationships. Its destruction by the Roman Empire was catastrophic – not only religiously, but politically and economically as well. With the Temple destroyed, every part of Mark’s culture was thrown into chaos. That coupled with the heightened threat of actual death at the hands of the Romans: crisis.

Then, of course, there’s our context. Wars and rumors of wars; false teachers who lead us astray; abuse and suffering and disease and death and destruction. Sound familiar? Crisis.

But all of the suffering, all of the feeling as though the world is coming to an end? That’s not the apocalypse. That’s the crisis that leads to the apocalypse.

The apocalypse is the uncovering of what God is doing in the midst of all of that suffering.

And this is what God is doing: God is coming, unexpectedly, right into the lives that we’re living. Like the slaves in the little parable at the end of our lesson from Mark, we are likely to be surprised by God’s arrival. But the hidden thing God is doing is just that: God is showing up in our lives – not later, not in the afterlife, but right here and now.

Mark’s little apocalypse isn’t a word of terror about the end of the world; it’s a word of hope about the presence and activity of God, most especially when it seems like the world – literally or figuratively – is coming to an end. And so we hope. We hope that God’s promises for us and for the world are already being realized.

““Hope” is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson in 1862:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

This First Sunday of Advent is “Hope Sunday.” Hope is not saccharine. Hope is not wimpy. Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is mighty, like the feathers that seem so delicate but are strong enough to support and steer bird in flight. Hope is powerful, like a bird louder than a storm, never ceasing its song.

Why, in the midst of crisis, do we dare hope? First because the Scriptures Jesus knew and loved, those we call the Old Testament, are full of stories about the faithfulness of God. They are replete with promises that God loves all of creation, that God longs for our healing and wholeness and peace, and that God in some mysterious way does act within history and within our lives. And Jesus’ own Scriptures as well as those that were written after his life and death tell us that God keeps those promises.

Second, we hope because our tradition tells us that the Kingdom of God – that time when healing and wholeness and peace reign on earth – has already begun to appear. When Jesus was born, God drew near; indeed, God walked among us. God is not standing outside at the gates; God is here.

Of course, we know that the Kingdom is not really here, not in its fullness. There is still crisis. But the truth and the hope of Advent lies in the faith that the birth pangs of that Kingdom have already begun. This is the already-but-not-yet of Advent.

And third, we dare to hope because we trust that, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God has already given us grace and enriched us in Jesus Christ. We are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait. God will strengthen us until the end – until the crisis is over and the new life has come.

But that new life, that new beginning that is even now being birthed, does not come all at once. In our own lives and in the world it comes in fits and starts, slowly and sometimes imperceptibly. The crises continue, but our faith bids us trust that the trajectory is one that leads to shalom: peace and wholeness.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Teilhard de Chardin wrote a beautiful poem called “Patient Trust.” It says, in part:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability-
and that it may take a very long time…

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you…

Trust in the slow work of God, for God’s hand is leading us.

Let me add one more poem about hope to our collection this morning – the hope that comes from what is revealed in the midst of crisis. This one was written by Aric Clark in 2016:

Don’t mistake the triumphant-sounding language
that hope sometimes employs
for certainty.
Hope has doubts.
Hope is not the result
of a dispassionate analysis of the evidence.
Hope is not a confident
projection of a probable future.
Hope is not optimism.

Hope is defiance in the face of bleak circumstances.
Hope is resistance to despair
when despair seems like a much more reasonable choice.
Hope is our protest against
the inhumanity of the human species.
Hope is most necessary precisely
when it is most absurd.

Our Advent hope is that God has drawn near. That God comes to us, just as we are, right now, in all our hot mess, in all of our personal and communal turmoil. God comes, powerfully bringing light into the darkness and creating new things in the midst of what looks like only destruction. Hope is most necessary precisely when it is most absurd.

And that part of Jesus’ message where he says, “be aware, keep alert, keep awake”? That’s our invitation to look around, to let the veil be removed so that we can really see God right here in the mess with us.

Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, this Hope Sunday, we might begin by meeting God here at the Table, and then looking for signs of God’s already-arrived presence throughout this coming week and season. Because, you see, God isn’t going anywhere.

Thanks be to God.

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