In preparing to light the Advent wreath at the beginning of worship, Wendy said, “We hardly know how to describe the year we are living through.”
Mark, the Gospel writer who will be our companion over the next liturgical year, which begins today, would know exactly how to describe this year. Apocalyptic.
The section Ben read from Mark’s Gospel is referred to as “The Little Apocalypse” because of its resonance with the Great Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. Often written in difficult times, this type of literature is meant to offer hope to people who are suffering. The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling.” It is less about heralding the end times and more about revealing the pain that people, especially those who are oppressed, experience.
This year, what has been unveiled for you about yourself or our world? What about the pain in your own heart or in the world have you seen in new ways? (pause) Since March, the pain of the world has become clearer than I can ever remember: the disparities in health care have been exposed; the vulnerability of those in nursing homes has been exposed; the disproportionate economic challenges of low wage workers, especially women, has been exposed; and the unjust nature of the criminal justice system towards Black people has been exposed; the fragile nature of those with mental health issues has been exposed, and more.
(I’ll come back to the pain in our own hearts that has been exposed later in the sermon.)
2020 has been apocalyptic. It’s as if the whole world has gone to the Divine Eye Doctor and been fitted with new glasses so that we can finally see what has always been there – with 2020 vision.
There is also a word in this gospel reading whose nuanced meaning is easy to miss, the word “time.” Hear, again, this sentence, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” When we hear this, we may have an image of a watch or a clock… Will Jesus come at 10? Maybe 11? Noon?
However, the Greek word being used is not about chronological time, but “Kairos” time, which is a fleeting moment of opening, a rare opportunity that can be lost if decisive action is not taken. What rare, fleeting opportunities have you or our world had this year? I think about the way this and so many other church communities pivoted to online worship. Many churches that had tepid attendance or were struggling to survive are now connecting with more people than before because of Zoom! For churches, like ours, that were able to shift to this new way of connecting, 2020 was a kairos moment, a rare – and for some, potentially saving, opportunity. If it weren’t for the pandemic, who is listening right now that in all likelihood would not be if it weren’t for Zoom church?
2020 has also been an apocalyptic and Kairos moment for the planet. In the early months of the pandemic, bluer and brighter skies than many of us can ever remember were unveiled. For those with eyes to see this was another message, a cosmic message. In September, that message was installed on a Climate Clock in Times Square and in other places around the world to alert us to the decisive moment we face: we have 7 years and 32 days to save the planet.
As a people, we are in an apocalyptic, kairos moment – a time of unveiling and rare opportunity to act decisively. Not only that, this message is screamed at us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by media right, left, and center trying to get our (monetized) attention. This year, it’s as if our collective nervous system has been set on fire by fear. Fear about the pandemic. Fear about the economy. Fear about police brutality. Fear about riots. Fear about the election. Fear that the election results won’t be accepted. Fear about climate destruction. Fear. Fear. Fear.
And in response, we see meltdowns (or near meltdowns) – in our streets, in our homes, in overwhelmed hospitals, in the Oval Office, and for some of us, in our own consciousness. We have all been touched by the collective overload of this year. Have any of you had a meltdown or near meltdown this year?
What Jesus asks, actually – what he demands of his followers – at a time like this is to “be alert, to be awake.” To not let our fears get the best of us. It is understandable that we who have been taught to protect ourselves from all that threatens our lives – to be afraid of darkness – might shirk from engaging these challenging times. It is understandable that we might all want to get under the covers and not come out again until some time late next Spring when a vaccine is available and life can return to something that feels more normal.
But, that is not what Jesus calls us to do.
Michael Marsh writes, “Darkness is not our enemy as much as is falling asleep. We fall asleep whenever fear controls our life, when hope gives way to despair, when busyness is equated with goodness, when entitlement replaces thanksgiving, when we choose what is comfortable rather than life-giving. Whenever we think our life is over, that darkness is our final reality, that we have been abandoned, or that loss and darkness are our only reality then we have fallen asleep.”
He continues, “Too often we allow the darkness to deceive us into believing there is nothing worth waiting or watching for. So we close our eyes. We fall asleep and we become part of the darkness. We refuse to see the One who is always coming to us.”
In the season of Advent, just as the church year begins and the story of Jesus is retold again, the suffering of the world is named: it is the setting for every story about Jesus and it is the setting for the world we find ourselves in today. If the story of Jesus was written in one volume, the dust jacket would say, “This is a story about how God comes to us in our darkest moments. Written more than 2000 years ago, it is a story of hope for all those who feel afraid or threatened, especially the poor and powerless, in our own time. The author has a message: Rather than withdraw from that which frightens us, we can step up and show up, trusting that the Holy One is revealed in darkness – from the darkness of the manger to the darkness of the cross.”
Yes, it may be easier for us to see God in the beauty of a sunrise, or to feel the peace of God’s presence by the sea, or to recognize the Divine in the birth of a newborn. But, we must never forget that God is as present under a moonlit sky, brooding over the waters of chaos, and at the death of a beloved. Let us not forget, that God does some of God’s best work in dark and challenging times.
The essential spiritual discipline of Advent is finding a way to embrace the dark; to look for God in those places that challenge and frighten us. It is to look at the apocalyptic signs of the times not merely as threats, but as opportunities; to see what has been unveiled as an invitation to think and act differently; to not shirk from our challenges, but to engage them; to live not out of fear, but from love.
Earlier in the sermon I asked, “What, this year, has been unveiled for you about the pain you carry in your own heart?” I confess that when my pain shows up, especially pain I have been carrying for a long time, my first reaction is to want to run from it. To ignore it. To move on to the next thing I need to do.
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes, “Maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. But what we find ..is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, and manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves. Our avoidance of pain keeps us locked in a cycle of suffering.” What is this pandemic trying to teach us? To teach you? To teach me?
The spirit of Advent offers another possibility – To sit down, slow down, and shine the light of God’s love on those dark places within that still hurt, that are broken. To be with our own pain – to simply sit in prayerful, silent acceptance – breathing with the pain – trusting that God’s grace will meet us right there. When we do this, when we simply stay with our pain, when we are open to the lessons it wants to teach us, trusting that God is coming to us, something new can happen.
2020 is a time of peril and possibility. As followers of Jesus, it is also a time of hope – that in seeing what has been revealed this year, we can through the grace of God do something about our problems. Our God has given us work to do. Going to sleep is not an option. We are to be about the Divine Master’s work; we are to be the clay in the potter’s skillful and confident hands; We are to anticipate the good that is coming, the One who is coming, at unexpected times, and in unexpected places
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we are not in charge. We do not know everything. We can not predict what’s ahead. We have been forever changed by this year. It’s up to us to be sure that we’ve been changed for the better. Let’s not forget – as the days grow shorter, the nights grow colder, and the number of COVID cases grows higher – to keep awake. Our God is coming. Advent is the time to get ready. Amen.