A sermon based on Isaiah 64:1-12 and Mark 13:24-37 preached December 3rd, 2017
I can hear you. You’re saying to yourselves, What’s Patrick doing reading this text? Does he not know it’s Advent? If I wanted to hear a fire and brimstone sermon this morning, I would have gone to another church. What’s an apocalyptic passage like this—an assigned reading for today, no less—doing here on the first Sunday in Advent?
That’s a good question.
We hear a lot in that one word: Apocalypse. One mention of it and our minds, very much steeped in centuries-long cultural messages, go in tons of directions. In words like these from Jesus, we hear the warnings of fanatical preachers condemning the world for its moral degradation, trying their best to tease the end times—to encourage God to speed up the process a bit.
We hear in these words prognostications from televangelists about the whens and hows and whys of a God who must be altogether angry—enraged, really—and is just around the corner, ready to scare the bejesus out of all of us. Who will bring an apocalypse where all the good people will be sucked up into the heavens and everyone else will be left behind. We, spared. They? Well, they’re in for it. There are those who take passages like this and treat them like evacuation routes or escape plans.
There’s a satirical cartoon that advertises a roof escape hatch. A worker will come out to your place and cut a hole in your roof, turning it into kind of vertical doggy door, so that when you get assumed up into the sky at the end of times, you won’t hit your head on the way up.
We’ve been taught too may wrong-headed, wrong-hearted things about this. And it’s all non-sense.
There’s no way around the fact that Jesus has some startling news for us in these words. There is a warning in them, and we ignore the vision given to us from the voice of our Lord to our detriment, but I’m not sure Jesus shared any of this to scare the pants off of us. Yes, these words are filled with caution and injunction, but have you noticed there’s nothing in what Jesus says here that sounds like a threat.
One telltale sign of the false messiahs and teachers of that day and the false prophets in our day too, is that they were all about showing off their own self-importance. They say what they say and do what they do to impress, because they have nothing else to offer. Jesus, on the other hand, is restrained here—as is the way he delivers these words to us. There are no scared-straight tactics here. Jesus doesn’t manipulate us like that. He never has. He does nothing to impose or compel faith. Instead, Jesus declares these things in order to get us to wake up to the present, to pay attention to what’s happening right here, right now.
The word apocalypse is from the Greek—the language of the New Testament—and it means an uncovering or a revealing. Apocalypse is a word not about the future, but about the present. It’s a word about possibilities.
Jesus is uncovering something for us in this passage. Revealing something to us. And while uncovering something that we’d just as soon keep hidden can be a frightening prospect, the point is not to scare us, but to get us to take notice of what’s happening right in front of us. To ready ourselves, to anticipate what’s already underway. To startle us alive. To shake us awake—awake to what’s really going on, awake to the possibilities of the present moment. To see and then respond to the invitation in everything.
Biblically understood, apocalypses happen every day. Whenever the earth shakes a bit under our feet or the faultiness of our lives crack open. They happen whenever we’re thrown off our center by something that happens, and it wakes us up to something that has always been, but we simply couldn’t see until that stark moment—when all the sudden, everything is laid bare in front of us.
You know these moments. You have lived these moments. Plenty of them. Hospital stays where life as we know it comes to a screeching halt, and we are confronted by our own frailties. When the tales we tell ourselves about self-sufficiency and longevity are suddenly exposed as the myths they are. Or, how about those moments when a parent looks at their child and it dawns on them that they’ve grown up too quickly—right in front of our eyes. And it hits them like a ton of bricks.
These are moments when things are revealed for what they actually are. They happen all the time, but most of the time we’re not ready for them. Apocalypses show us what we’re not seeing. In their small way, these tiny, everyday apocalypses are an ending of the world—not in total, but as we know it. We wake up to something happening right in front of us that changes everything just a little bit.
Here at the end of Mark chapter 13, Jesus is wrapping up a warning—something along the lines of: “everything we know passes away in due time.” In this particular instance, Jesus is talking about the temple in Jerusalem. This is a recently completed, tremendously huge, and very impressive monument that King Herod the Great has built for the Jews to worship in—where they believed their God resided in.
At the beginning of Mark 13, Jesus declares that the Temple in Jerusalem will one day be destroyed. It too will pass away, He says. Every stone will be thrown down, not one will remain on another. Indeed it was destroyed in 68 AD. Jesus declares that He is the new Temple. Everything, including this great temple, comes to nothing, but He, Jesus, Son of God, will forever remain.The end of something also means the beginning of something more, something bigger, clearer, something closer to the truth.
Apocalypses are hardly welcome, but they do come to reveal things for what they actually are. We must catch ourselves up to them. God works inside of each one. The promise of Christ is not that we are saved from these apocalypses, but that we’re saved in them. Our task is to endure and keep watch. Our ability to get through each of one—big or small—has much more to do with God’s faithfulness than our wit and wisdom, our skill or ingenuity.
I’ve gathered together my own Apocalypse Survival Kit. I try my best to carry it with me wherever I go, but some days I forget. I’d like to share with you what’s in it. It contains five things—if you can call them “things”. I want to go through each of them real quick.
The first one is hope. Hope is that thing we do when we put our trust in, wait for, eagerly anticipate something or someone. We only have hope when we choose to patiently endure now because we know there will be a then, and that somewhere deep down God isn’t done with us yet.
The second thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Peace. Biblical peace is so much more than the absence of war. God’s peace means wholeness, completeness. It comes from a Hebrew word we know: Shalom. It does not come from us. It does not happen simply when all is calm and bright. Peace happens when God is the source of every one of our longings.
May you see where I’m going.
The third item in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Joy. Author C.S. Lewis thought that joy must be sharply distinguished from happiness or pleasure. I think he’s right. Biblical joy is a by-product of a life with God. It’s not a feeling but a perspective we adopt that’s more constant and more enduring than adverse circumstances.
The fourth thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Love. Love is the greatest of these four, only to be outdone by the fifth. Author Frederick Buechner asserts that the first stage is to believe there is only one kind of love, the middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love, and the last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. Love, if we’re going to understand it in any way close to how God does, is an act of the will. We love our neighbors by working for their well-being, even if it means sacrificing our own well-being in the process. Love is a decision we make over and over again.
And the last thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Christ. The greatest of these five is Christ, because in Him we find the perfect image of the first four. In Him we find our way, our truth, and our life. He is God come near this Advent, over and over again surprising us, confronting us, comforting us, waking us up to what it means to really live this life, to what it means to be human. On the cross, He showed us what it means to live completely—to love even if it does us in, and in whose Advent, was God come down. In Him, and still because of Him, heaven keeps invading earth.
Carry these five things close in an Apocalypse Survival Kit of your own. And this Advent, keep watch with me.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!