In a few minutes, when this sermon comes to an end, we will all stand together as we do every week and recite the Nicene Creed in which we will say that, among other things, we believe that Jesus Christ
. . . will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. (BCP 1979, page 359)
In the Apostle’s Creed said at Morning and Evening Prayer, and in our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm our expectation that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” (BCP 1979, pages 96, 120, and 304)
In the course of the Eucharistic Prayer we re-affirm this this belief by saying (as we will in Prayer C this morning), “We celebrate his death and resurrection, as we await the day of his coming.” (Pg 371) We say something very similar in Prayer A: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (Pg 363) In Prayer B: “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.” (Pg 368) And in Prayer D, we offer our gifts “recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to [the Father’s] right hand, [and] awaiting his coming in glory.” (Pg 374)
Each of these statements affirms as an article of our faith the theme of Advent. As much as this is a season of preparation for Christmas and the celebration of the Son of God’s first coming, it is even more so a season in which we focus on our expectation that he will come again as the King of kings and Lord of lords, that he will come to sit in judgment and then reign in glory over all of creation. And so on this First Sunday of Advent as we begin Year B of our Lectionary Cycle, the year featuring readings from the Gospel according to Mark, we hear a bit of the 13th chapter of that gospel, the chapter known as “the apocalyptic discourse” or as “the little apocalypse.”
In those days, after that suffering,
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.
* * *
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
It sounds terrible. It sounds awful. It doesn’t sound like something we should be looking forward to at all, let alone underscoring week after week as a foundational element of our faith. But here it is. And this short disconcerting scrap of Chapter 13 should make us realize that the “second coming” is not simply a doctrine to which we officially subscribe in the creeds or the Eucharistic canons; it is a defining reality that ought to impact our faith and our lives.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t know when it’s going to happen, and Jesus’ words in Mark 13 don’t really help us in that regard. Jesus seems to be saying two different things, even in the short scrap of the chapter that makes up today’s gospel reading. Scholars believe there may have been two different discourses or traditions about Jesus’ return and that the author of this gospel, unable to decide which to follow, stitched them together into the uncomfortable and confusing document we read today. In today’s lesson, the first part, in which Jesus suggests that his return “is near, at the very gates” and that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” is from a tradition which anticipated an immediate culmination of history. The end of the lesson, however, in which Jesus suggests that “no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor [even] the Son” when the second coming will happen, is from a tradition which believed the Lord would return at the end of human history sometime in an unknown future; for this reason, Jesus’ followers must “dig-in for the long haul because the eschatological timetable is known only to God,” but nonetheless “beware, keep alert . . . keep awake.” (Mark Allan Powell, Working Preacher commentary, 2014)
It would be so much easier if we knew it was one or the other, but neither Mark nor Mark’s Jesus is willing to tell us. However, as Professor David Lose points out, Mark is not “simply a middle child trying to make peace between two opposing views, ” nor is he “simply acknowledging that both sides have something to contribute to our discussion.” Rather, the point of the “little apocalypse” seems to be that ” Mark is inviting us to look for Jesus – even here, even now – in . . . places of vulnerability, openness, and need.” (David Lose, Preaching a Participatory Advent, 2014)
Mark clearly wants this to be part of the faith that informs our daily lives.
In today’s church, many Christians seem to think, “Since the time of Jesus’ coming cannot be known, we need not think much about it.” Mark draws the opposite conclusion: since the timing is unknown, we should think about it all the time!
Modern Christians often think, “Since the time is unknown, it could be hundred, or thousands, or millions of years from now.” Mark draws a very different conclusion: since the timing is unknown, it could be today! Maybe this evening, or at midnight, or when dawn breaks. (Powell)
Perhaps like our modern Advent season, Christ’s “second coming” is a both/and rather than an either/or situation. We know it’s not yet Christmas but still the town square is decorated with lights and trees, and the Odd Fellows are there selling trees for our homes. We know it’s not yet Christmas but the radio stations and the public sound systems in the stores are all playing Christmas carols, and we have even already had a Christmas carol event right here in our worship space. We know it’s not yet Christmas but Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus and even the Wise Men are standing proudly in front of my neighbor’s home lighted with green, red, and white spotlights every night. We know it’s not yet Christmas but it sure seems to be Christmas. It’s both not here yet and yet it’s right around the corner; it’s not here but we can see it from here. It’s both immanent and far away and, thus, in a very real sense it is here right now.
As a result, Advent has become less a time of prayerful preparation and more an ambivalent and stressful season marked by equal measures by joyful anticipation and hectic, even pressured, participation. There is so much to take part in –– dinners and parties, buying gifts and cards, attending church and school and civic holiday programs, decorating and traveling, and so much more. It can all be wonderfully enjoyable, and it can all be overwhelming. It’s all not here yet, and yet it’s all right here in your face right now.
And in all of it, we become focused on the Jesus whose birth in the manger we are preparing to celebrate, and we lose sight of the Jesus we say every week we expect to return. As important as it is for us to remember that humble birth, Advent isn’t really about getting ready to remember the baby in the manger, nor is it really about looking to some future second coming. “It’s about expecting Christ here, in our own messed-up lives, right now.” (Dennis Sanders, Christian Century, October 26, 2017)
So perhaps what we ought to do is stop for a moment and make a short list the things that will occupy us during the next four (or, really this year, the next three) weeks of Advent and then think about how in each of those events and activities we might be more attentive to finding Jesus in the here-and-now. Jesus is present both in the vulnerability and need of those around us and, if we are honest, in our own vulnerable need for the care from others. “God arrives, regardless of our readiness. God shows up . . . no matter what kind of stipulations or conditions or provisions we make.” (Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, Advent Time 2017)
This is the simple truth of Advent, that Jesus Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end,” that “we await the day of his coming,” and that that could happen at any moment; that, in fact, it not only could be but most assuredly is in each and every moment. And this simple truth sets us free:
Free to speak words of truth and hope and love.
Free to reach out in generosity and kindness.
Free to forgive what before seemed unforgivable.
Free to let go of what we thought we would always need.
(Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word, November 26, 2017)
Free to do all these things and more. Free to answer others’ vulnerable needs. Free to let others satisfy our own. Free to meet Christ in the moment. Right here and right now. This Advent.
Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.
A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service, Advent 1, RCL Year B, are Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7,16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; and St. Mark 13:24-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)