The context for today’s gospel comes out of a larger conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus and his disciples are exiting the temple in Jerusalem after Jesus had just spent hours teaching. Upon their exit, one of the disciples says, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” I get the sense that the disciples 1 are proudly showing Jesus these structures to impress him. I get the sense that in their doing so they are displaying comfort and security and even a complacency for the way things were. My four-year-old does this all the time when the Lego’s are out. “Mom, Dad!! Look at my huge tower!” Our typical response is to smile and praise him for his creation but then to quickly warn him or impose on him the reality that it will not stand forever as there is also a two-year-old in the house. Jesus doesn’t warn of destruction but sets the scene that what the disciples hold so dear might not or more specifically will not be there forever.
Today’s gospel speaks of endings: a topic most of us are not particularly comfortable with because we too like to assume permanence. There are many things in our lives that we are sure are going to last forever: our health, relationships, homes, places of worship, fanatical security, our youth, etc. Sure, until they don’t. An example of this from my personal life took place five years ago when a girlfriend was visiting from Colorado. We were going about our day enjoying one another’s company when we decided to take a trip into town to run a couple of errands. When driving past the grocery store a place we needed to stop I pointed out my father driving in just ahead of us in his red pickup truck. I kept driving as we had other stops to make as well. I distinctly remember my friend suggesting we go to the grocery store first so that I could greet my dad, but I stated that I had just seen him last night and would see him again tomorrow. We went about our errands and returned home. Later that afternoon I received a call from my mother that my father had collapsed at home and was being loaded into an ambulance and taken to hospital. He was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival. Now, I want to clarify that I do not feel I made a mistake or the wrong choice that day. Instead, I understand that in the decision to see or not see my dad I made an assumption that turned out to be incorrect.
So, what happens to us when these towers in our life fall? Because they do. What do we do with the messages like those from our text today that remind us of our own mortality, the fragility of the world? The reality is that, in some ways, we are always dying. We are often placed in situations or experiences where what we were or know no longer is. We, and people we care about, have probably all found ourselves in our own version of a dark night of the soul.
Surrounding my father’s death, I was surprisingly put together—until I wasn’t. When I was finally home and alone I found myself outside in the dark screaming at the lake and sky. “Where are you, Dad?” “Where will you be?” “How can I find you?” If I had the words from today’s passage from Isaiah, I might have yelled this lament of Israel, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Have any of you said t 2 his prayer or one like it? This is a prayer cried from all ends of our earth today. From refugee camps, from women’s shelters and homeless shelters, from war-torn countries, and from poverty-stricken communities. After I tired of screaming I started thinking of where my Dad was and the ways in which he was and remains integrated in many aspects of my life. I came to this comforting conclusion that he would be everywhere.
“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Please take over and take charge and make things right.” This could be our prayer as we encounter injustice and work for peace. This could be our prayer as we combat hate with love. This could be our prayer that our Lord is at work in everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
It’s important that we are faced with an apocalyptic text on occasion to be reminded that we do not need to wait for the birth of Jesus to find God in our present situation. Nor do we need to wait for Christ’s return for things to be made right. We have been gifted by God and from God the “right now”!
Very little in our life has permanence. I think that might have been what Jesus was getting at in our reading today. If there was permanence and we were told we would live here on this earth forever, would our life have the same meaning and value? Would we appreciate anything at all if there wasn’t a chance we could lose it or that it could come to an end? Would we understand Love, Joy, Hope, and Value in the same way? I joke with my massage therapist that I pay her for sixty minutes and only receive ten. I say this because at minute eleven I start worrying about it ending instead of enjoying it while it lasts. It’s all too easy to deprive myself of this and other experiences by fearing endings. An example of how I try to combat this is when I do a girl’s weekend with my mom and some of her best friends and their daughters. I demand that people give me a five-minute warning before they leave. My goal in doing so is to maximize my joy and time with them until I get the news that it is coming to an end. I am then left with just five minutes for fear and dread.
I’m positive that I am guilty of buying into the fear that surrounds the end times or the coming of Christ. As a fourth grader, I had a classmate who talked about it all the time. A little evangelist warning all of our classmates on the playground of Christ’s return and how we better Watch out . . . ? I will also admit that I was the fourth grader who went running to her pastor asking for clarification on these threats and of this scary Jesus.
When I knew I was preaching this text this Sunday my heart did sink a little. I have often perceived this warning to STAY AWAKE as exactly that—a warning. Don’t get caught sleeping. Don’t get caught sitting down. Look out for this Jesus guy who’s coming back to getchya.
The caution to stay awake I now understand as more of a reminder to value what it is we have. To not waste the time we have been gifted and to live each day fully. A mentoring pastor of mine used to always tell the story of the monk who meditated daily. On Monday, a fellow brother asked what it was he was meditating on and the monk responded by saying, “My death.” On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday he was asked the same question and responded with the same answer: “My death.” On Friday, the meditating monk was asked even more directly, “Why is it that you are meditating on your death?” To which the monk responded, “So that I know how to live.” Impermanence creates profound value and cultivates our appreciation. I said it earlier but if we were offered a life without change, loss, and transition would we even want it? I’m not sure I would. I have a colleague at the hospital who made a statement one morning that I will never let her live down. She was talking about her comfort with gray. You know, not needing everything in life to be black and white. Her statement, however, went like this, “I’m super comfortable with the gray, as long as there are clear parameters.” So, for that colleague and those of you who need permanence, I have just the thing! Advent is the season where we sing and speak of Emmanuel, God with us. This is a permanence we can cling to. God with us when the towers fall; God with us when life as we know it has changed or been altered. God with us where the sun has darkened and the stars have fallen. God with us when the gun is fired, the fist is thrown, and the heart is broken. And with Emanuel comes the promise of another permanence. The promise of the kingdom of heaven. I feel strongly that the kingdom of heaven is the now and the not yet. We all play a very essential role in the work of the kingdom.
Part of our responsibility in this kingdom building is caring for each other in times of loss, uncertainty, and transition. The Seasons service that we are offering here quarterly, with the next one in December, is for exactly that. We come together mindful of the burdens we carry, the hurts and sorrow we have. We come together seeking reminders of God’s love. Another part of this kingdom building is to have hope: hope that in hard times things will get better; hope that these large and small acts of violence in our country will decrease or even better be eradicated; hope that in all things, places, situations and in all people presence prevails. Kingdom building will require us all to figure out how we go from fearing loss to embracing blessing.
In this season of Advent, we anxiously anticipate the hope, wonder, and joy associated with Christ’s birth. The challenge before us is figuring out how this hope might serve as a lens through which we view the world. A world that was and continues to be reconciled through the birth of the Christ child. You might challenge me by saying, “Yeah, Susie, but we know how this story ends: Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried.” And you’re right: he was, and that part of Jesus’ life is super significant to us and our faith, but so was all that happened in between. Had Jesus spent his life in fear of what might be, could be, and would be, we would have missed so very much about what matters in life and how to live life.
One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, speaks of joy as our most vulnerable emotion. She writes, “It takes courage to open ourselves up to joy. . . . We’re afraid that if we allow ourselves to feel it, we’ll get blindsided by disaster or disappointment. That’s why in moments of real joy, many of us dress-rehearse tragedy. We get excited about an upcoming vacation and start thinking ‘hurricane.’ We try to beat vulnerability to the punch by imagining the worst or by feeling nothing in hopes that the ‘other shoe won’t drop.’”3 She calls it foreboding joy.
Her prescription, and I believe also the prescription provided in today’s gospel, is combating foreboding joy with gratitude. Appreciation. Valuing the beautiful lives we have been blessed with and appreciating all that we have been given. Appropriately placed right next to the Thanksgiving holiday, Advent does not ask us to stop with our practice of gratitude but is a challenge to continue it.
I will close by telling you about a couple I know. They are married and have experienced multiple miscarriages and a few planned adoptions that for one reason or another fell through. After years of an emotional roller coaster, they finally gave birth to their son. They were overjoyed and continue to spend almost every minute with him. They have never embraced life more fully but do fear he is growing up too fast. Wanting to maximize the time and memories they have with him, the father in this story began researching “ways to slow down time.” Now he was fully aware that, regardless of his research, the days would remain at twenty-four hours a piece, but if someone had a fix he would try just about anything. The findings from his research gave him some tricks that were supposed to make him think time moved more slowly. These included going new places, breaking routine, driving alternative routes, and simply changing things up a bit. So, although there were no solutions, he could at least approach each day a little differently and do his best to engage life more fully. Today’s gospel and the urging of Jesus to his disciples to “stay awake” is for all of us. We do not have to wait in anticipation of Christ’s return to start living or to feel seen and cared for by God. We do not have to wait to know hope, welcome joy, give and receive love, and work for peace. God has gifted us the right now. Stay awake for it! Amen.
1 Mark 13 vs 1 NRSV 2 Isaiah 64:1 NRSV 3 Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (New York: Random House, 2017).