Even as most of us are flipping the switch that turns on the holiday lights, the Church points us toward a Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent that looks ahead to that great, coming day when all the lights will go out – for good!
As we prepare to celebrate assurance of the Lord’s first advent in the birth of Jesus, listen for God’s promise of second advent in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 13, starting with verse 24:
Jesus said to his followers, “But 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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.
“Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Given the many frustrating, disappointing, sobering, and sometimes-fatal ways that 2020 has unfolded, maybe it’s not all that hard to think in terms of all things apocalyptic and the end of the world as we know it.
Just call it our “new normal.”
Celebration of this year’s Thanksgiving, without the usual cadre of family and friends, left many people feeling full but flat. And it’s near certainty that there’ll be fewer stockings hung by the chimney with care when Christmas rolls around this year.
With the grim realities of COVID-19 becoming worse by the day, and the bitter taste of an election still souring our nation, and the seeds of racial equality struggling to sprout in barren soil, it’ll likely be darn-near impossible to see the 2020 holiday season like the starry, snow-covered scenes that grace the fronts of most Hallmark cards.
So, maybe a not-so-holly-jolly text like Mark 13 might just speak to our hearts and minds in language that we’re now able to better understand.
There’s a simple reason why the Gospel dims Advent’s lights-and-tinsel landscape: If we cannot proclaim and look forward to the second arrival of Christ, then frankly there’s precious little sense in making much of a fuss about his first arrival in Bethlehem.
If Jesus is not coming back to make all things new and bring to fruition the fullness of the kingdom he promised, then any celebration of his birth really is on par with fantasies about Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
If Jesus is not the Lord of lords who will come back at the end of human history, then “Silent Night” is of no more importance to faith and belief, hope and assurance, than “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”
Through Mark, Jesus forces us to ponder the day when the cosmic lights go out, because there’s something about the prospect of darkness that makes people yearn for – and appreciate all-the-more – the One whom the Gospel elsewhere proclaims as the Light of the World.
And once again, to state the painfully obvious, 2020 leaves us longing for Light more than usual.
Sure, it would be great if the whole world and the people in it generally resembled the little fantasy kingdoms that decorate storefront windows and that most of us try to create in our front yards with cut-out Nativity scenes and extension cords.
But if that fantasy was our reality, then we and the world would have no need of saving, now would we? And God wouldn’t have had to go to such bloody lengths to make our salvation our reality.
Indeed, it’s bracing to kick off Advent with the kind of heart-stopping message that Jesus delivers through Mark. But, among other things, the Lord reminds us, our culture and our world that the stakes in the advent of Christ are exceedingly high.
The Son of Man didn’t arrive in this world long ago and pitch his tent among us to help people be a little nicer, or to encourage a few weeks’ worth of charitable giving to the food shelf or the Salvation Army. No, God in Christ Jesus came to make straight every crooked way, to right every wrong, to upend every injustice, and to reconcile all things to himself.
Compared to all that, all of our little Christmas lights combined really do look pretty dim after all.
Perhaps, rather than decking the halls to the hilt, or maxing out credit cards on holiday shopping sprees, our time and energy is better spent “keeping awake,” as Jesus warns, because we’re clueless about the day or the hour when the fullness of Emmanuel – “God with us” – will be realized.
As we light the Advent candle of hope, we keep awake by dreaming, by envisioning how we will live out God’s presence with us. We expect the Lord to be with us – which he is – and to meet us on the other side of this pandemic, the last election, and ongoing street protests – which he will. For the other side of pandemic and protest is not a return to “normal.” It is living the hope and into the dreams of God’s continuing desires for mercy, justice and peace.
We do not know the day or the hour, but we do know this, from the pen of poet Langston Hughes:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Those who dream with the Lord do not fall asleep or turn a sleepy eye to the realities of a broken and fearful world. The Holy Spirit prompts us to pay attention to those people and places where God’s dreams for change and new life need some human help to emerge.
In Advent, in particular, we remember that the Lord’s ultimate dream is to be intimately connected to us, which he did when he come down to dwell among us, and for all of us to be intimately connected with each other in reconciling love.
In Advent, we join prophets and psalmists in pleading for restoration and for God to draw even closer.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” the prophet Isaiah begs. “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. You are the God who works for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:1-4)
“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream,” the psalmist declares. “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’” (Psalm 126:1-2)
May it be so, amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden prepared this message for the First Sunday of Advent, 2020. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Scott Hoezee, Pheme Perkins, and Marcia Y. Riggs inform the message. (Artwork: Tear Open the Heavens, Lauren Wright Pittman, SanctifiedArt.org)
Related video meditation: Lighting the First Candle of Advent