Mark 13:24-37 and 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

I don’t know if you saw the moon last night, but it was gorgeous.  Not quite full, but bright and clear against the backdrop of an inky black sky.  There wasn’t a cloud in sight, so I could see the moon shining brightly over a tree in my back yard.  The branches of the tree looked like bony fingers reaching toward the moon almost prayerfully.

Moments like that make me catch my breath.  I feel the presence of God in a different way than I do in the daylight hours.  I feel more sure that somehow we will make it through this difficult time.

So the opening verses of today’s gospel are especially jarring: “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light…”  I shudder a little as I try to imagine a time when the sun and the moon no longer shine.

If that imagery seems dramatic, it’s in part because the gospel of Mark reflects dramatic times.  This gospel was likely written during or soon after the first Jewish war with Rome, which started in the year 66, a few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That war reached its climax when the Romans destroyed the temple in the year 70.  If you go back to the beginning of this 13th chapter of Mark, you’ll find Jesus saying about the temple and its grand structures: “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

So this gospel, like the other gospels that tell us about the life of Jesus, was written in a time of crisis.  People were asking in the midst of war and persecution: Where is God?  Where is God if we can’t gather in the place we’re used to gathering for worship? When will Jesus return to set things right?

This particular chapter of Mark – Mark 13 – is sometimes called “the little apocalypse.”  It considers the challenging but honest question: What is the foundation of our faith when the foundations of everything we know are being knocked out from under us? That question seems just as powerful in our own time as it was in the first century.

The word “apocalypse” actually means “uncovering” or “unveiling.”  Which makes me wonder: What is being revealed to us during this time?  What are we seeing in a new way as we enter this holy season of Advent?  We feel overwhelmed by so much that has happened this year – overwhelmed by death and grief, overwhelmed by injustice, overwhelmed by the disruptions to our routines and rituals.  Writer Adrienne Brown says about our time: “Things are not getting worse; they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

Maybe our present time of apocalypse, of revealing, is an honest kind of reckoning that shows us a new way forward.  Things aren’t getting worse.  They’re getting uncovered.  And anything that gets uncovered can then be dealt with in faith and hope rather than pretending that everything is OK.

If the return of Jesus seemed long-delayed to the first audience for Mark’s gospel, it surely seems overdue to us.  But as Christians we do not wait passively for what is to come.  We wait with purpose.

We heard one particular directive three times in today’s gospel: “Keep alert…keep awake…keep awake…”  I laughed when I first read that instruction from Jesus this time around.  Keep awake, huh?  That’s one thing you don’t have to tell me to do in 2020.  I’ve spent plenty of hours awake in the middle of the night, starting at the ceiling in worry and fear.  I bet you have too.

But of course Jesus means a different kind of being awake.  He means being alert to what God is up to in the world, ready for how we might be called into action at a moment’s notice.  So how do we keep awake this Advent?

We keep awake to the signs of God’s activity in the world.  Watch closely for the places where you catch glimpses of God’s presence.  Whether it’s the moon in the night sky or a text from a friend or that fragment of your favorite holiday song, don’t miss it. Stop. Listen. Notice. Savor.  Keep awake.

We keep awake to how God invites us to join in that creative and redeeming activity.  Someone needs you to pray for them.  Someone needs you to pick up the phone and call.  Someone needs your generosity, whether it’s for our weekly food distribution or our Christmas Giving Tree.  Someone needs you to notice.  Keep awake.

We keep awake for opportunities to share the good news of the life and love that we know in Jesus Christ.  I know we often hesitate to talk about our faith, but what better time than Advent to tell people what gives us hope?  This is the season in which we also prepare to celebrate the first coming of Jesus into the world, his arrival in the most vulnerable of ways and the most humble of circumstances.  This year seems an especially good time to say out loud that we have a God who understands what it means to be human.  A God who meets us in all the mess of life and shows up where we least expect it.  Keep awake.

A mom reported on Twitter this week that as they were driving in the car, her eight-year-old asked, “Do you want me to throw the confetti in my pocket?”  Mom immediately replied, “No, not in the car!  Why do you have confetti in your pocket?”  The kid said, “It’s my emergency confetti. I carry it everywhere in case there’s good news.”

That’s how I hope we’ll approach the waiting that this season brings.  Ready at a moment’s notice to celebrate good news.  Ready for the chances to share the good news of Jesus with someone who needs to hear it.  Ready to care for those who are waiting desperately to have some good news.

When we grow weary of waiting and watching and working, remember those words from 1 Corinthians: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will also strengthen you to the end…” (1:7).

So, people of God, have your emergency confetti ready.  We never know when a celebration will break out.  And when it does, we’ll surely want to be awake.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[1] I am grateful to Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary for sparking the ideas in this sermon during her Advent Preaching Workshop held online on October 20, 2020.

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