The apocalyptic opening to Advent always shook me. Now I realize that this is the whole point. Advent isn’t about the baby, but about us.
Advent 1A | Mark 13:24-37
The people collected their weapons. The secret gatherings swelled with supporters coming from all over the hill country. The ragtag militia was beginning to look like an army.
Their leader’s rhetoric soared, lifting their hopes for victory beyond their imaginations. The farmers in the back began to realize that with the grace of God all things are possible.
The arduous road was long, but the victory would be sweet.
And with each new telling, the numbers swelled. Victory against their oppressors was going to be assured! The fake king would be toppled and the line of David restored!
So with all these storms of revolution swirling around him, the evangelist we call Mark gave his people a different message: run!
The last Sunday after Pentecost was recently given a new name: Christ the King, which we celebrated last week. It bears for us a strange end to our church calendar. In it we anoint the Messiah with an earthly mantle and the power of a slaveowner.
And the weeks leading up to it, we heard parables of terrible slaveowners and masters, capricious and unforgiving.
Like the prophet sitting by the banks of the river in Babylon, hearing word that Cyrus would come and free their people, the savior always seems to be a conquering king. We recast the same Jesus who rejects the crown with its necessary violence and thrust it upon his head post mortem. Like singing your husband’s most hated hymn at his funeral.
But there’s something to ending the year with soaring earthly glory which tugs at our emotions in an honest way–a longing way.
When I was little, my parents would let me stay up on New Year’s Eve as late as I could make it. We’d have guests over and talk about the year that past and the year that lay ahead. We’d tell stories and share our hopes and dreams.
Until I was 9 or 10, I couldn’t get to midnight, so we’d often celebrate at 10 or so. And then we’d go out on the doorstep with pots and pans and wooden spoons and ring in the new year in a beautiful atonal racket.
I’d look around at the snow-covered street, lined with houses. Many of them would be dark, illumined by the streetlight cascading off the drifts. It was always a silent night before and after our racket–the quality of a new year rung in with quiet solitude.
What ungodly noise could we make and still not rouse the people from their homes? I imagined my small feet pounding through the snow, running down the center line of First Avenue screaming all the air out of my small lungs.
auld lang syne
Other homes probably sang those old words Robert Burns borrowed
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
singing the joyful pain of nostalgia and reminiscing.
Nostalgia isn’t an innocent word. It comes originally from Greek to name “the pain of returning home”. Then goes through modern Latin to speak of “acute homesickness”. It reminds me of the pain of loss and its traumatic effects. Nostalgia is the language of phantom limbs and PTSD.
The joy we feel at the close of the year is an existential battle between hope and angst.
When I’d wake up to a new year, I always expected to feel different: older. My January birthday just a formality; the affirming of an age I already would feel.
But I didn’t.
The only thing greeting me was usually my Wolverines playing in the Citrus Bowl if they didn’t make the Rose.
That sense of expected difference today against yesterday was always dashed, year after year. Like a lie repeated over and over and I was the sucker who believed this time would be different. I would be Charlie Brown and that football–this time Lucy would play fair.
We get this strange apocalyptic gospel story on our church’s New Year’s Day like a reminder of what remains unfinished. And how we always take the wrong idea of God.
That God would want us to raise an army to restore the line of David. A revolution which destroyed Jerusalem, obliterated the Temple in 70 CE, and shuttered the hopes of freedom from Rome.
Even our own attempts to adorn the Messiah with a jeweled crown, like a jeweled chalice on an altar of sacrifice many years after the king rode a donkey, not a warhorse, to share a feast and serve his friends, not be served by underlings, and ultimately, walk the arduous road to the place of the skull to be lynched by the state.
We scrub that story clean to make the anti-king into a king and then turn around and think this is all about the baby.
Before Rose was pregnant, I didn’t worry about the future. It was going to happen. The day she saw that little plus sign on the stick was the day I realized I’m not allowed to die.
We couldn’t afford life insurance, so I couldn’t set Rose and Sophia up for life. So I needed to get my life together.
And at the very least, I needed to live long enough so that my children would remember me. What I was like. That I loved them with all my heart. I didn’t want to screw them up and shackle them in a prison of what could have been.
Reading this gospel story, my head goes back to those parables we’ve just heard. My mind goes back, pushed in the wrong direction. Memory helps us understand tomorrow, but nostalgia traumatizes our present by isolating us in our past.
We are invited to remember; re – member. To reunify the whole which was divided. To remember is also to reconstruct and return. When Jesus tells us to remember, we don’t dwell on the past so much as mark our present together.
This story is a callback, not an invitation to reside there. Because we’ll need this in the future.
“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.”
Keep awake, prepare, for the great revealing when kin-dom comes and all will be done.
The Greek word used here for the rooster crowing is only used twice in the New Testament. Here and a chapter later. Between midnight and dawn, a rooster announcing the coming sun.
Announcing revelation. Announcing Peter’s betrayal (I don’t know him!). That fateful night, three different times if he knows Jesus. And yet he can’t say it; the words stick in his throat.
There are regular moments of the kin-dom’s coming and like Peter, we miss them. our vocal chords tight.
Fred Craddock, the esteemed preacher, used to tell a story about driving across the country. One night, late and dead-tired, he stopped at a diner for an early breakfast and coffee. As he waited for his food to arrive, he noticed a black man walk in and sit up at the counter.
He became transfixed as the manager treated the man terribly, condescendingly–the kind of treatment stupidly justified by a long history of racism.
Craddock sat in his booth, wrestling with whether or not to say something–what would he say? Could he dress down the manager for his awful behavior?
As he stewed about it, he saw the man gulp down the coffee and flee.
But Craddock still sat there.
“I didn’t say anything,” he confessed. “I quietly paid my bill, left the diner, and headed back to my car. But as I walked through the parking lot, somewhere in the distance, I heard a rooster crow.”
We’re always looking in the wrong direction because we don’t want to face our greatest challenge. It makes sense psychologically. We avoid what’s hard.
But what Jesus offers us is a freedom unlike any we know. A freedom of rebirth in a world renewed. Not in some far from now unraveling of the cosmos or some zionistic prophecy, but here, with each other.
This season of Advent isn’t just about a baby coming, it’s why that pregnancy shakes us to our foundation. Why it isn’t only joy, but the freakout that we have responsibility in this world. That dying isn’t a way out or up but is simply another form of the rebirth we are responsible for here.
The junk we don’t want to face: our collusion with empire, our racism, our fear over saying anything, our mortality: is the point. It’s the path out of the prison of our past so that we can know hope in our future.
When the rooster crows and we can see the apocalyptic reality, we see our blessing is revelation. That’s how we know which road is the wrong road. That we might repent, turn around and go a different way.
And that’s how we walk into this new year with hope: not that it will be completely different than it was, but with our eyes open, our hearts filled with love and anticipation, and that all that preparing we’re doing will help us speak up.
Let loose those vocal chords! Unbind them that we can stand up to injustice! That we may give hope to the harassed and be the peacemaking children of God! Repent and turn, stand and speak, give and love!
Inspired by the pain of revelation and the blessing of new joy, this year, we will surely bring the kin-dom closer.