Sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37 for Advent 1B, December 3, 2017
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
“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.”
They tell us that driverless cars are coming. The are already testing them in several cities. Will they be reliable and safe? They are still working out the kinks. I heard recently about an incident in which there was a bit of a traffic jam caused by a popular food truck. The driverless car just simply sat in place and would not move because of all the traffic.
Congested, confusing traffic may be a good metaphor for life. There are so many things happening that are unprecedented and nearly unbelievable these days. Are these more confounding days than ever before, as they feel to me? Maybe; there are things we can all point to that make our times unlike the past – the cable news cycle, the internet, smart phones, social media; the list could go on.
But there have been upsetting and confounding times before – plenty of them. I am old enough to remember the 1960’s. Think of how much was happening: the war in Viet Nam and the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the riots, the women’s movement, the explosion of youth culture, the pill and the sexual revolution; and all of that happening during the cold war, Mao, and the Cultural Revolution in China, and the wars in the Middle East. And we have not even mentioned hurricane Camille in 1969.
I entitled this sermon, “The Coming Catastrophe”, not because I can predict the next one, but world history and the events of my own lifetime lead me to believe that more are coming. There is no reason to believe they would somehow stop coming.
Even if international politics became suddenly peaceful (but that’s not going to happen), and even if domestic politics were to start producing great results (and that’s not going to happen), we all would still have our own personal issues, our lives, our health, our relationships, our finances, our relatives, and of course our own mortality to deal with. So, yes, certainly, there is more catastrophe to come. That is neither a new, nor unique fact of life.
Sources of Hope
So the question is, how can we be people of hope under such conditions? We turn to our wisdom tradition for guidance. Our scriptures are filled with stories of people of faith whose lives included catastrophes. What can we learn from them?
We heard from two texts: Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark. The Isaiah text comes from a time after a huge catastrophe; the Gospel of Mark text is a prediction of a catastrophe to come, that did come; Mark’s gospel records the prediction of a terrible event that is already, for the writer, in the past.
In both Isaiah and Mark we have examples of texts that communities valued enough to preserve and to hand on, which were about catastrophes that had already happened. The expectation must have been that more were coming, and there are things we could learn from the ones that had already come.
Let us begin with the Isaiah text. It is about a time when God felt absent. The writer says to God,
“you have hidden your face from us”
God was nowhere to be seen. The prophet acknowledges that the people have been unfaithful to God, but he blames God’s absence as the cause:
“But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.”
When people go through catastrophes, they can feel abandoned by God. We have all been there. What we want is some dramatic intervention. That is what the prophet cries out to God for too:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence”
Give us another Mount Sinai experience when your presence shook the mountains, and no one could possibly doubt that you were there. But the prophet does not get another dramatic divine display. God feels absent, so the community’s faith crumbles:
“There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us”
So why record this dark lament? How does it help our situation to hear these bitter words? Because this is not where it ends. Everything turns on the next words:
“Yet, O Lord”
“Yet,” or “nevertheless”, or “but now” there is something more that must be said. A community of faith cannot let the catastrophe be the last word.
“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand…
Now consider, we are all your people.
Walter Brueggemann’s comment on this text is perfect:
“In the end, Israel must pray this way because there is no other alternative. Israel must, in the end, turn its life back to Yahweh, because it has nowhere else to turn and no one else whom it may address. There is nothing rational or orderly or explainable or logical about this prayer. It is much more visceral and elemental than any of our usual categories for faith. It is the ground of Israel’s future, situated in hope, but without assurance or guarantee.” (- Brueggemann, Isaiah, p. 237)
What do we do with catastrophe? We assert that in spite of what is happening, our hope is grounded in the goodness of God to whom we pray, even sometimes bitterly. But even a prayer of lament and anger, because it is a prayer, is an assertion of hope. Every prayer is a protest against the evidence of God’s absence.
We are not abandoned. We are not alone. We will get through it. We are God’s people. God is our Father, or Mother – Isaiah uses both genders to speak of God. We are loved. At the deepest level, beneath the chaos, all is well.
Mark and Predicted Catastrophe
We now turn to the gospel of Mark. Let me set the stage: Mark has spent the first half of this chapter telling about a time Jesus predicted a horrible coming catastrophe. It would include war. The temple would be destroyed. People would have to flee for their lives. It would be a catastrophe of historic proportions.
And by the time Mark was writing, it had happened. The Jews had revolted from Roman domination, beginning in the year 66. By 70 it was over. Hundreds of thousands died, according to Jewish historian Josephus. Jerusalem, its palace and temple were in ruins. The prediction came true. The catastrophe happened.
Why tell the story of a prediction of a war that is over? Maybe on the assumption that this is not the last catastrophe in history, and the advice given to the people in anticipation of that one, may be useful for the next one as well.
So, Mark records a brief parable of Jesus. A man goes on a journey and leaves his slaves in charge of the household. There are no details other than that he will return, and when he does, everything should be perfect. No time is safe from the possibility that he will arrive. Even the middle of the night is an option.
The parable begins and ends with a command. Because you cannot know when it will happen,
“Beware, keep alert… Keep awake.”
These are the words you say to a soldier pulling all night guard duty, when an enemy attack is expected. This is a call to vigilance.
In the world of this parable, the slaves are simply in charge of the house. They are not soldiers making battle preparations, they are stewards who need to make sure everything is in order, that everything is functioning as it should. That job is big enough to require constant vigilance and is the only way to be prepared to withstand the coming catastrophe of the owner’s arrival to an unprepared household.
Getting Our House in Order
This is, I think, exactly right. We do not know what is coming, and we certainly have no idea when it is coming, so the only way to be prepared when it happens is to live prepared. To live in such a way that no matter when we get hit with the news, or the diagnosis, or when the disaster happens, we are not devastated, we do not fall into despair, we do not give up hope and walk out on faith.
Constant vigilance is required. We have to “beware” and “keep awake” all the time, because everything matters. This is why it is not possible to simply live on autopilot. We cannot be ready for the next catastrophe if we live like a driverless car. Life is too much like confusing traffic; it is just too complex and too dangerous to think that drifting will be a good survival strategy.
If the time between the departure of the master and his return is a time of waiting, it cannot be passive waiting. So this season of Advent, as we await the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas, let us wait actively. Let us stay awake and alert, because everything matters.
Our lives are the house that the slaves are responsible for in the parable. So, in this Advent time, let us ask ourselves: what is out of place, in our lives, that needs to be rearranged? What needs to be cleaned up? What needs to be thrown out? What has gotten broken that needs to be fixed? This is the time to work; before the next catastrophe comes.
These are the days in which we must keep asserting our faith, like the people of Israel did, by persistently claiming our identity as children of God. We are all God’s people.
And we make that bold assertion by means of vigilant attention to the daily spiritual disciplines that keep faith alive in us. This is what it means to stay awake.
This is why the spiritual discipline of gratitude is so powerful; not for its immediate effects, but for how it shapes us towards the good.
Regular meditation is indispensable – not because it feels relaxing today, but because the catastrophe is coming, and we must be prepared.
Regular common worship is crucial: no log burns for long if pulled out of the fire. We require each other’s faith to keep our own faith strong. Not for the sake of this week alone, but because the catastrophe is coming, and this is how we keep alert.
These are crazy times. The unexpected and unprecedented keeps happening. And where will this go? Who knows. We do not know the day or the hour. But we know how to remain people of hope, even in a world like this one.