Monday, November 28, 2011

An Advent Invitation

"Preserve" by Laura Thewalt
Sunday we gathered at FCC Houston for the First Sunday of Advent, like so many other congregations. Advent is a season in the church year, a time for expectant anticipation and repentant preparation. Why? Because in Advent something is being promised. God promises that something is going to happen that is larger than ourselves and our small lives.

The Gospel text for this Sunday was Mark 13:24-37, which is the closure of Jesus explaining when the world is going to end. You know the one, "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give it's light..." It's a rather strange and odd text, and in the proper frame of mind is also rather uncomfortable.

Here's the context: Jesus has just left the temple in Jerusalem where he was teaching with his disciples. He's just pointed out the poor widow who's put a few pennies into the offering - but which was all she had; literally her whole life's savings. As they leave, one of the disciples admires the huge stones of the temple and its grandeur and magnificence. Jesus replies, basically, "Yeah, aren't they. Isn't it. But hear me: a day is coming when not one stone will be left on another; every one will be thrown down!" Which actually happens around 70 CE when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

Moments later, Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives, looking out across the narrow Kidron Valley at the the temple, which was so massive it must have seemed like only a stones throw away. Recalling Jesus' pronouncement, Peter, James, John and also Andrew naturally want to know when this "great" thing is going to happened. And Jesus replies with what is the text for the First Sunday of Advent:

In those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give it's light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time you will see the Son of Man coming in clouds of great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven...No one knows the hour...Be on your guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. Mark 13:24-26, 32-33
Jesus here can come across as an apocalyptic preacher rabidly spitting out that the world is about to end. We can picture Jesus standing on the street corner wearing a sandwich board that reads, "The World is About to End!" Harold Camping today has nothing on Jesus!

Looking back on my own faith journey, I realize just how much this text and ones like it in the Bible have impacted me. I lived in fear early in my Christian faith because of texts like this one; fear that the world would end and I'd be one of those left behind. Much of my prayer and devotional life was done in the shadow of the possibility that a day was just around the corner, perhaps even while I was in that very moment of prayer, when Jesus would return. By golly, I was going to be found praying or reading my Bible if it did.

I have let much of that go today (being motivated by fear, that is). I've stopped worrying about it so much. I came to the place where I was able to leave the end to God, along with all the fear of catastrophe and the necessary judgment that come with that. It's in God's hands.

I resonate with something someone said recently, Somehow we want to lose the fear and dread of these passages, but keep the urgency and passion.

Mark 13 is strange and odd to our modern sensibilities, which often causes us to circle in place and never get anyhwere. So, let me share a few insights I think important as one begins the Advent journey with Mark 13 in mind:

These words in Mark 13, first, are uncomfortable. Let's just acknowledge this. They are uncomfortable to our sense of stability that we experience through our normal patterns and routines. As I grapple with them, I realize that these texts are uncomfortable because I've got a life that's reallly pretty good. I don't want things to change! I want things to stay just the way they are because I like them just the way the are. It is to my advantage that they stay the way the are.
I recently heard a father say in exasperation to his teenaged son who didn't get what he wanted and cried for the umpteenth time, "It's not fair!" His father replied heatedly, "Look son, you don't want fair! It's not fair that you were born in America, with all its advantages! It's not fair that you have parents who value and love you! It's not fair that you are getting to go to college! You don't want fair!"
The promise of change in Mark 13, a day when the great things will be thrown down, leaving no stone upon another is uncomfortable because it promises to disrupt my good life. It's is unsettling to my way of being that is nicely insulated from the lives of others in this world who are really on the edge - the edge of poverty, disease, hopelessness and despair, literally on the edge of death, because they don't know where their next meal is coming from.

It is important for us to hear this text (and others like it) as it would be heard by the least and the last and the lost in our world. What is rotten news for me and my comfortable life is great good news to the poorest of the poor. What is disruptive news to people who have a roof over their heads is beautiful news to those who are mistreated and stepped on and who live under systems that keep them under foot.

Second, once we hear these words from the standpoint of the least and the last and the lost, we can begin to hear them also as a call to join God in the work of cleaning up this world. Yes, God's promise is that the world as most people experience it will NOT always be this way. A day is coming, as Isaiah reminds us, when God will come and the low places will be lifted up, when the rough places will be made smooth, when the high places will be leveled. A day is coming when God's justice will be the rule rather than the exception. It will be a place where the lion will lie down with the lamb, where weapons of war will be transformed into instuments of peace.

What is clear in Advent is that we are invited by God to participate in the work of cleaning up this world. We are invited to partner with God as the Ultimate Reality to help make what God has promised, indeed, come to be. Mark 13 isn't to be a fearful encounter; it is to be an Advent invitation to participate with Spirit to make the kingdom values Jesus taught a reality in people's lives and in our own.

Third, this is a clarion call for us today that the time is now. We have a chance to participate with the Spirit in the work of God that was inaugerated in Jesus. Don't wait! Watch! Keep awake! Don't be caught sleeping! This is the urgency and passion of this text.

All around us the Spirit is on the move. All around us the Spirit creates space to change the circumstances of those for whom this passage is good news. In the midst of the Christmas rush it is easy to forget that. In the midst of normal life - once Christmas is over again for another year - it is easy to let the space stand empty.

I encourage you to stay awake to the possibilities! To begin this Advent journey with the questions of the disciples very much in the forefront, "When will these things happen?" Because it's clear that Jesus says, "This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."  I invite you to stand in the space that the Spirit creates, and dare to be the widow in the temple and put in to the kingdom work all you have as an offering to God.
PS: One of the thrusts for First Christian, Houston, for the next 2-5 years is to create missional communities. That is, communities where we are endeavoring to build a relationship with an at-risk community and letting the Spirit use us to transform lives and circumstances through the resources God provides, that we might live into our vision of bringing people and ourselves into a vital relationship with Jesus Christ. Look for opportunities to join in at www.fcchou.org.