Today we mark the beginning of a new Church Year. We light the first of these four Advent candles to mark the Sundays until Dec 25, and we see these weeks as a time to watch and wait for Jesus to be born once more in that stable. Yet instead of our gospel lesson being about the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the maiden Mary—something you might expect as we begin to prepare—we get Jesus teaching Peter, James, John, and Andrew about the end of the world as we know it (h/t to REM). If you studied theology, you’d have learned that religious professionals call this passage Mark’s “Little Apocalypse.” Jesus tells us that at the time the sun will be darkened and the moon will go dim, and stars will be falling out of the sky. Chaos reigns. Of course, we might also just call it another 2020, but I digress.
A sermon based on Mark 13.
So why is it that we begin every new Church Year at the end? What might this have to do with the season of Advent when we’re making a bee-line for Bethlehem and Christmas? We all know that there are just 26 days until that celebration—that we’re anticipating Jesus’ birth once more—so what gives?
Theologian Martin B. Copenhaver suggests that beginning a new Church year by anticipating the end, “places us squarely with those who awaited the birth of the Messiah. Neither those who awaited the first coming of the Messiah, nor those who now await his return, know when he will appear.” And that’s what Jesus is getting at in his teaching to the disciples, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” He is telling them what it will look like when he returns again.
But let’s be honest: this isn’t something we talk about much in church, at least not in respectable Episcopal Churches like ours. Usually sermons on the parousia—that’s the twenty dollar term for Jesus’ Second Coming— are passed over in favor of focusing on Isaiah’s words, or speaking more broadly about Advent and the call to stay awake. We don’t often tackle the reality of where we presently reside on this cosmic timeline, and where we’re collectively headed next. We have already experienced the first coming of Jesus when he was born as the babe in the manger, and we also know that the kingdom he established is not yet fully realized. That the kingdom is not fully come. This already/not yet paradox of what some call “the divine drama” plays in our lives too. Frankly, it’s safer for me as a preacher to just let sleeping dogs lie as it were, and point you to the eventual emergence of the manger scene in a bit less than four weeks, but the safe way is not always the best.
So some things to note. First, we do believe that Jesus will one day return. We say it each week in the Creed, right? “We believe he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” There, in one complex sentence, is the encapsulation of what we hold to be true. However, what that means in our daily lives is another entirely.
Perhaps it comes down to how we wait. We know what to expect in waiting for Christmas. That celebration of Jesus’ first coming is old hat to us by now. And while this year things will be a little different—worshipping at home rather than gathering in our beloved Church, missing out on larger family gatherings—we know what is to come. Putting up the tree and decorating the house. Picking out presents for those we love and wrapping them. Placing stockings on the mantle, and setting up a creche. Hearing the familiar words of the nativity story, of shepherds watching their flocks at night when an angel will once more proclaim that a savior has been born in Bethlehem.
But that second coming of Jesus, how do we wait for that? I mean we don’t know when it will be, or how it will happen. Sure, Mark tells us those cosmic aberrations will take place, but what about us? It’s easiest just to forget about it, to think it won’t really happen so no need to spend any energy pondering it. Which is a very passive way of waiting for the Second Advent. You can imagine waiting for a ride to show up, and you’re just staring at your phone filling the void until they come catching up on the news for the fifth time that day or watching yet another cat video.
But what if that waiting were more active? Pastor Copenhaver suggests imagining a child waiting on a street corner for a parade to appear. That child can hear “the sound of a parade that is just out of sight [and she] will also wait, but it will be a different kind of waiting, full of expectation, a waiting on tiptoe, an active waiting.” Which sounds like the kind of waiting Jesus wants when he tells his disciples, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” And then he conjures up this image of a servant waiting for the owner of the house to return from a trip. If you don’t know which flight he’ll be on, or what day he’ll be arriving, you make sure to watch the horizon for his appearing. It’s like the families of mariners looking out at the sea for a boat to appear. That’s a much more expectant waiting, the desire for something full of excitement to enter into our lives. Much like the joyful waiting for Christmas that younger kids experience each year.
That should be our posture as we await the day of the Lord’s coming. Because while Jesus’ Second Coming will mean the end of the son and the moon and the stars, it will also mean the beginning of a world beyond anything we could ask or imagine. A place, a time, a home whose delights will far exceed anything we’ve ever had before. An existence when war will be no more, and divisions will cease, and natural enemies will share a meal with one another. It will be a time when crying and sorrow will be no more, and all things will become new.
Oh, how I long for that day. I am waiting expectantly, looking down the street for the parade to appear. Standing on tiptoes, straining my eyes to take it all in when it comes, and feeling the excitement rise within me. As we begin this new church year, may we long like that for Jesus’ return. Let us keep watch, waiting with joy and anticipation for his arrival. We do not know when it will happen, we just know that it will indeed take place. So let us keep awake—let us keep on with our hopeful expectation—for the Son of Man is coming in the clouds. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.