This sermon was preached at St. John’s Cathedral on November 27, 2016
The eschaton, the end of times, the second coming, apocalypse, is our theme as we enter into the season of Advent. And you might tempted to give fully into the passage, start charting number patterns and constellations to determine what day this last day will be, or you might be tempted to ignore it as an unnecessary and perhaps out of place lesson that’s really about the fact that Jesus has promised to come back, the rest being simply metaphorical language used to tell a story. What I want us to do today is accept this text at face value. We don’t need to go down the rabbit hole looking for signs that the end is nigh, for this passage is not about being anxious and packing our bug-out bags for when the world’s economy inevitably collapses on the 21st of May. Nor should we dismiss this passage as a piece of metaphor, a story told to assuage historical fears for historical readers, nothing for us to be troubled by in the here and now. Let us instead treat this passage as a reality for our here and now. Let us take this text at face value and consider what this passage actually means for us.
In our here and now we live in what Karl Barth referred to as “between the times.” Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we already live in a new day, a new time, a place where the promise and grace of God has been made manifest, a place where Christ has already died for our sins and has offered that salvific act for all of us here and now. And with the promise of Christ to come again, to come once more and be a symbol of God’s power of grace, forgiveness, mercy active in this world, we can be comfortable in this between times reality. This here and now need not be shaped by fear of what is potentially to come but rather it should be shaped by the gratitude for what Christ has already accomplished in this world. And, if we are shaped through that gratitude, then we can’t help but begin to prepare the path, to stay vigilant and active in the ministry that has been left for us, work that we will be doing until Christ comes at the unexpected hour.
Theologian Mark Yurs writes of this apocalyptic text that the truth of the text lies in the fact that “we are not expected to know everything, but we are expected to do something.” It is in this dichotomy of knowing and doing that we often miss the boat, that we forget that this text is applicable to our lives today. For we all like to know stuff.
The existence and (sometimes) popularity of apocalypse proclaimers in our own society speaks to our hunger to know and our forgetfulness in doing. One of the biggest Christian book series, which even inspired multiple movie versions including a big budget version starring Nicolas Cage, is the Left Behind series (of which I’ll admit I read the original run of 12 books). Books that cashed in on the hunger of evangelical Christians to know and prepare for what was sure to come in the near future: the end of times. More cynically, cult leaders have capitalized on people’s desire for what is advertised as knowledge in the form of certainty, that they know what is to come and when. Even the doomsayers who walk the streets waving their signs declaring “Repent! The End is Nigh!” do so to spread knowledge.
The Episcopal Church itself draws in a certain type of person who wants to use their brain to wrestle with the scriptures, to learn about their faith, to discuss and parse out how the stories we hear from an ancient time far removed can inform and influence our lives today. It is easy for us to fall into this trap of intellectualism. We highlight the great passages from our book studies and discuss them at length, then put the book on the shelf to absorb the next great writer without ever acting on the lessons we’ve gleaned. We hunger to know more and more that we often forget that no one, not even Christ, expects us to know everything. And, perhaps most importantly, Christ expects us to do something with what we know.
For the hour when Christ will come is unexpected, it cannot be known. So, we should get busy doing what we do know, for all the work we do to learn and digest will never inform us when the end will come. It will come when it does, and we need to be ok with that. This sense of an unexpected hour can get us worked up, stressed out, there is a sense that we want to guarantee that we are “in”. We want to know unequivocally that heaven awaits us. We can get so worked up, gobbling up all of the resources on prayer, spirituality, how to live a Godly life so that we can draw closer to knowing we are in, that we forget that Christ has already taken care of this for us. That we live “between the times” and as such, we are simply asked to accept what Christ has already done for us and get busy living that reality, spreading it out into the world through the work that we do. And, we are not expected to do everything either. Rather, we are simply called to live into a life that takes the reality of Christ’s salvific act for us, and allows that to inform how we operate in this world as we await Christ’s coming again. Mark Yurs writes “If they do what they can in a spirit of hope and trust they will do enough,” and enough is all we should ever strive for.
So, what is this apocalyptic story if not a promise and a reminder? It is a text that describes the reality of our life living “between the times,” of being in a both/and reality that asks us to accept and live into the reality that exists before us here and now. We can’t help but ask if we will live to see the second coming of Christ. And, who knows if we will? I certainly do not. And anyone that tells you they do is either lying or trying to sell you something. And this is ultimately because, it is not the point of the lesson. And, this is why every year we start the season of advent with the apocalyptic literature that has been left to us by Christ. For it is in the season of advent that we are again reminded of our position of being “between the times.”
It is in this season of advent that we should be reminded that we actually know how the story goes. We all know what is to come at the end of this season. We all know what we will gather to celebrate 4 Sundays from now. In fact, the church calendar always brings us to places we know. Advent leads us to Christmas. Lent to Easter. And it does so to remind us that we do actually know the story, know the lessons that have been left for us, know that Christ has promised and continually lives into that promise every year without fail. Christ is born in this world. Christ lives in this world. Christ dies at the hands of this world. And (eventually) Christ is again born in this world. This cycle that we know so well, this promise lived out every year, is all we really need to know. And because we know it so well, we are called to do something with it.
Advent thus must be for us a time of doing. We can get so wrapped up in the otherness of the festivities of this season, that we forget that the work of Christ is most important in this coming month. We declare we will be more involved in the new year. We declare that we will take this season to learn, to gain more knowledge, about all the great things we can get involved with and then start to try them out as our new year’s resolutions. But the new year is upon us. Advent is the beginning of our year, the beginning of our cycle reminding us that Christ has come and will come. And it is in this season of advent that we must be emboldened by the fact that we already know enough, we have enough knowledge, and by committing to do in a spirit of hope and trust, that we will do enough for this world.
Now, I must confess I am not a big poetry guy, probably because I haven’t found that one poet that opens my eyes to the beauty of the genre. But, I am a big music guy, and in lyrics I find the poetry that speaks to me. I want to leave with you the following from a song by the band Nickel Creek, words that speak to our “between the times” reality in this season of advent:
The battle is over.
Here we all lie
In a dry sea of Solo cups
With the sun in our eyes.
But it’s one of those endings
Where no one claps ’cause they’re sure that there’s more.
What a great way to start the first day of the rest of my life.