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December 1, 2002 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Hope for the World
Joanna M. Adams
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
"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."
Mark 13:26-27 (NRSV)
We have been busy in recent days, O God, hoping to get a head start on the Christmas season. But here, with heads bowed before your holy presence, we see things differently. In the stillness and silence of this time of prayer, we remember that Christmas is about what you do and whom you give to us and to the world in your own good time. So prepare our hearts to receive you, and come to us in the power of your own Spirit. We offer our prayer in the name of Christ. Amen.
In the Vatican, there is a famous fresco by the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. At the center of the fresco are two of the great philosophers of the ages: Plato in conversation with his student Aristotle. Plato has his finger pointed to heaven. Aristotle, in contrast, has his finger pointed down toward terra firma, the solid earth. Heavenward, or earthly bound—where is reality to be found in Advent or at any time? Is it wishful thinking to expect something other than what presently exists? These are the questions behind today’s strange apocalyptic passage from the Gospel of Mark (William H. Willimon, "Day of the Lord," Pulpit Resource, Oct.–Dec. 2002, p. 41). Jesus stands at the intersection of the events that are happening on earth and the future that God is surely going to bring into being. He tells his disciples to keep their eyes open, and when they see various dramatic signs—stars falling from the sky, the darkening of the sun—then they will know that "the Son of Man is coming with great power and glory."
This is the kind of talk that might make us tremble, but the disciples, like many of the early Christians who were going to suffer trial and tribulation, must have found the warning Jesus offered to be as comforting as it was daunting. In the midst of crisis, it is wonderfully reassuring to realize that God is in control and that finally the fulfillment of all that has been promised throughout the ages will at last come to be. In other words, when you have nothing else to hold on to, you hold on to hope. Not hope in yourselves or hope in your own faithfulness or hope in the systems that civilization is able to produce. You hold on to your hope in God.
The apocalypse: in our present day, there are many who for reasons other than hope appear to be ecstatic over the prospect of the end of the world, which they associate with the second coming of Christ. There is the strange alliance, for example, between some Zionists and many biblically literalist Christians who see the return of Jesus to the historical city of Jerusalem as imminent.
There is also the popular Left Behind series, the most recently published novel being The Remnant. Seven million copies of these books have been sold, a phenomenon that dramatizes the obsession that many Americans must have in considering the end of the world.
What shall we do with today’s apocalyptic passage? Shall we hear it literally and prepare for catastrophe, or shall we receive it, as we will receive the gift of the birth of the Christ child, with gratitude and with joy? Perhaps the better question is what does the apocalyptic vision have to do with us? I remind you that every single one of you thanked God for this vision of the end of time just a few moments ago as the New Testament lesson was concluded. I want to suggest to you that the most important things the apocalyptic passage from the Gospel of Mark have to teach us have to do with our remembering our place in the world and God’s place in the world. Just as we believe that God was before the beginning of time, so we as Christians believe that God is eternal and will exist beyond the end of time. We also remember that God is in control of history and in control of our own lives. Divine sovereignty is forever. We pray every Sunday "God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Finally there will not be an "up there" and a "down here." In Jesus Christ, time and eternity intersect. When and how it happens is on God’s terms alone.
In Alice Munro’s novel Jakarta, a group of very sophisticated friends are having a conversation. Munro writes, "Every person at the table was so certain of everything, and when they paused for breath, it was just to draw upon an everlasting stream of pure certainty."
Let the falling stars and the darkening sun remind us that while we know some things, we don’t know everything. God is filled with surprises. Certainly that is the great message of Christmas. The Messiah, who had been expected throughout the ages, shows up in a cattle stall. Born in a little village no one had ever heard of, called Bethlehem. You look down at the baby with red cheeks and that soft spot on his head, and you ask yourself, "This is Emmanuel, King of kings, and Lord of lords?" It all happens the way God wants it to happen. Sorry if it’s an inconvenience to Joseph on his way to pay his taxes, or to the shepherds who have their flocks to watch. We ourselves are to keep our eyes open and to watch. We are to watch and wait.
Waiting is perhaps my least favorite human activity. Perhaps you and I could form a support group in this matter. I remember standing in line to buy a ticket to a popular movie several years ago. The wait was endless. First one foot, then the other, you find yourself being rude, sort of looking at the haircuts of the people around you and eavesdropping on their conversations. After ten or fifteen or twenty minutes, the person in front of me turned around and said, "Do you know the difference between a parade and a line?"
"No," I said.
He said, "Well, a parade moves sometimes!" Neither he nor I were enjoying the wait.
As Paul Tillich wrote so eloquently in The Shaking of the Foundations, our whole relationship to God is one of waiting. There is nothing we can do or know on our own. We must wait for God to act with grace toward us.
We who are prone to breathe deeply from a "steady stream of certainty" must never forget that our lives and the destiny of the world is in the hands of a Great Mystery that does not look, seek, or act according to our ideas.
This leads me to one more insight this morning, which is the reminder that as we wait, we are waiting for something big rather than something small. Yes, the tiny baby is in the manger, but his coming sets the powers and principalities on their ear. There are cosmic implications of the entrance of God into human history. One is coming who is going to change everything. We must wonder, this first Sunday of Advent 2002, if this dramatic change can come too soon. In a world racked by violence and rumors of war, a world in which more than 40 million are infected with HIV/AIDS, half of them women, in a nation in which the population of homeless men and women and children is growing at epidemic proportions, we pray, "Come, Lord Jesus! Come soon to save us."
A friend with whom I work regularly on seemingly intractable problems of injustice sent me an email. "As we move into Advent," she wrote, "let us wait for a tomorrow that is greater than we can create ourselves." That is what we are hoping for. Frederick Buechner calls it "the great hope." Christmas is not about diminished, puny little expectations. It is about God who will not stop until all has been set right. It is our job to look for signs of that setting right in the here and now, like the fresh green leaves that appear on the fig tree. Keep your eyes open. There are signs all around that God is remaking the world. But don’t just look, do something.
I love what St. Augustine wrote so many centuries ago about the nature of hope. He said "Hope has two daughters. One daughter’s name is Anger; the other daughter’s name is Courage. Anger at what is but ought not to be, and Courage to make what ought to be come to be."
Jesus told his disciples about a man who went on a journey and left his servants in charge. He said, "Stay awake. You do not want your master to find you asleep when he returns." So we watch and we work, and it is in those two ways that we wait. You know what the work is: hope in action. I believe that as we love our neighbors, help the suffering, support the weak, and honor other people, the Spirit of Christ is born. Does your new preacher believe in the second coming? Indeed I do. In our acts of mercy and our commitment to justice for all people, he comes again and again and again.
As we prepare to come to the table, I want to say two or three things for which I hopeful this first Sunday of Advent. I hope that through the power of the Holy Spirit you will leave this service more hopeful people than you were when you came in out of the cold this morning.
I hope that Jesus, through his resurrection power, has already overthrown all that hurts and destroys and separates you from God.
I hope that there is a kingdom somewhere where the least among us finally gets to the first of the line.
I hope that when you are invited to come to the Lord’s Table this morning, you will not come as a perfunctory exercise, but that you will receive the gift of the real presence of Christ and he will be made known to you, really known, here on terra firma, in the breaking of the bread. I hope the bread will feed every hunger in your soul. I pray that your spirit will be filled with all joy and hope in believing that Christ has died, that Christ has risen, and by God, Christ will come again. Alleluia. Amen.