(Here is the sermon I preached on Sunday, November 29, 2020 – 1st Sunday of Advent. You can find the full recording of the service on the church website)
Maybe you’ll recognize who said this portion of this famous speech:
Gentlemen may cry, “Peace! Peace!” — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me..
You probably know the ending and may have the urge to complete it too. But leave it hanging for a moment. The speech comes from Patrick Henry spoken on March 25, 1775 in Richmond, VA, about a year before the Revolutionary war. Now, if you’re like me, it feels weird leaving the speech hanging like that without saying the ending, doesn’t it? We so desperately want to finish it. It feels incomplete otherwise. It’s missing the culmination of where Henry was going.
But it’s also missing the beginning part of his speech, too. The part that sets up the section I read to you. That set up is important. The beginning part builds up the argument. It lays a foundation for the rest to make sense. Without the beginning or the ending, what we have is an incomplete speech that leaves us uncomfortable and unsatisfied.
Our Gospel reading is no different today. What we have is a speech by Jesus without the beginning. And while we hear the end of what Jesus is saying in this speech, we haven’t gotten to the culmination of the story – we’re right on the cusp of it in Mark’s Gospel. The very next verse tells us of the chief priests and scribes plotting to kill Jesus.
And the beginning that is left out, the context of this entire passage, starts at the beginning of Chapter 13, which begins this way, “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’”
What will be the sign that these things are about to be accomplished? That’s the question that we hear Jesus responding to. And boy, he doesn’t fail in that response. In the course of next 19 verses Jesus talks about false messiahs, rumors of wars, earthquakes, persecution, death, desolation and sacrilege of the temple. And then we get to the beginning of our passage that we heard today.
Throughout this chapter, we hear Jesus referencing the book of Daniel very clearly. In verse 14 we hear Jesus talk about the “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not be” – reminding the disciples of an event they would have known very well – the desecration that took place about 200 years beforehand in the Temple by the then occupying Selucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes when he slaughtered a pig in worship to Zeus in the holy of holies in the temple. That would set off the Maccabean revolt, kicking out the tyrant and cleansing the temple in the story that would come to be known as Hannukah.
And what is even more fascinating is that there have been two temples built. Both destroyed by outside occupiers – the first destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, and the second destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. And I can’t make this up, they were both destroyed on the same day on the Jewish calendar – Tisha B’Av – an annual feast day in Judiasm. The same day.
The Gospel of Mark was written right about the time of the second temple destruction by the Romans. Either right before or right after the event. Which means that it was right on the minds of the early Christians – a fresh event. A Jewish revolt started in 66 AD. And the consequences would be devastating. A million people would die as a result, and almost 100,000 would be sold into slavery. And the temple would be destroyed. Even if it was written right before the destruction, it would be been obvious to the Scripture writer of what was going to happen. And the early Christians who heard this going forward would easily connect what happened with what Jesus said.
This is the moment in history that our Gospel is pointing us toward. A moment in history that upends everything for the people who heard it. The temple had been so central to the life of the people, that they had to figure out what to do now that it was gone.
While we haven’t suffered as devastating a loss of life, or meaning, or purpose, or identity, as those who would have heard this passage for the first time, this has been quite a year.
Advent is about revealing things.
As professor Courtney Buggs of Christian Theological Seminary reflected this week in her commentary on these passages, “The something for which we wait is not the birth of the baby Jesus. It is not a manger or an overcrowded inn or shepherds in search of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Nor is it the baking of sugar plums, or covering of gifts with shiny reflective red, green, and silver gift-wrapping paper. It is not what we expect to hear at this time of year, or perhaps, it is just not what we want to hear. In fact, at first glance the prophetic overture is dim.”
Advent though is a time of waiting and revealing. We wait for the coming of Christ – we look for it. And while we wait, we see things as they are – not always pleasant, but what they really are. Advent is a time to clear our eyes. This year especially, Advent is a time in which we wait and we see. We wait for a vaccine. We wait to gather safely with friends and family. We wait for new beginnings at the end of the year. We wait.
And we see. We see, and know very intimately, the deep divides that we face as a people – deep fissures in our society, our communities, and maybe even our families over politics, race, the virus and more. In many ways, 2020 has been a year that plunged us into metaphorical darkness – a year in which we might prefer to just crawl into bed, hide under the covers, and just sleep it away.
But Jesus speaks to us in the midst of this. In verse 35 we hear Jesus say, “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.”
This is the first time when I read this passage that I noticed something different. All the times of the day that Jesus mentions are at night, when the sun is below the horizon. And all of these times that Jesus mentions will have great significance beginning in Chapter 14.
It is in the evening when Jesus goes to pray in Gethsemane and is handed over to the chief priests. It is at midnight when Jesus is on trial with the Sanhedrin. It is at cockcrow when Peter denies Jesus three times. And it is at dawn when Jesus carries the cross to Golgotha to be crucified.
Maybe the message is that even, or especially when, it is darkest in our lives, Jesus is there. He doesn’t abandon us. Instead, it is during those times that Jesus takes up the cross for us. Walks with us, suffers with us. Jesus, the incarnate God who takes on flesh to be with us, is with us in our darkest times. We don’t worship a God who slumbers when things are difficult and bleak. Rather we have a God who shows up in the midst of that bleakness. Who shows up in the midst of the pain, the suffering, the divisiveness, the vitriol, and the mourning. Sometimes it might be easier to wish that Jesus wouldn’t – that Jesus would be distant from us. Because then we could tell ourselves that we have to pull ourselves out, that whatever we are going through is just too messy for God, or anyone else to deal with. We can hide our emotions, our thoughts, our struggles. We can put on a façade of being just fine. All while we are drowning. But that won’t work. If 2020 has done anything, it should reveal that we can’t go it alone. We need others. And we need a God who shows up, especially in the nighttime of our lives when it we are struggling and all hope looks lost. And that’s when Jesus is most present.
Advent is about revealing things. It calls on us to wait and to see. To stay awake, as Jesus says. And what we see is the true nature of Jesus and what the Kingdom of God is really about. Something far greater than even the prettiest Christmas display or the nicest wrapped gift under a perfect Christmas tree. Those aren’t bad things. But don’t get distracted by thinking that’s what this season is about. It’s about something far greater. This season of Advent, especially this year, we are called to stay away. To pay attention. To wait and to see. To see Jesus in our midst, in our suffering, in our mourning. In how we adjust and alter traditions. In how our own temples are metaphorically destroyed. And when they are destroyed, we struggle with how we go forward, what our true identity is, and being awake to see Jesus in our midst. In spite of this, We don’t go forward alone. Walking in the dark. Jesus is here. With us, walking with us. Being with us. Present with us. Waiting with us. Opening our eyes so that we can see Jesus, the light of the world. Keep awake. The light shines on us. Can you see it? It’s coming. Amen.