Advent 1b, November 30, 2014

December 1, 2014

Blue Sunday
Mark 13:24-37

13:24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 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. 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 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, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

In the 1940s, my grandparents built a little lake and lake-house in the woods up on Crowley’s Ridge. To get there you would turn off Highway 64B about 3 miles east of Wynne onto a dirt road that wound through an apple orchard. When you came out of the orchard you would go down a short piece and then cross a low-water bridge (which is basically a slab of concrete that the creek flows both over and under) – then you would climb this steep hill that felt like it went straight up. When you got to the crest of the hill you had to hope there was a road on the other side and there was. There was a one lane path on top of a levee that cut across the lake, and the last adventure was to cross a narrow metal bridge that went over a cut in the levee that connected the two sides of the lake.

You may not fully visualize this trek, but what you need to understand is that while this piece of property wasn’t very far from town it was quite a journey to get there. It wasn’t exactly treacherous, but it tested your nerves to drive through the creek, up a steep hill with a blind pinnacle and across a bridge that wasn’t much wider than a car. And it was worth the effort. It was a wonderful little spot on the planet.

I did a lot of fishing out there with my grandfather, and as I was growing up my parents arranged many gatherings out there with other families with kids during summer evenings which was great – even though it was a spooky place for a kid at night. My family and I never spent the night out there, but it had two little bedrooms and a bathroom with a metal shower stall. It was a great little get-away place, and I loved going out there.

One summer when I was in college I convinced my parents to let my friend, Richard, and I stay out there. They didn’t really like the idea, but they let us, and it was an interesting experience. Honestly, it remained a somewhat frightening place to be at night, but it was fun to live in that relatively exotic location. The cabin had running water and electricity, but there wasn’t a land line for a phone out there, and of course cell phones were unimaginable in the late 70’s. So between the circuitous route and the lack of communication you felt pretty isolated when you were out there.

Near the end of that summer I left town for a couple of weeks, and when I got back I decided to ride my bicycle out there one afternoon to check on things. I got out there and when I walked in I encountered what can almost be described as a bad apocalyptic vision. The cabin was in total disarray. Most of the wooden furniture was stacked up in one corner with magazine pages wadded and stuffed in various places between the pieces – ready for torching you might say. Liquor advertisements had been torn from magazines and stuck on the walls where pictures had formerly been hanging, and in other places there was white paint randomly brushed on the dark paneled walls.

There was sort of a cot in the middle of the main room under a ceiling fan, and the door that led to the back part of the cabin where the bedrooms and bathroom were was shut – which was unusual. I walked over to the kitchen area of the big room, and that’s when I noticed that there was a pan of water boiling on the stove.

That was the moment I decided I needed to get out of there. Needless to say, I rode home pretty quickly. I called the sheriff’s office and they made arrangements for me to ride out there with a couple of officers. We tore out there in the squad car and they entered the cabin with guns drawn. They even kicked open the door to those back rooms in that classic cop-fashion, but it wasn’t latched so they didn’t have to break anything. Nobody was there, but they examined the situation and asked me several questions. And as the main officer was writing up the report and going over the facts of the situation I came to realize how close to an episode of Mayberry this was because the officer suddenly looked up at me and said, You know – I believe that guy’s been staying out here!

I don’t know if they ever found the person who had created that odd mess. At some point they told us a drifter had been picked up in a nearby town who had been charged with arson and they suspected it was the same person. It was an unfortunate situation that sort of ruined my desire to spend any more nights out there. We cleaned up the place, but it was never quite the same for me. It’s still out there, but it’s in a terrible state of disrepair.

I’m sorry to spend such a long time telling a relatively trivial story, but what this story illustrates to me is the way in which the beauty and the belligerence of this world are so intertwined. That place was wonderful, but it was also unnerving. It was near town, but when you were out there you could feel pretty cut-off from everyone else. I always imagined it would be a good place for a deranged person to hang out, and sure enough it was.

The reality of our situation is that we live in a world where the beauty and the ugliness of life are never far removed from the other. The hard edges of life are rarely far removed from our great joys. About 10 years after my grandparents built their wonderful retreat my grandmother was in a car accident and she spent the last 20 years of her life as a quadriplegic and unable to take care of a spot she dearly loved. There is no way to keep the bad times at bay – but the opposite is also true. When we are in the midst of trouble we aren’t beyond the reach of deliverance.

Mark, the gospel writer, was addressing his words to people who were living in very harsh circumstances, and he was writing about a person who was the victim of the cruel hand of power hungry men who had no concern for the truth. Good times weren’t near to the followers of Jesus who were living in a territory that was occupied by Rome. But Jesus didn’t want anyone to ever think that the terrorism of the day would prevail. Jesus wanted his followers to always be watching for the glorious arrival of God’s delivering presence.

These words from our scripture lesson this morning are pretty cryptic. In fact it’s easy to just want to dismiss them. The sun and moon and stars remain in their place, and there has been no report of the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory – at least not any kind of report that a meteorologist could provide. But I don’t want to overlook the truth of these words. I believe the glorious delivering power of Jesus Christ continues to arrive. I believe it came to that first generation, and I believe it can come for us.

The little things that we construct in life to bring us pleasure are nice, but they never really last. We can generate some beautiful things in this world, but they can be torn up in an instant. There are no everlasting things on earth – Jesus reminds us that the earth itself is a fleeting thing. Probably the most persistent thing on earth is the presence of suffering, but even suffering isn’t the most eternally substantial thing. Jesus taught that the love of our eternal God is the only thing that endures forever, and for that we are to keep watch.

It’s not easy to imagine the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory, but I’m guessing it can look a lot like a person wearing gloves who comes with a broom and begins to clean up the debris of a vandalized business in Ferguson, MO. I’m thinking the power and glory of the Son of Man can also appear in the form of a thousand people standing peacefully on the street to express remorse over the death of another young black man and the need for our terrible racial dynamics to be rectified. I don’t believe the power and glory of the Son of Man ever takes the form of indiscriminate violence. But it can show up in great force in ways that we can see if we are paying attention.

We talk about the season of Advent as being that period of time in the church when we prepare for Christ to be born once again into our hearts and into our world. Certainly it’s reasonable to hold an element of joyful expectation in our hearts, but I also think it makes sense to acknowledge that we are in need of deliverance.

There are many distressing dynamics in our world in our cities in our families and in our very selves. Bad things are happening on every level of life, and we need some deliverance. We don’t need to ignore our problems, we need to acknowledge them, we need to seek God’s guidance for the wisdom to deal with them, and we need to watch for the ways in which God chooses to address them.

You would think the arrival of the Son of Man in the clouds with great glory would be obvious to everyone, but it turns out that God is more likely to sneak in unannounced. If we don’t pay attention to what God is doing and how we might get involved in God’s holy work of sharing peace and demanding justice we will not notice God’s coming until the timely opportunity is lost. I’m thinking Jesus can come and go without our awareness – and if we aren’t careful we will become the ones who are saying, Hey, I think that guy’s been staying here!

But he’ll be gone. And we will remain unchanged.

Something needs to happen. Something good needs to happen for us all, and something good can happen for us all if we will seek to pay attention to the eternal claim of God upon our world, our cities, our church, and our lives. These aren’t easy times, but times have never been easy, and the good news is that we have a God who offers deliverance. Pay attention, and you might well see what God has in mind.

Thanks be to God.


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