Advent 1b, December 3, 2017

December 5, 2017

Urgently Present

Mark 13:24-37


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.”


Our text this morning is a portrayal of the culmination of life as we know it. The paragraphs prior to this passage portray a frightening scenario of what is to occur, but this morning’s text makes reference to the ultimately good ending, and the primary message seems to be for us to pay attention.


Announcing my retirement isn’t exactly an apocalyptic pronouncement, but I’m you might say I’ve announced the end of life as I currently know it. I think I know what I’m doing, and I think I’m going to be happy being on the other side of the pulpit on Sunday mornings, but I might become a bucket of goo. Time will tell. But I do know the day and hour this will happen, so in that sense it’s sort of the opposite of an apocalyptic event. It’s more like the turning of a page.


The startling thing to me is not that I’m ready to retire from preaching. The amazing thing to me is that I’ve had a career in ministry. I think I may have said this before, but it occurred to me a few years ago that my journey into ministry was largely fueled by my anxiety about global nuclear destruction. I didn’t exactly live in constant fear of nuclear annihilation, but it felt possible. I wasn’t hopeless about the situation, but my decision to go to seminary was driven more by my sense that the end was near than it was by a career plan.


You may think I’m retiring early, but the amazing thing is that I made it through the first year. I remember very clearly approaching the first Sunday of Advent in my first year of ministry and having a bit of a panic attack over how the whole Advent candle ritual was supposed to work. I didn’t study church liturgy when I was in seminary, and I didn’t really know how to design a worship service. The Advent Candle ritual was a challenge for me. I thought there was probably a firm tradition of what each candle was supposed to represent and I didn’t know what it was. I came to understand that there is a wide variety of traditions surrounding the Advent wreath, but I felt pretty lost about that and many other things.


Prepping for each Sunday felt a lot like a preparing for a disaster to me. In seminary I had learned a little bit about church history, the Bible, and how the United Methodist Church was organized, but I pretty much shared all my special knowledge within the first month of my first appointment.


I love the United Methodist Church, and I love being a part of a church. I would even say I feel called to be in ministry, but I am not what you would call a natural born preacher. I told you in my first sermon that I’m not normal, and I’m still not normal. People have asked me if working at the food pantry has worn me out, and the answer to that is no. Heavy lifting comes natural to me – preparing for worship is what I call hard work. Three years may seem like a short time for me to be your pastor, but I’m telling you, it’s amazing I made it through the first three months of my career in ministry. I didn’t really know what I was doing then, and I still don’t really know how to do what I’m doing. But I’m not confused about why we gather each Sunday to do what we do.


What I know is that I need to try to pay attention to God, and I’m guessing that’s why you are here as well. This world is hard and there are so many things that don’t make sense. Life is precarious and unfair and painful and I can only deal with it by believing that God is with us and that we will be ok if we will look to God and trust in God.


This is not to say that life isn’t also beautiful and amazing and joyful, but you never know which side of the coin is going to turn up. One day life is great and the next day something unbearable drops in your life. We aren’t generally as urgent to get close to God when things are going well, but it’s so good to know a little something about the creator of the universe when our own little worlds collapse.


Our scripture lesson this morning directs our thinking toward the end of time as we know it. It’s sort of a confrontation to the way we generally live our lives. There are those moments in our lives when we are in a bit of a crisis mode, and this scripture is probably more accessible to those who are living in places where the world has been rocked in powerful ways. I’m thinking this passage is probably the most comforting to those who’s lives have been totally disrupted by the death of a loved one, the destruction of a home, the loss of livelihood, the prognosis of disease, the onslaught of war or a combination of the above, and that’s when we need to hear these words of eternal comfort.


It’s not as easy for me to think of the world coming to an end as it was in the late seventies, but the reality of life getting disrupted in an absolute way is something I have seen over and over. I know that there’s no end to the ways people’s lives get torn up, but I also know that there’s no limit to the way in which God comes to people with healing and hope.


The season of Advent is that period of time in which we try to prepare our hearts and minds for the birth of Christ in to our lives once again, and the truth is that this is probably easier to do when we are in touch with our need for Christ to be present in our lives. And that’s one of the gifts that my career in ministry has provided for me. Preaching has sort of imposed a weekly crisis upon me. You might say I’ve been regularly forced to take a close look at something Jesus said and did, and that’s a great thing to have to do. It’s also caused me to cry out to Jesus on a regular basis. I may not come up with a powerful message each week, but I usually get a powerful message.


Preaching is something that will generate a little urgency in your heart to pay attention to the way Christ is alive in this world. I don’t think my desire to find Jesus will expire when I retire, but I know that this work of preaching and leading worship has made me be more attentive to the presence of Christ in this world than I would have been, and I’m grateful for that.


But that sense of urgency comes in a lot of different ways, and I’m ready for a new way to pay attention. Of course the things that create urgency and cause us to pay attention aren’t always so welcome. When we were in New York over Thanksgiving we spent a wonderful evening walking around the streets of New York. Our son gave us a great tour of the places he frequented and then we ended up walking through a good portion of Central Park. It had been a really pleasant evening until that rat appeared at the side of the path. I think the sight of a rat is disconcerting to most of us, but they are particularly unsettling to Sharla. She couldn’t hardly hear a sound after that without thinking we were about to encounter another one.


And she probably wasn’t wrong to be so alarmed. I think I’ve heard there could be as many as five rats per person in NYC, but I can testify that they are pretty good about staying out of sight. That one was sort of slow to get out of the way, but it only takes one to make you pay attention.


Those things that cause us to pay attention to the presence of Christ are often unwelcome, but it’s hard not to think of them as gifts. We United Methodists aren’t known for our urgency to be prepared for the end of the world, but that doesn’t mean we are oblivious to the presence of God’s grace in our lives. I ran in to a friend from a former church in St. Vincent’s as I was on my way to see Jeff Ellis, and she told me of the near death experience she had recently experienced. She was well on the way to full recovery, but she had nearly died. She’s still in the middle of recovery, but she was about as happy as I’ve ever seen her. She had come to feel that every day was a new gift.


I don’t think God wants us to live in a state of paranoia about the uncertainty of tomorrow, but whatever it is that causes us to recognize the value of each day is good thing. I have no regret that I went to seminary in hope of getting to know a bit more about Jesus before nuclear annihilation. We don’t really get to choose the things that move us to seek the loving presence of Jesus Christ, and in many cases those things are terribly painful, but Jesus Christ doesn’t fail to come. Jesus doesn’t take all our pain away, but his love enables us to find life in the midst of whatever we face.


As we begin this season of Advent, our scripture points to the way in which we never know the time or place in which we will encounter the coming of Christ. Today’s passage is a call to pay attention to the opportunity we have right now to experience the essence of true life.


As we light the Advent Candles over the course of the next few weeks we’ll be talking about things like joy, and peace, and love, and hope (If I remember correctly). I think these are things we all yearn to experience, and while I don’t want to be frightening, I think this passage serves to warn us that if we aren’t careful we can miss opportunities to experience these essential spiritual gifts.


Authentic urgency isn’t an easy thing to generate. When you try to generate urgency it usually comes out as fear, and I’m not wanting to go there, but I do hope we are all in touch with a healthy sense of urgency to be close to the life-giving presence of God. Announcing my retirement has already had a funny impact on me in this way. Seven months isn’t exactly a short period of time, but knowing that there will be an end to this regular exercise of preaching has created some urgency within me to get it right. It’s always been a bit of an exercise in desperation, but I’m feeling more urgency than desperation about it now, and that’s a nice change for me.


Whatever it is that causes us to be watching for Christ is a good thing, and I trust that God knows how to communicate this good message to each of us. Christ is alive! And Christ is coming!

Thanks be to God! Amen.



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