Don’t look back, don’t look ahead, look around: A Sermon for Advent 1A, 2020

Advent 1       

November 29, 2020

Here we are, beginning the season of Advent, observing it in ways none of us has ever done before, looking ahead to a Christmas season that will be equally unsettling in the compromises we will have to make because of the pandemic’s continued presence among us. Our joy and excitement are tempered by fear, exhaustion, and the ongoing sense of isolation—from our church, our friends and loved ones, from the rituals that have offered us such great comfort and to which we look forward each year at this time.

It’s enough to make us want to cry with the prophet, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and make the mountains shake!” We want deliverance from all of this; we look for solutions—vaccines, political leadership, magic bullets, that will remove all of our hardship and anxiety, and return things to normal.

In our present circumstances, the themes of Advent, as expressed in today’s gospel reading may provide less comfort and consolation, than increase our anxiety and exhaustion. In our struggles, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the situations in which the gospels were written; in this case, Mark in particular.

The first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, and the cycle of our readings switches. This year, we will be reading from the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree was the first of the gospels to be written. And it was written in difficult circumstances indeed. Around the year 70, so about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The gospel reflects the challenges those 40 years presented. During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly announced the coming of God’s reign, and proclaimed that he would soon return in majesty to usher in that reign of justice and peace. But 40 years had passed and Jesus’ followers saw no signs of that coming. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this delay constituted something of a crisis of faith for the early Christian community.

Another factor was emerging as the gospel was written. In 66 ce, Jewish revolutionaries had taken up arms against the Roman occupation. Early successes had led to Rome’s vicious crackdown. We don’t know whether Mark was written immediately before, or in the immediate aftermath of Rome’s re-conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple, but we know that this turn of events created crisis both for the emergent Christian community and for Judaism. 

The destruction of the temple was catastrophic for Judaism of the day. I used to say to my students that we couldn’t imagine what it meant emotionally, psychologically, and religiously to the Jews of the day. But now, I think we may have some sense of the significance of that cataclysmic event. Having been prevented from public worship, from gathering in this familiar place regularly, we have been forced to reimagine, reinvent our worship and our common life. And we have had to do that in the midst of our frustration and anger that we are not able to gather, that the old rituals and spaces are unavailable. We have spent a great deal of our time and energy in lament, mourning, and anger; looking back to the past, rather than forward into the uncertain future.

It’s in this context, to this moment, that Mark is writing his gospel. In this context, in this moment, we are beginning once again to observe Advent. Mark speaks to us, now, in our context, in this moment. We may be looking back to the past, to Advents and Christmases of years past, wishing we could easily recreate them without worry or concern for our safety. We might even, as so many are doing, observe them this year as we have in the past, throwing caution to the wind and endangering ourselves, our loved ones, our community. Our we might put everything on hiatus, put our lives and our celebrations on hold for a safer time. We can see all of those responses hinted at in the gospel reading. 

But there’s something else.

At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:

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, (Mk13:35)

Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.

What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.

But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans. 

But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God. 

For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified. 

We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. We live in a time when many of our fellow Christians, many of our denominational institutions are more concerned about individual rights than the wellbeing of the wider community, the flourishing of all people. And in their demand for rights and power, they cause suffering and pain, they threaten the lives and health of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate. 

But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty. Remembering that Jesus died on the cross teaches us to seek his presence in the midst of suffering, weakness, and vulnerability.

For us in this season, let us not look back, nor look forward. Let us look around, keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence. Let us be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days. May we share the good news of Christ’s coming, of his presence, and may we help others recognize and know his presence in the midst of their anxiety, fear, and longing.

Jesus, John Wayne, and Christ the King

 In her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne, Kristine Kobes Du Mez writes about the transformation of American Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as it became indistinguishable from conservative white, masculine, nationalistic politics. While her focus is on evangelicalism, the story affects of all of American Christianity, in that the consumer culture we inhabit shapes us indelibly. She uses the actor John Wayne as a symbol of that transformation, showing how American evangelical Christians reimagined Jesus in light of Wayne’s iconic portrayal of the lone American fighting against evil in defense of the American way of life.

Such imagery may be profoundly alien to us. When was the last time you watched Wayne’s iconic Green Berets—his full-throttled defense of US involvement in Viet Nam? Perhaps you have seen The Searchers or The Sands of Iwo Jima. But for most of us, John Wayne and the characters he played in the movies are faded relics of a long-forgotten past. Still, Kobes De Mez reveals that the images continue to shape our worldview and Christianity and those of other Americans in profound and disturbing ways. His elevation of the lone individual fighting for truth and the American way, battling enemies who were usually not white; the emphasis on redemptive violence, the praise of dominant masculinity against passive femininity, all of these themes continue to resonate in our culture and in American Christianity.

The conflation of Jesus and John Wayne may seem an absurdity, laughable, idolatry. It may seem a distortion, even a heretical misinterpretation of the one who died on the cross, offering love to the world, preaching on behalf of the poor, the powerless, the hungry. But there is imagery in our scripture, liturgy, and theology that evokes themes of imperial power. 

Which brings us to today, the observance of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. When we hear those words, it’s hard not to conjure up images of Jesus reigning in majesty, his head adorned with a crown, wearing imperial purple. All of those symbols are derived from the imperial imagery of the Roman Empire and medieval kingship. And while we may imagine a pax Christiana, or a pax Romana, in which the empire rules benevolently, peacefully, over a harmonious world, such tranquility always requires vigilant borders, suppression of dissent, overwhelming military power.

This commemoration of Christ the King, or of the Reign of Christ, as it’s often called these days, is a product of the political conflicts of the last century. It was proclaimed by the pope in 1925, a few years after the devastation of World War I, and in the face of the rising tide of Fascism in western Europe. It was an attempt to remind Christians to put our trust not in the kings or presidents, the forces of nationalism or the powers of this earth, but in the one who reigns in majesty in heaven.

Observing this theme today in the midst of our own political and constitutional crisis, with the threat of authoritarianism and the subversion of the democratic process, seems especially appropriate. And the gospel reading cuts to the very heart of our experience right now.

With today’s reading, we are at the end of our reading of Matthew’s gospel. It is also the final public teaching of Jesus in the gospel. The rest of the gospel is taken up with the events of the last supper, the crucifixion, and resurrection. In some ways, it resembles the parables we’ve been hearing the past few weeks; there’s judgment, there’s separation of good and evil, there’s condemnation. But the similarities end there. While it’s often referred to as a parable, it’s not. It’s more a description of the last judgment than a parable.

The ubiquity of the themes from this story in contemporary progressive Christianity are unfortunate, because it is usually reduced to a set of ethical imperatives—to care for the least of these, the poor, the hungry, the naked, prisoners. What’s overlooked in that perspective is that such actions are not humanitarian; they are sacramental. They take place in response to, and in the presence of Christ. But they are sacramental in a very interesting way, because they are unconsciously sacramental. That is to say, those performing the sacramental acts of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, do not know they are performing sacramental acts, they are performing those acts out of mercy and love, to Christ and to their fellow humans, not knowing that as they perform them, Christ is present.

To bring it back to the day’s theme, reading this text in the context of the Reign of Christ is a powerful witness to the sort of king Christ is, to the nature of the reign of Christ. It is the very subversion of human notions of kingship and power. It is unspoken, unseen, unrecognized. It is present in the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society, in prisons and nursing homes where COVID is raging uncontrollably, on streets where the homeless sleep, in the lines that appear when our food pantry is open. It is present on our borders, in refugee camps, and facilities where immigrants are being held, in the cages where children live.

Think for a moment about all of those places—places we don’t want to think about, or see, or visit. Think about how most of those places, especially prisons and nursing homes, are occupied by people we don’t want to see or know.

There, among the most vulnerable, the weakest, the ignored, there Christ reigns. There, Christ is. And we are called, not only to reach out, to offer food, clothing, and shelter, to be present there. We are called to see Christ there, to recognize his presence, to serve him there.   It is our calling to remind our culture of who Christ is, where Christ is, even when the culture wants to see Christ very differently, as a white, violent, powerful warrior hero.

In these dark days, in the midst of our fear and anxiety, as we struggle to make sense of what’s happening, to hold out hope for the future, following Jesus means to follow him there, where he reigns, and where he is present, in prisons, in nursing homes. And even when it is impossible to do so, as it is now, in these circumstances, it is our calling to bear witness to Christ’s presence in those places, among the victims of violence and oppression, the poor, the hungry, and the naked. We are called to challenge the powers of this world who ignore and prolong the suffering of the least of these. We are called to show even to them, the powerful, the wealthy, the uncaring, to make known to them Christ’s presence where they would least expect it and least recognize it. May we have the courage to witness and to show mercy.