Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
November 30, 2014
“I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.” “My computer is a dinosaur.” “I’ve been glued to the TV.” You know these expressions and others like them. They are over the top metaphors and images to get a point across. We can’t take these phrases literally, because no one could eat an entire horse, computers just get old, and it would be really weird to glue yourself to a TV. This is just how language works. We can’t these phrases literally, but we have to take them seriously.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Jesus in the Gospel of Mark also uses over the top metaphors and images. Jesus says, “but in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (13:24-25). Many Christians have taken these words to mean “the end of the world.” Many are actually waiting for the sun to go dark, the moon to stop shining, and for the stars to start dropping from the sky. But remember, we don’t eat horses or glue ourselves to televisions.
In this passage, we shouldn’t take Jesus literally, but we have to take him seriously. The best theologians and New Testament scholars in the world believe that Jesus is talking like the rest of us, he is using over the top metaphors and images to get his point across (see N.T. Wright’s treatment of the “little apocalypse” in Jesus and the Victory of GodI). If we were to read all of this passage, not just the little snippet for this morning, we would understand that Jesus is talking about the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Just twenty verses earlier, Jesus and one of his disciples have a conversation about how all the stones of the Temple will be thrown down. Then, the disciples ask him when this will take place. Next, Jesus warns his disciples of coming persecution and war. Finally, Jesus gets to the metaphors and imagery we read this morning. This passage is not about the end of the world, it’s about the end of the world as they knew it.
For the ancient Jews, the Temple in Jerusalem was the center of their life. The Temple in Jerusalem was the fabric that held the community together. The Temple was the focal point of religious, cultural, and national life. The Temple was where God dwelled. The ancient Jews and early Christians would have seen the destruction of the Temple as the end of their world. And indeed, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, within one generation of Jesus, their world did come to an end. And the things Jesus talked about – persecution, suffering, destruction – all took place just the way he said they would. The way the ancient Jews and Christians had worshipped, the way they lived together, ceased to be. The Jews couldn’t worship there anymore, and the Christians left Jerusalem. The world didn’t end, but the world as they knew it had ended.
Now, I have heard news commentators, friends, family, talk about as if we are experiencing the end of the world. I hear many Americans talk about how the old structures and the old ways of life are being thrown down. I hear much fear about how social institutions, that we once thought inviolable, are being corrupted. I have heard much anger over the protests taking place across this country in the aftermath of the Monday night’s decision in St. Louis. I have heard commentators, of all political stripes, talk about how these protests are proof of how the old way of America is being desecrated, like this is the end of the world. And the list goes beyond Ferguson. It could be ISIS, Ebola, same-sex marriage – whether we like it our not – the old ways are being destroyed. The Temple is being destroyed. So yes, in a way, the world that we know is ending. Some are happy about that. Some are fearful. But as Christians we must find a more difficult, alternate way.
Just as the ancient Christians found a new, alternate way of being followers of God even after the Temple was destroyed. Yes, their old world, their Temple was destroyed, but that didn’t make any difference for God. God just found new ways to work. It didn’t make any difference that the Temple was destroyed, because God created a new temple in the hearts of all believers (Pentecost, see Acts 2). You and I. The temple is no longer a place to go, but a place within us. God took what was like the end of the world, and made it into a new beginning. The first Christians didn’t fret about how the old world was being destroyed, but neither did they greet it with joy. They simply found a new way of being faithful to God.
I believe the same can happen today. Because we cannot go back and rebuild our old temples. No matter how painful it is as we watch the old world being thrown down, we cannot turn back the clock. The good news is that God is with us, and God will be with us even in this new, uncertain future. God will not abandon us even if everything around us changes. Sure, the Temple was destroyed, but God remained faithful to his people. Sure, our carefully constructed twentieth century world – the good, the bad, and the ugly – is crumbling, but God will find new ways to bless us and keep us.
During this season of Advent, the Church reminds us to keep awake, to be alert. Advent is marked by anticipation and expectation as we await the birth of Jesus. But also as we look for the new ways that God is breaking into this world. In this season of Advent, during each sermon we are going to pause and silently ask God about our expectations for this new world. So, right now, we are going to sit in silence for one minute, just one minute. And during that minute, I want you to say this to God: “God, it seems that the old world is being thrown down. What new things are you building up?”
[One minute of silence.]
Beware. The world as we know it is ending. And it will be painful. So painful, in fact, that it will seem the sun has stopped shining, it will seem that the stars are falling, that the powers of heaven are being shaken. But what seems to be, is not reality. What may seem like the end, is actually just a new beginning. So do not despair. God has been and always will be faithful.