Sermon for November 29, 2020

First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2020
Mark 13:24-37

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus said: 24“In those days, after that suffering,

   the sun will be darkened,

         and the moon will not give its light,

   25and the stars will be falling from heaven,

         and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26Then they will see ‘the Son-of-Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then the Son-of-Man 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. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven 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. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like someone going on a journey, who leaving home and putting the slaves in charge of their own work, commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the lord of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else coming suddenly, the lord may find you asleep. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

“Almighty God grant us a quiet night and peace at the last.” That’s how Compline, or Night Prayer, begins. Compline is the last prayer office of the day in the monastery before monks return to their cells for sleep. Night Prayer begins the period of Great Silence, when no talk is undertaken until silence is broken the next morning.

This opening statement of Night Prayer asks for a good night’s rest. But it also points to the end of life, our death. Each day in the monastery spiritually is a mini life cycle when retiring for bed is a symbol of our own death.

Another version of the opening sentence of Night Prayer is more abrupt: “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.”

The remembrance of our mortality is a healthy feature of the Christian spiritual life, especially when such acknowledgment deepens our faith and trust in almighty God. Night Prayer is not just for monks – we can pray it, too, and there is an order for Night Prayer in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Likewise, we all, not just monks, need reminders of our mortality to be spiritually healthy.

Toward such ends, it can be important to have around us memento mori, or things that remind us that we will die, things that give us a healthy dose of reality therapy, that by ourselves on our own we are not immortal.

There are reminders of mortality all around us. Night Prayer is one. But also, the natural, seasonal cycles – winter dormancy, for example, when the trees, which I adore, take on a new kind of beauty in the nakedness of the absence of leaves. Trees without foliage can remind us of the mortality of all living things. Likewise, the longer nights and periods of darkness can call us to remembrance of our endings, both of the day and of life.

Most poignantly, the ravages of the pandemic are also grim and grave reminders of our mortality and the mortal dangers of the coronavirus. My son, Nathan’s trip to be with me for Thanksgiving was cancelled because his mother was exposed to someone who was present on one of her episcopal visitations tested positive for COVID-19. So far so good for them, but we decided to err on the side of caution and cancel Nathan’s visit. The virus seems to be creeping closer and closer the more cases there are nationwide.

Then there’s the specter of climate change and the possible end of an ecosystem that permits living things, or an inhospitable natural world that makes our lives ever more difficult. Likewise, the socio-political shifts happening in nations around the world remind us that human civilizations come and go and have their endings.

The liturgical season of Advent, which begins today, is also in part a reminder of mortality, of end times. Yes, it’s a beginning – of a new church year – but it also points to the promise of Christ’s return, not just at Christmas, but in the eschaton, the last day, which holds the specter of both endings, but also the promise of radical new beginnings.

Advent is about waiting for whatever is to come, whenever it is to come. Another major feature of the emotional climate of this season is that we are not in control of things – yet another constituent element of our mortality.

We get a sense of our being out of control in today’s gospel reading from Mark: “But about that day or hour [of the Son of Man’s return] no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:32-33) We would feel more in control if we knew more details about endings….

We are left with this at the conclusion of today’s gospel passage: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37)

So, how are we to spend our waking hours?

I know how I spend some of my waking hours. Inevitably I wake up each night – very early morning actually – sometime around 3:00 am. That’s when the demons of anxiety, of worldly care are most apt to visit en masse. Those cares are legion, or at least seem to be at that time of day. Items of my to do lists swirl about in my head like a debris cloud of a tornado. I worry about my son and what kind of world he will experience and endure as an adult. I worry about Resurrection Church and what might be possible in our life together on the other side of the pandemic.

I suspect that you can tell similar stories of how your waking hours are occupied with burdened thoughts.

Where can we turn to look for a good word amidst all the cares and concerns of our days?

We turn to God’s word, of course. But even there we find words of judgment which can add to our burdens. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” And on go the foreboding, anxiety-evoking words from the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading.

But in today’s reading from Isaiah, if we look hard enough, a consoling word appears. It happens to be a word that’s easily overlooked, a conjunction (you may recall from a previous proclamation that I am fond of conjunctions and their function in scripture). The word of promise is the conjunction, “yet.” “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” (Isaiah 64:8-9) There’s more word of promise – in today’s second reading, again, a simple phrase, but profound: “God is faithful.” (1 Corinthians 1:9a) Let that sink in. “God is faithful.”

Here’s the wider context in 1 Corinthians: “4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Thanks be to God for such promises: we are given spiritual gifts for waiting for the coming of Christ; Christ will strengthen us to the end; God is faithful.

In such promising light, we can see Jesus’ words as recorded in Mark more as promise than threat: “26Then they will see ‘the Son-of-Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then the Son-of-Man will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13:26-27) Jesus, then, is the face of the God who is faithful who will gather us from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

So it is that our Lord Jesus, and the wider fullness of our Christian tradition, would not have us spend our wakefulness in worry. Yes, one can be awake and attentive with worry, seeing only doom and gloom – all too easy with so much doom and gloom portrayed all around us, realities which are magnified by our various media.

And one can be awake with an attitude of curiosity and hopefulness.

The reality is that we inevitably spend our waking hours variously, both burdened with worry and comparatively free in curious, confident hopefulness.

Thus, here’s what I do at 3:00 in the morning when the demons of worry burden me: I pray either Compline (Night Prayer) again or I may turn my attention even at that early hour to Morning Prayer.

Praying these prayers and reading the daily scriptural readings appointed floods my mental horizons with the promises of God’s word, in essence proclaiming to the demons of worry, “Be gone.”

And so it is, by God’s gracious word, I can be at peace and can anticipate in hopefulness and confidence a perfect end at the last. Amen.

And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • Review the quality of your waking hours – is your mind generally more anxious or at peace, or a mix of both?
  • What promises from God’s word tend to bring you peace of mind when you are confronted by the realities of our mortality?
  • How do these gracious promises help you meet with confidence and hopefulness the challenges of your routines and your ministry in daily life?