Sunday, December 3, 2023 – Advent 1
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
“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.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 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.
“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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour 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. 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. 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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
The older I get, the less reliable my sleep. I have no trouble falling asleep; it’s staying asleep that’s the challenge. I wake up – two, three times a night. I toss and turn with fitful dreams. Sometimes when I wake up the next morning, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.
But I have found the miracle antidote to sleep deprivation! It’s called… an afternoon nap. Not too long; just enough to restore. It’s like a miracle. - But I don’t always get one when I need one. So, if you ever see me at an evening church meeting, with my eyelids at half-mast or suppressing a deep yawn, please don’t take it personally! I’m just tired.
So, that’s one kind of tiredness, and we all know it. But there’s another kind that in some ways is deeper and far more detrimental to our sense of well-being. And that is the exhaustion that comes from the unrelenting onslaught of bad news; the endless predictions of catastrophe. It pings our phones and haunts our computers and infects the most casual of conversations, ruining perfectly good holiday meals. And frankly, it’s all too much. And so, it pushes our eyelids closed because as the great C.S. Lewis once observed: “Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable.”
It is unbearable. And so, we cope the best we can. And we close our eyes and drift away and hope that when we wake up it will all be better.
And so, I was struck this week by the Gospel’s demand that we stay awake, especially when the circumstances are dire; especially when it seems like the end of the world.
Mark chapter 13 is often referred to as The Little Apocalypse. Its language is closer to the book of Revelation than it is to the Beatitudes. And it hardly seems appropriate for the first Sunday of Advent, as we look forward to a break from the gloom and a season of peace and goodwill to all, as our new church banner boldly proclaims.
But here we are, on this first Sunday of Advent. And what does Jesus have to say to us? "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.”
Scholars believe that Mark wrote his Gospel right after the apocalyptic events of 70 C.E. That’s the year that Rome sacked Jerusalem, killed thousands, burned the city to the ground, and completely destroyed the magnificent Temple of the Lord. The cataclysm of that event cannot be overstated. When the Temple was destroyed, so was the people’s sense of continuity with the past. And so was any idea that they had God’s special protection. It was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world.
Every generation has its dark and defining days. Every generation faces the end of the world. Suffering and injustice and oppression and fear are well-documented throughout human history. And because life is so precarious; and because injustice is so pervasive; and because the wicked always seem to prosper, we long for someone bigger than us and stronger than us and smarter than us to rescue us. That is one of the major impulses of politics and of religion. We want to be rescued; we want the easy way out. And the church has been content to allow folks to suppose that all we have to do is believe the right things and God will do the rest.
And so, we wait to be rescued, while the world burns down and the innocent are slaughtered. But Scripture talks about salvation as a participatory event. The children of God play a significant role in the salvation of the world. Why else would Jesus tell us to stay awake; stay alert - even if the sun and moon are darkened and the stars fall from the sky! Stay awake!
You know, when Jesus talks like that, he sounds a lot like my mom. - When I was a teenager, my mother used to come into my room on cold winter mornings, when all I wanted to do was sleep, and would announce that it was time to wake up. If I ignored her first request, which I almost always did, then she would come back into the room a few minutes later and say it again. And if I still refused to open my eyes and greet the new day, my mom would stand at the foot of my bed, grab all the covers in both hands, and pull them, in one seamless movement, onto the floor. And all the while she would say: “Get up, get up, get up! You’re going to be late for school.” “You’re going to be late for church. You’re going to be late for work!” And she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
My mother was relentless, but she was not cruel. There was love in what she did. You see, my mom knew that I had things to do in the world; things that only I could do. My mom believed that the world needed me; and that it might be a better place just for my being in it.
The world needs us too. Therefore, Advent is not some sentimental countdown to Christmas. Advent, when done right, is a journey to honesty – bold and ruthless honesty - about life, and the world, and ourselves, and the messes we make, and our need for a Savior, and our work as Christians. Advent is not a countdown to some easy rescue. Advent is about staying awake to the pain of the world. Advent is about entering the pain of the world – in imitation of the One who came to save the world.
The incredible news that the world will soon celebrate, is not only that God loves us enough to become one of us; but that God also loves us enough to call us to be all we can be. And what we can be, as we love and follow Jesus, is far more than most of us dare to dream.
When the weight of the world pushes my eyelids closed, and I want to stay in bed to hide, and despair seems an easier burden to bear than hope, this quote, in particular, speaks to me. It’s from the Pirke Avot, a Jewish Commentary on the book of Micah. And it goes like this:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Or as Jesus once said, “Stay awake!”
 A Grief Observed
 Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot by Rabbi Rami Shapiro.