Advent I

Mark 13:24-31



Once upon a time there were things called “Green Stamps.”  Each time you bought gas or groceries you were given stamps reflecting your purchase.  You took these stamps home and pasted them in little stamp books and when you had a certain number you could redeem them at a special store for household items. I got a couple lamps, a small table and a plant stand for my first apartment with Green Stamps.

Today we don’t have to defer gratification in this way if we have a credit card.  We can get the product right away, then pay up later. We don’t have to paste stamps in little books to get a free lamp. We can order one from Amazon prime and have it on our doorstep in two hours.

I admit I don’t like to wait. I’m a little impatient and the speed of things now has made me worse. I find myself saying “Just cut to the chase” a lot and I’m not alone here.  Studies say that eighty percent of us abandon a website if it takes more than three seconds to load.

I wonder if waiting in 2017 is counter-intuitive?  Microwaves give us a meal in minutes; Iphones grant immediate connection; Google provides instant information.  Tweets have replaced press conferences.

Even today, however, there are things we must wait for. We may have to wait for a job, for a soldier to come home, for an illness to abate, for the grief to lessen, for faith to be stronger.

What are you waiting for today? For the shopping to be done (or started)? For the first snowfall or singing “Silent Night” in church on Christmas Eve? Or are you waiting for the loneliness to lessen or the pain to subside? Or for the next election?

I’ll return to this Advent theme of waiting, after first looking at today’s Gospel.

Frankly, this lesson from Mark is complicated and frightening because the theme is vulnerability. Beware, Jesus says, of institutions that cause suffering, and of the unpredictability of life.

The first Sunday of Advent usually centers on the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures that foreshadow the coming of the Messiah and begin the cycle of waiting and preparation that define this season.  Many of the phrases in the first part of today’s Gospel are from the Old Testament prophet Daniel. But we have to go back to the very beginning of this chapter of Mark to understand what’s going in the section assigned for today.

Two of the Disciples are in the Temple in Jerusalem with Jesus and they have what theologian Karoline Lewis calls a ”Little Red Riding Hood Moment.” The disciples are enamored by the scale and beauty of the Jerusalem temple and exclaim “Look, Teacher, what big stones there are! What a large building this is!”  Jesus responds that’s nice but it’s all going to be destroyed.

And it was, in 66 C.E. the Roman government was exerting increased pressure om the Jewish population. One issue was increasing and unfair taxation (remember Jesus and Mary going to Bethlehem to be enrolled so they could be taxed?)  Also the truly-deranged emperor Caligula demanded a statue of himself be put up in the middle of the temple. And there were other outrages.

So the Jews began what is called “The Great Revolt” (sometimes known as “the first holocaust”). The Roman legions smashed the Temple, its sacred artifacts then paraded through the streets of Rome as people laughed and mocked them. As many as 500 Jews were crucified in one day, 100,000 in all. The remaining Jews were sold into slavery or dispersed.  Although it’s a controversial claim, the Wailing Wall in present-day Jerusalem is said to be the one surviving wall of the old Temple.

When we look at the Great Revolt in 66 C.E. – and then the Holocaust during World War II when six million Jews were murdered — you begin to understand how unlikely it was that the Jews would survive. The same with the early Christians who were similarly persecuted by the Romans. But the mighty Roman Empire that ruled the world for over 500 years is gone. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, the chief rabbi of Great Britain writes: “How probable is it that a tiny people, the Children of Israel, known today as Jews, numbering less than a fifth of one percent of the population of the world, would outlive the empire that sought its destruction? Or that a small persecuted sect known as the Christians would one day become the largest movement of any kind in the world?

He goes on, “There have been many superpowers: Spain in the fifteenth century, Venice in the sixteenth, Holland in the seventeenth; France in the eighteenth, Britain in the nineteenth, the United States in the twentieth.  Yet Judaism has existed in some form for the better part of 4000 years, Christianity for two thousand, and Islam for fourteen centuries.  Religions survive: superpowers do not. Spiritual systems have the capacity to defeat the law of decline that overruns the life of nations.”  Echoing today’s Gospel, he concludes, “Awareness of the fragility and impermanence of our world should penetrate the cocoon of denial we have woven so carefully.”

Given the fragility and the uncertainty outlined in today’s Gospel – as well as the perilous state of our own world– how do we wait with hope, as Jews and Christians have continued to do for thousands of years?

First, our hope must be grounded in reality — about the state of our country, for one thing. Hatred has lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility for a long time and now that civility is gone. Traditional standards of morality and behavior are violated at the highest levels.

For me, a note of hope is in the courageous actions of women who refuse to be silent about their oppressors, and a system that is starting to listen to them. I remember Anita Hill twenty-five years ago and the way she was treated by U.S senators who ultimately determined that SHE was the one with the problem (even though there were other accusers) and then confirmed her abuser Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. The system isn’t perfect yet but the desperately-needed correction is taking place. It gives me hope.

Secondly, we find hope “when we look beyond the obvious, beneath the apparent,” says the Benedictine Joan Chititer.

Ten years ago when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, in terror I went to the wisest spiritual person I knew, a person who would soon be elected a bishop of the church. The main thing Mariann said to me was this; “During this time, pay really close attention.”  I wasn’t sure what I meant but I tried.

When I arrived at each chemotherapy session at St. Paul Oncology, for some reason I was given my own little room and didn’t have to sit in the circle in the big room. My privateness and introvertness was accommodated without a request.

And I paid attention to the warm winter sunlight streaming into the room, to the view out the big window of the St. Paul hillside, fanning out before me.  I was aware of the comfortable recliner where I sat with a warmed blanket and I noticed the angels in the room – the nurses, the tech people, a doctor. I felt my tremendous anxiety abated for a bit as I allowed myself to be enveloped in warmth and kindness. I was carried through it; I absolutely was. And after two hours I would leave and drive up the hill to St. John’s to work, to my sunny office and the lovely Fireside Room where I took naps.  I was very lucky, I know that but by paying attention, I was able to access some hope in the midst of the fear.

We also can wait in hope because of our history, our religious history of God’s eventual faithfulness. The more we allow that history in, the more significant it becomes. One way to do this is – church.

On the blog on Friday, I suggested that we take the words of Jesus to Peter seriously, Peter who was found sleeping in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Could you not watch with me for one hour?”  So I am getting all preachy and suggesting this as Advent discipline: One hour a week – church.  Hear the invitation of Jesus when you set out for the coffee shop or for the gym…. Can you not watch with me for one hour? One hour to hear the stories of faith and salvation, to be part of a community of seekers, to be fed at the Table, and to formalize your gratitude in prayer. And to be quiet. I used to wonder why I would get some of my best writing ideas during a church service siting in the pew. Then I realized it was because my mind wasn’t overloaded with what I had to do and how and when I would do it. I was quiet and there was room to hear things that would have been drowned out otherwise,

Some times it is our family history that helps us wait in hope.

It was a terrible time twelve years ago when my daughter Anna’s first child was born and her father was dying.  Only two weeks after the birth, word came that it was time to say good-by to her dad, and Anna struggled with driving with her husband and sister—and baby Gunnar—600 miles to East Lansing, Michigan where her dad lived. This, along with the stress and uncertainty of being a new parent, raging hormones and an overwhelming sadness about her beloved father. After dinner at my house one night she said, in tears she said, “I can’t do this! I just cannot do this! It’s too hard—it’s too much! “

So I sat her down in the bedroom and told her she would regret not seeing her dad this last time if she didn’t go and that she was strong, of the strongest people I knew.  I told her that she came from a long line of strong people who did really hard things. “You have that strength in your blood, Anna!” I reminded her that her great great grandparents had homesteaded on the Dakota prairie amidst grasshopper plagues! and blizzards! and failed crops! and prairie fires!… .”

“Mom! Stop! You’re getting all Laura Ingalls!”

And we both started laughing because she hated Little House on the Prairie. And she went to Michigan and said good-bye to her dad just as she was saying hello to little Gunnar. Life is good-bye.  Life is hello.

Finally, this year I wait in hope fueled by kindness. Three weeks ago I threw my back out and have been limping until the therapy kicks in.  I cannot tell you how many doors have been held open for me, how many shopping carts have been brought to me, how many people have stepped aside for me, offered to lift packages into my car.. One really creepy-looking young guy at some store in Midway rushed ahead of me to hold a door open and when I thanked him, he smiled and said “Not a problem, ma’am.”

The writer James Carroll notes that “in the weeks before he was hanged by the Nazis, the German writer and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that he attempted to model Christ, his humility, his love, his kindness. Such imitation can make us more human. Through imitating, we transcend ourselves. There are no words as powerful our human lives.” And like the creepy guy at the store in Midway, some imitate Christ without even knowing it.

So we wait with as much hope as we can muster. We wait grounded in the real world and its struggles; we wait when we pay aattention to to what is beyond the obvious; we wait strengthened by our religious and family history; we wait offering kindness in the manner of Jesus and receiving it with grace.

As Thomas Merton put it:

Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes, uninvited.” 


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