In many ways the very first episode of The West Wing is the best. Because it has what is perhaps the best payoff of any episode of the series.
|About This Sermon|
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
November 29, 2020—Advent I
Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Josh, the White House deputy chief of staff has gotten himself in trouble with some religious leaders. He has been told by the Chief of Staff that he will apologize to these leaders in a meeting. During the middle of the meeting, tempers are high and at one point there is a disagreement over what the First Commandment is, with one of the visiting delegation insisting that “honor your Father” is the first commandment. Someone replies that it is the Third Commandment, and just as someone asks, “Well then, what’s the first?” suddenly there is a booming voice and the words “I am the Lord your God you shall have no other gods before me” are heard. Everyone turns, and there, standing in the doorway is the President of the United States of America, whom we see for the very first time in the episode. At the end.
And I have long thought: that’s the way to make an entrance. That is long the way I have thought that God would show up. Probably with the same line, now that I think about it.
There is something so immensely satisfying about that kind of appearance. Of a settling of scores. Settling arguments. Setting things right.
The more I read the newspapers, the more I observe a broken world, the more I hunger for that kind of appearance. The more I want God to show up like that. In the nick of time. To set things right. To end the injustices, to establish peace.
THE TEXT: ISAIAH
I think there is something of that anxious hope in the words we read earlier from the Book of Isaiah:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!Isaiah 64:1–2
I understand that emotion very well. I read about the murdered of in senseless acts of violence and I ask, “O that you would tear apart the heavens and come down…” I read about the tens of thousands who have died from the pandemic and I cry out, “O that you would tear apart the heavens and come down…” I see pictures of the world’s starving millions and cry out “O that you would tear apart the heavens and come down…” I see the hungry and homeless in our streets, the millions looking for work, the countless numbers suffering from illness, or depression, or loneliness, or all manner of physical, mental, and emotional afflictions, and my heart cries out, “O that you would tear apart the heavens and come down…”
How I hunger for that kind of entrance. That kind of vindication. That sudden theophany when God makes a decisive appearance.
I suppose it’s why of all the Indiana Jones movies, I like Raiders of the Lost Ark the best. Because at the end of the movie, the Nazis having foolishly opened the lost Ark of the Covenant, the Angel of Death consumes the army of the wicked and they are swept up into a fiery whirlwind, wiped from the face of the earth.
That’s an entrance. That’s the kind of showing up by God we’ve been waiting for, right? I mean, don’t we want to see that in Syria or Yemen or in AIDS ravaged Africa? Don’t we just crave that time when God will finally show up?
We Christians have been waiting for that for a long time. Almost 2,000 years. Two millennia we have been waiting for that vindication. And we find ourselves asking along with the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord?” How long?
And so, we try to figure it out. That never seems to work, of course. St. Paul thought he knew: it would be before he died. He was wrong. At the end of the first Millennium, they thought they knew: they were wrong. Some thought the fire of London in 1666 was a sign of the end. They were wrong. The Millerites predicted the end of the world twice in the 19thCentury and got it wrong both times. Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth predicted the world would end on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel. For those of you doing the math, that would have been 1988. He was wrong, too. A few years ago, the Rev. Jack van Impe and his wife, who had a TV show that ran on channel 20 every Sunday night predicted that the end of the world was coming soon: the European Union was the Twelve Headed beast of Revelation. They were wrong. In 2011, Harold Camping was wrong twice in the same year. We keep trying to figure out when all this is going to happen. Often times, clearly ignoring the plain meaning of Jesus’ own words:
“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.Mark 13:32–33
About that day or hour no one knows. Keep alert for you do not know when the time will come. Jesus tells us that it is not our task to know when but simply to be ready for it. We have to wait.
RUSHING GOD’S AGENDA
But if there’s one thing that the season of Advent reminds us: we don’t like to wait.
Not in this culture. Not in a time of instant messages, text messages, e-mails and push-to-talk mobile phones. No, gone are the days of the imposed discipline of waiting for a letter to be delivered, read, responded to, and re-delivered. Gone are the days when we allowed for a certain amount of waiting in our lives. Anyone who’s ever received a 10 p.m. text from a co-worker that could definitely have waited till morning knows what I mean.
We don’t wait. For anything.
We put our Christmas decorations up in November (if you’re a retailer they go up in October). We start playing Christmas music on the radio in November and then when Christmas finally does show up, we are impatient to move on and stop playing it at midnight. We want things faster and quicker, without delay. We don’t wait for anything, not even for God.
And so that results in one of two things. One, we either get embarrassed by all this end-times stuff. We decide that our Christian forebears didn’t really know what they were talking about or were spiritually immature waiting for this Kingdom of God business and we don’t put a lot of stock in it. So, we decide that we’ll just have to do the work ourselves. Or, on the other hand, we decide that God is coming, but we can give the Kingdom a head start by starting on our own.
A. Not Letting God be God
Theologians have a term for this second point: “Final Solution Eschatology” which is a big fancy way of saying “The Bad Guys are going to get theirs.” It’s the idea that when God comes in glory, it will be a time when he will finally punish the wicked and the godless. A time when all our enemies get what’s coming to them. God’s kingdom is the final solution to all our problems.
Of course, the term ‘final solution eschatology’ is not accidental—the “Final Solution” was Hitler’s answer to the Jewish Question—extermination. Because the problem isn’t so much in the casting of the world in Us-versus-Them language and assuming God is on the “Us” side—though that’s certainly a problem. Rather the real problem starts when we get impatient for God to do God’s thing and decide to help her out a little bit. We know who the enemy is. We know who the infidel or the heretic or the blasphemer or the anti-Christ is. We know it’s only a matter of time before God exercises justice on such individuals—why not help God along? What better way to stay faithful?
There are many people who look forward to the return of Christ in exactly this way: when all the people they don’t like get vanquished by God. It’s interesting to note that no one ever says, “I hope I’m not one of the people God destroys when he comes”—there’s always a great deal of certainty when it comes to knowing who will get theirs.
Anne Lamott said, that “You can rest assured you have created God in your own image when it turns out he hates all the same people you do.” And there are fewer self-idolatries more pernicious than this one.
B. The Things of This World
On the other hand, many progressive Christians have been embarrassed by all this end-times stuff, precisely because they think it’s grounded in a “the bad guys are going to get theirs” kind of mentality. But they haven’t come up with a much better solution.
Oftentimes, Christians have downplayed the apocalyptic or the eschatological. Perhaps out of embarrassment, perhaps out of the exhaustion of waiting. Tired of waiting for God to show up—or embarrassed by the idea—we’ve looked to ourselves and the Kingdom we will build.
But we have a pretty low bar set when it comes to what that Kingdom is. Throughout history all manner of associations have been made with the Kingdom of God. Various political movements and events have been tied to this understanding. The now practically unheard of “Liberty Party” was, at its founding, described in terms that made it equivalent to the Second Coming. Over the centuries and years, we have often looked for the Kingdom in more present, material form. And in so doing, we usually settle. We decide that the Roman Empire is the Kingdom, until it falls, and then St. Augustine has to remind us it wasn’t. Then we decide that the Church is the kingdom, until it falls into corruption and Martin Luther has to remind us it wasn’t. We decide that colonies—like the Plymouth colony—or nation states like the British Empire or the United States are the kingdom, until we fail to live up to our values and a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us that that wasn’t the Kingdom.
Perhaps we get embarrassed by this silly apocalypticism. Kingdom of God is such an antiquated notion. And it sounds so Patriarchal, too, right? And so, out of options, we place our trust in one political party or another. We put our trust in one movement or another. We put our trust not in the God who made us, but in ourselves.
But both points of view miss altogether what the coming Kingdom is all about. In all the apocalyptic language found in Mark’s gospel, there is nothing about the bad guys getting what’s coming to them. No, contrary to my own secret expectations, there is nothing remotely resembling the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. No angel of death. No wicked people being tossed into a fiery whirlwind for a Divine Comeuppance. Not even the “I told you so moment” of the West Wing pilot.
Because, the coming dominion that Jesus brings is not one to inspire vengeance or desires for personal satisfaction. It is something that is meant to inspire hope in us. And therein lies its power, a power too often overlooked by those who would out of embarrassment consign the Kingdom of God to the fanciful imaginations of our Christian forebears.
Because hope has a power that is transformative. That hope is not simply an emotion, it is a way of living, and it is exactly what Jesus means when he talks about us being watchful and keeping awake. It is living our lives defined not by fear or hatred, but by love and hope.
Hope is what gives us the power not to build the Kingdom here—something we have continued to fail to do—but that gives us the ability to live into the Kingdom in the midst of a world that is clearly broken.
We could succumb to the despair that the headlines of the daily papers might inspire in us. We could yield to the cynicism that governs the world. We could treat one another like means to an end. We could decide that life is cruel, bitter, and short and that we’d best get the most for ourselves out if it while we can.
Or, we can live in hope. We can continue to affirm the goodness of the creation. We can affirm the Divine Image that is imprinted on each one of us. We can see each other as ends, not as means. We can live lives not of selfish gain but of selfless giving. We can live lives that embrace all people, and model a radically inclusive community. And in so doing, we live lives that are transformative in their very natures. Living in hope doesn’t build the Kingdom—it testifies to it.
We’ve been waiting for a long time. We behold a world of injustice, a world of violence, a world of deep brokenness and pain. And we tire of waiting.
Advent is a reminder of the need to keep waiting. But not waiting in passivity. Not waiting as if we were standing at a bus stop. But waiting actively. Waiting and watching, living lives of hope and love. Lives that by their very being testify to a reality greater than ourselves.
We long for God to tear open the heavens, yet we do not know when that day or hour will be. But if we can live our lives in hopeful anticipation, in waiting with hope and love, then others will see what that day or hour will be like.
Isaiah 64:1-9 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 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.
Mark 13:24-37 “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.”