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Monday, December 1, 2014

Apocalypse - It's Not Just a Blockbuster Movie

Mark 13:24-37

        Waves taller than skyscrapers pound and rush toward the shore. With sheer power and force the water brings with it an annihilating maelstrom. It is relentless and leaves absolute destruction in its wake. In moments, every manmade structure, every single one of the massive witnesses to the creativity, power and wealth of generations are reduced to nothing more than twisted metal and rubble. Malevolent skies swirl above, lightning and thunder ceaselessly crashing to the earth below. The sound is deafening, flashes of light blinding.
        The earth begins to quake and tremble. Aged mountain ranges shake and crumble. Soon, they are reduced to dust. Countless grains of sand lining the desert floor shift and fall into an ever-widening chasm, every plant, dune and oasis swallowed up in an instant. Nothing is spared in this torrent of catastrophic, total destruction.
        Popular apocalyptic visages like these, snapshots of the phenomenon known as “end times” prey on our fear. They witness to our helplessness. Books, disaster movies and “rapture” storylines like the “Left Behind” series of books and movies have described what some of us may imagine it will be like when the world is brought to a swift, terrifying and absolute end. And although we may seek to be entertained by the computer generated graphics and special effects of these fictional stories that describe the apocalypse, most of the time, “the end” is the “last thing” (no pun intended) that we want to think about.
        In our gospel today, however, Mark tells us that we must think about it. These verses, in fact, make up what is known as Mark’s “little apocalypse”, which has parallels in the other two synoptic gospels. These are texts in which the gospel writers each present a vision of the final return of Jesus, bringing the world and the kingdom of God to its fullness, and they implore us to watch, to wait, and to be prepared for that time when the Son of Man comes again, “in the clouds with great power and glory.”
        What will it be like when the end of the world arrives as Christ comes again? How will Jesus judge the living and the dead, the worthy and the unworthy, the alert and wakeful versus the sleeping ones? According to Mark this apocalypse is not something to ignore, forget about, or take for granted (as in, “it hasn’t happened yet and we’ve been waiting a really long time – it’s not about to come now”). Rather, in this text and the others like it, Jesus himself tells us, “Beware!” “Keep alert!” “Keep awake.” “Be prepared.”       
        What a way to wake up and discover ourselves in Advent. Yet here we are on this first Sunday of Advent, with Thanksgiving just past and visions of Christmas cookies and carols and trees and gifts swirling in our heads, these scriptures plunk us down totally unprepared, in the middle of Armaggedon. It’s as if we fell asleep to the sweet sounds of Silver Bells ringing the news that another angel has earned its wings in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and awakened to Scrooge’s “Ghost of Christmas future” – before George C. Scott’s great epiphany.
        Advent invites us into a new kind of awareness and hope. It opens its arms and invites us to participate, prepare, and to be truly alive and awake. It invites us to open our hearts and minds and to know Christ’s presence and to be alert to the ways we encounter him during this in-between time of the already-but-not-yet of the kingdom’s coming. “In those days,” says Jesus, “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
        Peter, a friend of mine, is all too aware today of what it feels like when the world as we know it abruptly ends, when the sun is darkened and the moon as well. Just a week ago he and his family were celebrating the baptism of his infant daughter and among those participating in the celebration and sharing in the joy of new life was a long time and beloved friend. Two days ago Peter received news that his friend was dead, killed by a drunk driver. In the blink of an eye, with the ringing of a telephone, the world came crashing down.
        Many of us know what it is like – the split second that irrevocably changes the future, brings dreams to an end, shatters our innocence, and destroys our world. The end may come with a devastating diagnosis, a sudden illness or the senseless loss of a child to violence. The end may come with the betrayal by a loved one; it may be experienced through the sudden loss of a job or home, or in any of the myriad of ways in which we find our world to be suddenly spinning wildly out of control.
        “We may be tempted to believe that the ending of an individual’s personal world is not the same as The End of the World that Jesus describes in our gospel reading,” writes Jan Richardson. “Yet the first Sunday in Advent invites us to recognize that these endings are connected; that the Christ who will return at the end of time somehow inhabits each ending we experience in this life.”
        Each year, right at the start of Advent, on this first Sunday of the church year, we are called and invited to practice the apocalypse, and to experience the hope embedded there by God; to look for the presence of Christ, who enters into our every loss, who accompanies us through each ending we experience in life, who comes to us in the midst of devastation, who gathers us up when our world has shattered, and who offers healing that is the foretaste of the wholeness he is working to bring about not only at the end time but at this time, and in this place. 
        Ms. Richardson knows personally of this kind of life-ending loss and this kind of healing as she has come to count on the presence of Christ in the midst of her own personal apocalypse. Following the sudden and unexpected death of her husband just one year ago, it felt to her like her world ended. Through her grief and in the midst of her journey, she wrote this poem:
Blessing When the World is Ending.
Look, the world
is always ending
the sun has come
crashing down.
it has gone
completely dark.
it has ended
with the gun
the knife
the fist.
it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the television
the hospital room.

it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.
It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.
This blessing
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.
It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
– Jan Richardson
        The light toward which we turn is the light of Christ who has entered our world, the Messiah, yet born a child; the King of Glory, yet laid in a manger, of all things; the Prince of Peace who poured out his love for the world even as he was nailed to the cross. And the earth quaked, the sun darkened and the powers of heaven were shaken. And in his resurrection, he brought about the redemption of the world. Therefore, we are blessed to hope.
Apocalyptic writings such as the gospel for today offer hope to those who are suffering; hope that out of tribulation and destruction, God will bring new and better life. Into failure and heartache, God will bring love. Indeed, God, who transforms death on a cross into the victory of resurrection, who uses a powerless babe to transform the history of the world, will transform the chaos and darkness of this world into new life as a new heaven and new earth transform the broken world into paradise.
Where do we see glimpses of God? Where do we experience God’s presence in our daily walk, our daily struggles, joys, and encounters? Not in a glorious temple, but on a cross; Not in wealth and power but in the comfort we receive through angels sent to us at times of pain and devastation. The promise of Christ’s apocalypse is not a promise only for the future, but a promise that Christ is present at the pinnacle of our lives but also at the crossroads between the hopes and dreams we harbor for the future, and the pain and need of today. God does the most unexpected things in the most unexpected of places.
Friends, God will bring creation, God’s beloved creation, to a good end. The time to be prepared is always the present time.  Knowing that Christ will come again, we prepare for him as we daily live out our lives in the world that God has made.
Keep awake, Jesus tells us. Keep alert – see the presence of Christ in everyday things. Watch for the opportunities God offers for blessing and mercy.  The Scriptures tell us that no one will know, not the even the angels or the Son will know when the “end” will come. We cannot know when Christ will come again. But we do know that life in Christ is here. Life in Christ is now. And this savior for whom we prepare this season remains with us all the seasons of our lives.
Can we keep from being distracted by Christmas while we’re still in the midst of Advent? Can we keep alert for Christ as we minister to the poor and lonely this season? Can we keep awake for opportunities to be Christ for any and all who hunger for the light?
I wonder, as we wait and watch and prepare ourselves to welcome these sightings and experiences of God this Advent, as we wait and watch and prepare ourselves for the ultimate return of Jesus Christ, if we can avoid skipping ahead to the ending, and live in the quiet expectation of one who has already won the prize? More accurately put, I wonder if we, as the beloved children of God, might immerse ourselves in the gift of being found, formed and claimed by God, through the grace of the cross.

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