Normally I would record my sermon before posting it, but it is the end of the term and I still have twenty pages to write. So, here is my sermon from Advent 1, preached at St Paul’s Seattle, on the texts of Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37.
We were lying in the middle of the road, soaking wet, unwilling to blink.
It had been a long day of hiking and was sometime after midnight, and my two companions and I had just been for a night swim in the Puget Sound. Once we had the courage to jump in the water, we had been surprised that each splash resulted in outbursts of tiny blue lights — bioluminescent creatures filled the Sound. I had never seen it before — each motion through the water resulted in unanticipated beauty. It was like swimming in fairy dust. It was like swimming in stars. If I had formed a prayer that night it would have echoed Isaiah, who says to the Lord, “you did awesome deeds that we did not expect.”
Afterward, the three of us walk back to camp, still full of joy and laughter. One companion remarks that on a night full of such unexpected, unearned goodness, he bets we could see a shooting star.
So, with the fresh memory of the goodness of our swim, we stopped and lied down right where we were, right in the middle of the road, and we watched the sky. And we waited. Eyes straining intently into the night, fighting against exhaustion. And we watched. And we waited.
Isaiah, again, says, “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.”
And we watched. And we waited.
Isaiah speaks of a God who does awesome, unexpected deeds for those who wait.
Jesus, too, speaks of waiting in our gospel text this morning. “Be on guard!” he warns. “Watch! Stay awake!”
Jesus’s tone seems perhaps anxious, and maybe rightly so, if the predictions of end times are as we have been told. His description of the End of the Age is filled with signs that are conventionally used throughout the teachings of the prophets of Israel: war, earthquake, famine, betrayal, death. These are images typically associated with God’s judgment. The end of the age is coming, and it a dark portrait of judgment to come.
I can understand how some believe that we are in the end times. Famine is present — in this country alone, one in six families suffers from food insecurity. Drought, too — globally, 1 in 9 individuals do not have access to clean water. War, it seems, is always either present or near. Many of us have perhaps intimately known betrayal, whether from an individual we trusted, or betrayal of systems that are meant to uphold justice and instead move in ways that perpetuate injustice.
Perhaps you feel as I do: compelled toward despair. In the face of problems so large, what can possibly be done? I imagine Jesus’s audience– They lived under an imperial system geared for maximum exploitation. Their leaders were corrupt. The people were possessed by fear. Perhaps this sounds not so very far away. In the face of such problems, what can possibly be done?
Jesus’s encouragement to “stay awake” and “watch” do not seem to match with the despair I associate with end times. On the one hand, watchful wakefulness isn’t active enough, doesn’t do enough, doesn’t accomplish anything. At the same time, asking me to stay awake and watch– what purpose can this possibly achieve?
As I sit with Jesus’ words, I realize that his images of God’s judgment are not the whole story, for Jesus pairs them with images of hope. He speaks of birth, of ingathering, of mercy in the midst of suffering, of a new season. Jesus says: where the world sees death, there is the possibility of new life. Where the world sees despair, there is also hope.
When we despair, it is, perhaps, tempting to give in to exhaustion, to give up hope for seeing new life, for seeing peace and justice — or even just for seeing a shooting star alight the night sky. It might be tempting to close our eyes to the wicked problems of the world and slumber in relative peace.
Remembering that night my companions and I were lying in the road, covered in saltwater– I was exhausted then, too. I thought: I don’t really need to see a shooting star. And yet…the goodness that had just happened was so entirely unexpected and so full of new life that I was certain, absurdly certain, that goodness would come again if I could stay awake. Because of course I would miss the shooting star if I fell asleep — even if my companions awoke me immediately, I’d have missed it. So I stayed awake. And watched, and waited.
So I hope you see that watching and waiting doesn’t necessarily mean being passive. Staying awake is quite an active process, fueled, I believe, by longing. By desire. By anticipation. Longing for the goodness that is to come even as we remember the goodness that has past. Or perhaps the goodness that has already happened enables us to stay awake, perhaps past memories of goodness fuel our ability to watch, to wait, to stay awake. Goodness has surprised us before, the Lord has done awesome deeds that we did not expect. And so we stay awake. And we watch. And we wait.
The cries of protesters in our city and around our nation have demonstrated that lament is the natural outpouring of longing. Despair recognizes the world as it is and turns cynical, but hope recognizes the world as it could be and turns to lament. Lament is longing, while holding on to hope that the desire will be satisfied. Lament is the outcry of those who have eyes to see the world as it could be. Lament names the ways in which we have not yet arrived and helps us get on our way. Lament calls us toward new life. This is not a passive hope, this is standing in what looks like death and searching for new life. This is not a passive stare, but eyes searching for light that seems like it might not ever come, and yet — and yet — we are certain new life will come. Christ promises it will be so, and God has surprised us before, not least of all, God has surprised us by tearing open the heavens and coming down. God has surprised us further by tearing open the heavens through the womb of a powerless, unwed woman.
We think quite a bit about that unwed woman during Advent, this woman who was praised for her faith and sang (what we know as) the Magnificat in response. The Magnificat has often been explained to me as a prayer of glory to God, a sort of praise song. But it is also a prayer both longing for and invoking a God who can bring justice and peace. It is the outpouring of hope into a lament. This Advent, I hear the protesters sing with Mary:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy.
As we enter into this season of Advent, this season of longing for God to be more fully with us, longing for God to be birthed into new life, my prayer is that we be stay awake, that we watch. That the memory of goodness lends us a certainty that enables us to hear and join in hopeful, longing lament.
And so we watch. And we wait. We wait with active hope, hope foolish enough to lament to the God of the Universe; hope foolish enough to confront systems of injustice; hope foolish enough to cause God to become human. We watch, and we wait, our eyes staring intently into the darkness, straining toward the light, seeking a star to appear over Bethlehem, unwilling to blink. And we watch. And we wait.