(Mark 13: 24-37)
Roger Gench, the interim co-editor for The Presbyterian Outlook, talks about how when he was raised as a child in the Midwest, he was brought up to always be courteous, always be well-behaved and always be agreeable. In other words – to be nice. And nice served him well as he entered early adulthood, as he attended college and during his time in seminary. He was on track to being a “nice” pastor.
So he was more than a little ill-prepared for his first call as pastor of an urban church in Baltimore when, during a training session for church professionals on how to incorporate the tools of community organizing into ministry, the instructor encouraged them to view their role with their congregations as agitating them. Gench remembers recoiling in horror at the thought: Agitating them?! No! I’m a pastor. Pastors do not agitate; they are pastoral — they are nice!
But the instructor explained himself when he said, “We agitate because that is what builds up a community that is willing to act, to engage in ministry that actually changes things. And that’s important because when it comes to the church, a whole lot of bad things have been left to fester unchecked simply because church people wanted to be nice.”
Ministry as agitation. Granted, it’s not your typical First Advent sermon. But to be fair, our passage today is not your typical First Advent passage, either. Or maybe it is and we’re just not paying close enough attention. Maybe we are like those people who live close to the train tracks when the train comes by – we are so used to it, we don’t really hear it anymore.
On this first Sunday of Advent, the lectionary plops this scripture in our laps – a wild passage tucked away in the 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel. As far as Advent goes, it is woefully out of chronological order – and if I’m honest, for some reason that grates on me. Liturgically speaking, Jesus hasn’t even been born yet. And yet here he is in our passage, a grown man, traversing the streets of Jerusalem with his disciples in what you and have come to know as Holy Week. It’s not weeks away from his birth; it’s days away from his death.
And in the middle of all of this, Jesus begins to sound like a rugged Old Testament prophet, spouting off dire warnings and grim proclamations with slim chance of getting anyone in the Christmas spirit. Talk of the sun being darkened and the moon losing its light. The Son of Man coming in the clouds. A fig tree with a warning. A reminder that no one knows the day or hour. And an earnest plea to keep alert and stay awake.
Now scholars have long referred to this chapter as Mark’s “apocalypse,” a fancy biblical term for language spoken to the faithful in the midst of great suffering. The book of Revelation is a prime example of apocalyptic writing. In Mark’s case, it’s helpful to remember that this gospel was written during a period of great persecution and upheaval for God’s people. It was the mid 70 AD’s – a dark time, an uncertain time; and for the followers of Jesus it felt like the end of times. So the Jesus of some forty years before becomes the Jesus who speaks to the faithful in their dire straights, proclaiming the message that all apocalyptic writing proclaims: that things will get worse before they get better, but if they hang on just a little while longer, God will intervene and turn the world right side up.
And for some reason this what you and I are supposed to hear on this first Sunday of Advent. Somehow a darkening sun and light-less moon, a fig tree beginning to turn green, a reminder that no one knows the hour and a call to keep watch and stay awake – all of this is the message for us today as we prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives and into this world.
The question is why?
I’m reminded of something that the late movie director Cecil B. DeMille said when asked how he understood movie-making: he said, “Start with an earthquake, then build to a climax.” I gotta be honest, I kind of get that vibe when I read our passage today – don’t you think? A little earthquake, a little agitation to being our Advent season – is that what’s going on here?
I mean, think about how most Advents begin – more often than not the Sunday after Thanksgiving, after a long holiday weekend with family and friends from all over. We come to Advent still dragging from the turkey coma we subjected ourselves to a few days prior; we’re still numb from taking in not one, not two, but three football games on the same glorious day. Our First Advent typically has us still recovering from our holiday celebration.
Except that is not how Advent greets us in 2020, is it? This Advent greets us a little on edge. Hyper-aware of a raging virus outside our doors or even inside our homes; a virus that among other things has thwarted our long-planned Thanksgiving celebrations, keeping us at home or traveling with extreme caution. The turkey coma is less severe than years before – literally, grocery stores reported higher demand for smaller turkeys for smaller gatherings with latecomers having to pick over larger ones. Is there anything more 2020 than that?? And there were only two football games instead of three, with one being postponed for – you guess it – Covid.
We’re still on edge as our country creeps toward a peaceful transition of power that appears to be playing out as it has nearly every election cycle in our country’s 244-year history but it’s slow getting there. There are still court cases, still wild accusations and tweets, and not one but two runoff elections in the state of Georgia that will determine who controls the US Senate, and we have to wait till January for that.
Like people who live by the train tracks, we are typically so used to the sound of the approaching train of Advent that we no longer hear it. But this year, this year Advent has come roaring into our disrupted world and stirring things up more than usual. Like Mark’s little apocalypse, Advent 2020 agitates us. And we know that no run-of-the-mill preparations are going to suffice. We cannot simply put up some advent wreath or stream some greenery this time around. No, this time there is more going on in our world, in our church, and in each one of us.
And perhaps the words of that community organizing trainer might suit us well in this year’s preparations: that the calling for all Christians to prepare the way of the Lord cannot be about simply being nice. That the call of Christians this Advent is to be agitational. To stir things up. To step up when needed. And to be ready.
And what does that readiness look like, I wonder? How do people of The Way prepare to be ready for the Advent way? On a heavy football weekend I find myself thinking of what takes place every fall Saturday afternoon in College Station, Texas. If you’ve ever watched a Texas A&M football game on TV – or better yet, attend one in person – you may have noticed that the student body remains standing throughout the entire football game. There’s a story behind this. Back in 1922, the Aggies were taking on heavily-favored Centre College, and it wasn’t pretty. With each play, an Aggie player or two got injured and had to come out of the game. Reserves were dwindling. It got so bad at one point that E. King Gill, a squad player who had been up in the press box helping reporters identify players on the field, was summoned to come down and suit up. He stood on the sideline, waiting. And when the last seconds ticked off the clock, Texas A&M had won an improbable victory and Gill remained standing on the sideline, the only player left on the team’s bench. And so it’s in Gill’s honor that the student body remains standing during all four quarters of every football game — waiting, vigilantly, in readiness to dash onto the playing field and into action.
My friends, this is the kind of active waiting and watching that Mark has in mind this Advent: vigilance that scrutinizes where we may leap into action, joining in at those places where God’s future is struggling toward realization now. We are driven in this time to enter into broken places in the world around us where God is already at work — agitational work in need of our participation, ready to stir things up in our waiting and watching.
What are you waiting for this Advent, I wonder. What are you watching for this time around? Are you waiting for a vaccine? Are you watching for things to get back to normal, whatever that is? Are you hoping for healing in a world that is fractured and broken? Are you waiting for hearts to be made new?
Beloved, don’t be fooled by all the decor and decorations. Don’t be lulled to sleep by the dulcet sounds of carols. There’s a train coming. It might not seem so nice. It’s probably going to be a little agitating. Keep alert. Stay awake. Stand ready. God is busy at work in our world. And that is everything we could ever want. Indeed, it is our Advent hope.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 As told in “Looking Into The Lectionary” weekly email from The Presbyterian Outlook, 11.23.2020.
 Feasting On The Word, Year B Vol. 1, pg. 22.
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