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Keep Awake

Sermon – 11/27/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 13:28-37

The text for our reflection on this first Sunday of advent comes from the gospel of Mark, the 13th chapter, verses 28-37:

28 ‘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. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’


Speaking of keeping awake, I did something a week ago I've never done before:  I went to a midnight movie.  The premier of Harry Potter.  I have teenagers in my home, you realize, and we had to of course see the very first showing of Harry Potter.  It wouldn't be the same if you waited until the next day.  And so Paulina insisted that she was old enough now to stay up that late, and so I took her to the theater that night to see the premier showing of the latest release of Harry Potter.  

And like all movies, it had the obligatory previews you had to sit through before you get to the main event.  And the most intriguing and the most anticipated is the remaking of King Kong by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame.  And in that preview, you get these brief glimpses of this fantastic, terrifying world of misty landscapes, savage natives, vicious dinosaurs, and of course our hero, King Kong.  And the preview concludes with that famous image, which is about all I know of the movie, of King Kong climbing up the Empire State Building and battling those biplanes.  And let me tell you, it's enough to keep you awake!  And it's a good thing, because I needed something to keep me awake!  It was a funny feeling, looking around and realizing in that theater of 400 or so, I had to have been the oldest person present.  It was good to have my daughter with me to nudge me and keep me awake through the next 2 and a half hours of Harry Potter.  That image of King Kong was enough to do it.

The thirteenth chapter of the gospel of Mark is a lot like that.  It's known by scholars as the 'little apocalypse'.  It's full of powerful and terrifying images of falling stars, of the darkened sun and moon, the Son of Man coming in the clouds in power and glory.  It is but a brief glimpse of the eschaton, the last days.  The realization of God's reign here on earth.  And it is the reading for the first Sunday of advent each year.  It's a liturgical means to begin with the end in mind.  It's a way of saying 'this is our goal, the end', meaning the purpose of creation.  When all of the earth, when the entire cosmos will be united with God, one with our creator.  

But scripture does not provide us with the whole picture of what that looks like.  Instead, we are given just a glimpse of the coming attraction so that we will stay alert, and watch, as Jesus says.  Like a preview, the purpose of these visionary revelations scattered throughout the Bible is not to disclose the story of the world's future, but rather to build our anticipation and desire to buy a ticket.  To be there at the premier opening.  To participate in the future of the world, in God's future of the world. 

And contrary to popular opinion and best-selling novels on the last days, the Bible is not really concerned with the end of the world.  For if that were the chief purpose of these visions, to prophesy the end of the world, to prepare Christians in the 21st or 22nd or 23rd or who knows what century, what purpose would it have served in the first century?  For whom it was first written.  You see, I might be kind of radical in that I happen to believe it doesn't matter if you are in the first century or the 21st or the 31st, that the words of Jesus apply to all of us in all times.  To give each of us hope in our situations.

So if we do not make it to the 31st century (personally, I'm just hoping to make it to January 2nd, because you know that's the Fiesta Bowl -- Ducks vs Notre Dame, meeting the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse right there for the glory of God and everyone else to see -- we can hope), it won't be because God decided enough is enough and ended this human experiment in one big cataclysmic war.  Rather it will be because we will have decided that we know better than God, that we really didn't need to be good stewards of the earth.  That turning swords into plowshares was a utopian dream and not a practical solution for war.  That a better blessing for the meek of the earth would be a low-wage job and let the stockholders inherit the earth as the way it should be.  That's our vision for the earth, but it's not God's.

And thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe because we ignore God's wisdom of a different way of being in the world without being of the world.  And that vision of God's kingdom come was of extreme importance to the survival of the Christian community in the first century just as I think it is important for us now in the 21st century.  

In that first century, a time when nothing was secure except for the guarantee of hardships, oppression by the Roman government in various forms and indifference toward Christian faith at best, and at worst (and more often) open hostility towards it.  In other words, the church in the first century was as delicate and fragile as a newborn child.  Internal dissention between Jewish Christians and Gentile converts, and between libertarians and biblical purists threatened to undo the fragile community.  External threats from oppressive governors, from invading armies, from pandemics caused by poor sanitation, famine from war and weather fluctuations.  Survival was difficult enough as it was, but especially in the Christian community.

And on top of all that, the increasing disillusionment of early Christians, who believed that Jesus would return any day now to take them out of this world, to establish that reign of God here on earth.  After all, did Jesus not say 'This generation will not pass until all these things take place'?

There is in Rome, still standing to this day the Arch of Titus:

It is the inspiration for another arch, very familiar to most of you -- the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  That's what inspired the builders of the Paris arch.  But this one from the first century, which was built by the Emperor Domician to honor his brother and predecessor Titus, and his father Vespasian, for their victory over Jerusalem.  And you can read the translation of the Latin inscription:

And we learn from another inscription, lower on the arch that the famed Coliseum of Rome, just a few hundred yards away, was built with the spoils of the war on Israel.  All the treasures that they took out of the holy land is what paid for the building of the Coliseum.  And that alone should cause us to pause to reflect not so much on who's blood was spilled in the Coliseum, but on who's blood was built the Coliseum.  

But it's not the Coliseum that I call your attention to this morning, but rather this image beneath the Arch of Roman soldiers carting off the treasures of the Temple and of the city.  And as you can see, up toward the top the Menorah being carried out of the Temple, out of Jerusalem when they sacked that city:


Now I want you to keep that image in mind, of Roman soldiers in the holy of holies of the Jerusalem Temple, after slaughtering everyone in sight and carting off everything of value to take back to Rome, as I read to you the opening verses of the 13th chapter of Mark:

1As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

14 ‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 15the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; 16the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 17Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 18Pray that it may not be in winter. 19For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.

It's a perfect description of the war from 66-74 C.E. in Jerusalem.  My point is that the destruction of the Temple, the sacking of Jerusalem in those years, was widely seen by most Christians in that time as an unmistakable sign, referred to by Jesus, of the beginning of that era.  The beginning of the last days.  And it is within this context, a time of great suffering for Christians as well for Jews (more so even for Jews), and also a time of great anticipation -- would the messiah now come, once and for all to usher in that age? -- Mark writes not to urge Christians 20 centuries later to maintain their faith, but to urge his own contemporaries to remain faithful in light of this terrible time.  To rely on God and the power of prayer to maintain hope in the final triumph of Christ precisely in such a time of fear and doom.

It is, therefore, a message for all who look with fear and foreboding to what is in store for our world.  A message for any who's hearts are heavy with despair.

During the Spanish civil war in 1938, the fascist forces aided by Hitler's Luftwaffe, bombed the defenseless city of Guernica into oblivion.  There was no military purpose to the bombing.  Hitler simply wanted to test and fine-tune his war machine, the infamous blitzkrieg.  Pablo Picasso captured the incredible horror in Guernica in his painting by the same name.  Horribly disfigured and dismembered bodies depicting the senseless pain and agony.  Faces of people and animals crying out in despair from the unbearable torment of death that rained down from the war machines in the sky:

And in the midst of that carnage, easily overlooked, there is a single flower that blossoms forth to bear witness to the beauty of life.  That somehow, inexplicably, surrounded by all the evil of the world, manages to bloom in its desert of despair, its fragrance of goodness and hope that will not be overcome by the stench of death:

Heaven and earth, says Jesus, will pass away, but my words will not.

This the rhetorical reverse of a snowball's chance in hell.  We might concede of earth passing away, we talk about it all the time -- global warming, nuclear winter and the like.  But heaven?  The dwelling place of God?  And you see it's precisely because heaven will not pass away that we are assured of the promise of God.  

The promise that something so terribly wonderful, frighteningly awesome, is coming -- that even nature responds.  The promise that when all others are overcome with fear and foreboding, God's people will be able to stand with heads high in confidence that our redemption is near.  The promise that if we place our faith in God and live according to God's kingdom as envisioned by Christ we will not be disappointed.  The promise that if we stay alert and wait with hope we need not worry whether something will eventually happen, we can hope that something is happening already because God is active and present in our world even in the midst of greatest tragedy.

And then if we are alert, we can see the glimpses of glory to come all around us.  The previews of possibilities that God offers to us.  The flowers of hope blooming in our darkest hours:

Jews and Muslims working together to open the borders of Gaza for the first time under Palestinian control.  Iraqi people defying the violence to establish a democratically elected government that, with God willing and Allah willing and the U.S. government willing, will end the occupation and hopefully bring about peace and stability to that war-torn nation.  We can always hope.  The hundred calls received by the local Red Cross of people in our community in the aftermath of Katrina and flooding of New Orleans who said 'if you need a place, my home is available'.  A new mother hearing her newborn baby cry for the very first time.

The signs are there for us to see.  Signs of Emmanuel -- "God With Us".  Signs of God's glory yet to come.  We hope.  We wait to see.


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