Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only Start Doing

Advent 1 – Year A

In the name of the Father
and the Son,
and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Well, I’ve been in Richmond about 5 months now.
Little by little, I’m exploring my new home.
I’m starting to feel like I kind of know my way around,
like I just might belong here.
This summer, when I’d been in town just a week or so,
I got an insider’s tour of Richmond from my dear friend
(and your beloved former associate rector) Whitney.
We started with lunch in Carytown,
And then she took me all around the River City.
We went to Southside and Northside
and the West End and the East End.
We saw Jeb Stuart and Arthur Ashe
and Church Hill and Oregon Hill and Shockoe Bottom.
We saw a lot of Richmond.
But one stop on the tour was the most striking to me:
Hollywood Cemetery.
I was so impressed by how beautiful and how vast it was.
As we drove through it, I was speechless.
Well, this past weekend,
I went back to Hollywood Cemetery
for the first time since that day with Whitney.
I had friends in town and I wanted to show it to them.
But as we wandered, this time I was struck
by something other than its size and beauty.
The names.
The surnames on the headstones–
After 5 months of serving here,
many of those names were familiar to me.
Five months ago,
all those graves seemed so anonymous.
But this time I walked among the names
of your ancestors and your loved ones.
And while I did, I thought about you—
your families, and your joys, and your grief.
And about how thankful I am to know you.
I also pondered the uncertainty of the future.
That’s the thing about a cemetery.
You can’t help but be reminded
that the only predictable thing about life
is that it will end.
+++
Today is the first Sunday of the season of Advent
And it is also the very first day of the new church year.
We are now in the 2nd year of our 3-year lectionary cycle.
Last year, our Sunday gospel readings
focused on the words of Matthew
And next year, they will focus on the Gospel of Luke,
But this year, we’re going to get a big dose of Mark.
And it starts today.
Now, there’s something you should know about Mark.
Mark is in a hurry.
His Gospel is the shortest of all 4 Gospels.
Only 16 chapters.
It’s so short that this year’s lectionary
has to supplement the Sunday Gospel readings
with passages from the other Gospels, often John.
Mark has given us
the most condensed version of the Jesus story,
And the pace of the story he is telling
moves very quickly.
For example, when he’s talking about
what Jesus said and did,
He’s always using the word “immediately.”
Listen for the word “immediately” this next year—
you’ll hear it a lot.
There’s this sense of urgency permeating the whole gospel.
In fact, Mark is in such a hurry
that his version of the Jesus story
leaves out our most classic Advent images,
many of which come from Luke’s gospel.
In Mark’s opinion, there’s no time for angels,
No time for remarkably-calm-given-the-circumstances virgins,
No time for a census,
Or for trips to Bethlehem,
No time for overcrowded motels,
No time for conveniently empty mangers,
Definitely no time for shepherds!
Mark is in too much of a hurry.
And neither does Mark have any time for the stuff
Matthew deems important in his gospel.
Mark has no time for complex family trees,
No time for bloodthirsty kings,
No time for star-gazing wise guys,
Certainly no time for gold or frankincense,
or any other strange baby shower gifts.
Mark is in a hurry
and he just does not have time for a baby.
You see, Mark writes with an urgency
that results in a very concise gospel,
stripped of any frills or embellishments.
But why?
Why is this Gospel writer in such a hurry?
I promise,
it’s not because he has anything against babies.
It’s just that he’s got such an amazing story to tell
and not much time to tell it.
It’s a story of such mystery and craziness
that he’s got to plunge in where it really gets going—
when fully grown Jesus begins his public ministry.
You know the story:
–God became human.
–God performed miracles,
–preached a new morality,
–and proclaimed a new kingdom.
–God got killed for it.
–But God didn’t stay dead, and neither will we!
See, that’s quite a story.
That’s the kind of story you can’t help but tell.
In fact, it really ought to be written down.
And Mark probably thought that if he didn’t
get that story written down right away,
He might never get the chance.
But why did he think that?
Well, conveniently, he tells us
exactly why he’s in such a hurry
in Chapter 13 of his gospel.
That passage we just heard
takes place in a cemetery.
And as we know, cemeteries can make you
very aware of how fleeting life is.
When Jesus said all that stuff
about the “Son of Man coming in clouds”
and keeping awake,
he was on the Mount of Olives,
which is a huge Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem.
In the Book of Zechariah, the Mount of Olives
is identified as the place from which God
will begin to redeem the dead at the end of days.
So the setting helps us make sense of this passage.
In a cemetery, you can’t help but ponder the future.
And this passage from Mark’s Gospel is about the future.
It’s called the “little apocalypse.”
And Mark took it pretty seriously.
You see, in addition to writing the shortest Gospel,
As far as we can tell,
Mark also wrote the earliest of the Gospels.
He was writing his Gospel
less than 40 years after Jesus’ ministry
And he, like the rest of the earliest Christians,
was expecting the world to end
and Christ to return
very, very soon.
And it sure looked like the world was ending.
Jerusalem had been sacked by Rome
And the temple, the holiest place in all of Judaism,
lay in ruins.
Nothing left but its Western wall.
Christians in those days were surrounded
by war and persecution on all sides.
So the end of the world didn’t seem scary.
No, it was welcomed.
Mark and his fellow Christians were eager for it.
The couldn’t wait to see “the sun darkened,
and the stars falling from heaven
and the Son of Man coming in clouds to gather his elect.”
After the suffering they had known,
those were words of comfort.
Because they fully expected to be in that number
and they were starting to get a little impatient
that it hadn’t happened yet.
They were waiting for God to come back.
Any day now, Jesus.
That’s why Mark highlighted the nearness of Jesus,
saying that he was “at the very gates.”
But to explain why it was taking so long,
he also made sure to emphasize
that God’s time is not our time,
He knew that people were getting restless
and starting to question
if Jesus actually was going to return.
So he made sure to also highlight the fact
that there was no way to predict the timing of this event.
“But about that day or hour no one knows.”
What is “immediately” to God
can seem like forever to us.
Mark makes it very clear to his 1st century audience
that they need to be ready.
They need to “keep awake”
And to keep on waiting for Christ to come back.
+++
But what about his 21st century audience?
What do we make of the fact that, to our knowledge,
There haven’t been any Second Comings
In the past couple millennia?
We may chuckle at those who decipher secret formulas
to try and know when it’s going to happen—
2000! No, 2006! Maybe 2012!
We may roll our eyes at these attempts to predict
that which Jesus clearly said could NOT be predicted.
But deep down, we must not let
our cynicism distract us too much.
We cannot ignore that Christ’s ultimate return
is a basic tenet of our faith.
We say so just about every Sunday
and we’ll assert it again it in just a few moments
when we recite the Creed:
“He will come again to judge the living and the dead”
Now, I happen to believe that in this judgment,
Christ will err on the side of love
and forgiveness for everyone,
But that doesn’t negate the fact that
we are expecting him to return and do some judging.
And we’ve been told to act like it.
So we do our best to “keep awake,”
We focus not on when it will happen,
But rather why it will happen—
to see God’s kingdom finally fulfilled.
+++
So, ok, we get that the Second Coming
is part of our faith, part of our theology.
But you may wonder, why here? Why now?
Why do we always need to hear about it
on the first Sunday of Advent?
To answer this question,
It is helpful to turn to today’s Old Testament lesson,
in which we encounter the prophet Isaiah
accusing God of hiding from the people of Israel
and begging God to intervene in the world.
You see, Advent is a yearly season
when we anticipate the birth of the Christ Child.
We wait for God to enter into humanity
in the form of Jesus.
We remember the story
of the time God became incarnate.
But for us to really, truly understand
the importance of the Christ Child,
for us to really get the Incarnation,
We must try to imagine what it was like
before God entered into history as Jesus.
What does it mean to contemplate
the world before God was human?
We must try to imagine what it must have been like
to wait for a Messiah.
We must try to understand the conditions
that would have led a prophet to cry,
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”
We must try to imagine the circumstances
that led Isaiah to think God was hiding.
You see, we have the benefit
of knowing the rest of the story.
Because we already know about the angel
and the manger,
and the frankincense,
Because we know that God became human
and performed miracles,
and preached a new morality,
and proclaimed a new kingdom,
and got killed for it,
but didn’t stay dead, and neither will we!
Because we already know all of that,
the best way for us to really understand
what it was like to wait for Jesus then
is for us to be reminded
that we’re actually waiting for him now.
We must ponder the second coming.
We don’t have to understand it,
But we have to ponder it.
For us to ponder the second coming
is to come close to experiencing
how it felt for Isaiah and all those
who waited for the Messiah the first time around.
You see, it may be true
that the only predictable thing about life
is that it will end.
But we have good reason to believe that,
rather than ending at the cemetery gate,
life ends and begins again
in the everlasting arms of our Savior,
for whom we wait. Amen.