In this holy season of Advent, Scripture calls our attention to time and place, the earthly details of a heavenly moment. We begin singing of the “long-expected Jesus” and end with joy that “the Lord has come!” We mark the in-between time with particular attention, trained by tradition and scripture to stay alert and awake, watching for the arrival of the Christ who is coming into the world. We light candles, sing carols, give alms and pray for peace and hope to be manifest in our bruised world. Join us for this annual journey as we move through the days of waiting and watching, singing and praying our way into the fullness of time—the time when we receive again the hope of all the earth, the desire of every nation, the joy of every longing heart.
After That Suffering
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, October November 29, 2020, “In the Fullness of Time” series.
Text: Mark 13:24-37
Time is a tricky thing. Theoretical physics gives us concepts like absolute or Newtonian time, relativity and the space-time continuum, and loop quantum gravity theory—all different perspectives trying to understand what seems to be the fairly agreed upon belief that time is one of the most difficult things to understand. Yet here we are. And it is whatever time it is. And humans have forever been anxious to try to predict the times, to predict when things will happen—and are, mostly, tragically or hilariously wrong. We join our ancestors in moments of suffering who for centuries cry out “How long, O Lord?” Or with Whitney Houston, “How will I know?” Or with every child anywhere on a family trip, “Are we there yet?” We talk about time as a commodity and often get caught in a scarcity model—as if we don’t have enough. Or we think of time as an empty space that is our duty to fill with activity. When will there come a time that there’s more time? Is that even possible? Is time really a measurable thing? And what about eternity? Does time have a “start time?” And we’re back to physics and question after question.
Time is always a tricky thing. And in this year of disruption and disaster and disease, time—at least my experience of it—has just been plain weird. Sometimes a week feels like a day and a month like a week. The familiar rhythms and markers of our existence have been so thrown off that it feels like we’re floating in some shadowy wrinkle in time. And we don’t know how long all this is going to last and we can’t plan our lives in the little boxes and fields of our calendars that normally give us some sense of control because predictions of vaccines and protocols and tests and all the other stuff surrounding COVID-19 are shrouded in uncertainty wrapped in contingencies.
It’s true that—because human life has often been disrupted with disease and violence—one of the most common refrains of our spiritual tradition is “How long, O Lord??” But in the midst of that outcry, if we’re paying attention, our faith tradition helps us manage and mark time. The seasons of the church year, the liturgical seasons with their assigned symbolic colors and images, are one of the ways that our religious practice orders time. And today we begin a new year with this first Sunday of Advent. Advent is all about waiting, about anticipation, about looking ahead to fulfillment of a promise. But one difference between human experience of time generally and our religious observance is that in church time we’ve got an end date—we know, for example, that we will light a candle on our wreath for four Sundays and then, on December 25th, baby Jesus arrives! It’s like clockwork, like Newtonian time, steady and forward moving and certain. Jesus is gonna get born no matter what items on our holiday to-do list have been completed or left undone, no matter whether we’ve gathered in person with family or in worship on Christmas Eve or not.
But there’s this whole other kind of time at work underneath our observance of Advent…or maybe above or around… It is the bigger, broader space of time that begins perhaps at creation and certainly by the birth of Jesus and stretches into this present moment and beyond. This time is not predictable or controlled. It is the time between the Alpha and Omega…the beginning and the end. It is the time between when God got this party started and when all reaches its divinely imagined goal. As one scholar describes it, “Jesus’ followers are summoned to faithful vigilance during an arduous, ambiguous time between the inauguration and consummation of the [kin-dom] of God.” The Gospel according to Mark is particularly focused on this “arduous, ambiguous time” and the text we heard today may reflect the particular upheavals happening in the lives and time of Mark’s readers.
If you read the whole of Mark chapter 13, you will read of a variety of dangers and sufferings: false prophets, wars, famines, persecution, family dissension, and exile. Our passage follows these with, “But in those days, after that suffering…” And it sounds like Jesus is going to tell us when to expect the suffering to end (“after that suffering”). And it sounds like Mark wrote the words of our text as if the end of the story—the “consummation of the kin-dom”—was expected within the times that he was living. I mean it says “when you see these things taking place, you know…” and “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” But then we get that bit that says, “about that day or hour no one knows.” Tricky.
What we receive next is the teaching about staying awake. We’re supposed to stay awake so as not to miss when the big event happens. Now I have become very good at being awake—often in the middle of the night when I really don’t want to be awake. Staying awake for a long period of time can make you exhausted and cranky. And, well, the time between the inauguration and consummation of the kin-dom of God is not over. The suffering is not ended. Perhaps the specific sufferings of Mark’s day are over—that is, the abuse of power by Roman emperor Nero, whose reign was marked with tyranny, extravagance, and debauchery which inspired the Jewish revolt against imperial Rome. At least we don’t have any of that these days, you know, people abusing power for personal gain for themselves and their cronies, not acting with integrity, making decisions that do harm, acting with prejudice and without any sense of cooperation—all within an inherently broken and oppressive imperial system… At least we don’t have any uprising from those who have been marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed, and overlooked… Oh…wait… This long time of waiting for tyrants be unseated, empires to fall, and peace and justice to take over is exhausting. How long are we expected to stay awake? A human body and spirit can only take so much after all…
“But in those days, after that suffering…” What if this phrase is not meant to mean after a particular suffering in one, specific time? What if the “day or hour” of a divine arrival is not referring to a one-time event? I grant to all of you biblical scholars and theologians out there that Mark is almost certainly reflecting an ancient Jewish hope (found in Daniel and elsewhere) in a “Son of Man” return at the end times to sort everything out the way God wants it. But I beg that you will grant me some interpretive license, some listening underneath the plain meaning or intention of the author in order to receive what Spirit may also want to say.
In this long waiting time, this long suffering time, this long time of wondering how long the cycles of injustice and cruelty and war and destruction will continue—in this, our time, what if the message in the text, the message of signs and of words that don’t pass away, the message of remaining alert—what if this is a perennial message, a daily message, a message for us after “that suffering” we experienced yesterday or an hour ago or after the suffering we are experiencing right now is passed…What if the message is that after every suffering, large and small, today and every day, we are assured that an inbreaking of God’s love and mercy will surely come. It may come in ways you might miss if you’re not expecting it. That is, most of us will not see a vision of Jesus surfing back to earth on the waves of cloud or anything else so clear and dramatic. The never-passing-away reality of God’s mending, tender love may come to us through the most everyday kinds of moments. As one poet described it:
A certain minor light may still
Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then—
Thus hallowing an interval
By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love.
Any teaching about staying awake is not, of course, a literal call to sleep deprivation or insomnia (thank God). It is an invitation to remain awake and alert to the present moment, to what is really happening, to each present moment’s beauty and its pain and everything in between. It is an invitation to be always looking for an inbreaking of grace, of divine presence, of visitation.
There have been moments when the way the breeze caressed my face was, for me, a clear sign of God’s embrace. When a random message from a rarely heard-from person came to me as a clarion call to purpose. When a new relationship was revealed as part of God’s liberating work in my life. And in this long year challenging in so many new ways, Jesus has shown up again and again. It would be easy to miss these things in the midst of so much pain and struggle over these past months—and God knows I’ve missed so much in my distraction and my collusion with our culture’s cult of filling time and calendars with what we think are controllable expectations. We can’t know exactly how or when Jesus will show up except on Christmas and Easter! But the promise is that Jesus will draw near after the suffering, in the suffering, in this present suffering, with love and grace just for you. And, at the same time—one of those divine mysteries—God is also present and doing the work of love and mending throughout creation… So make that your expectation. Stay alert to that possibility.
This holy season into which we enter today is a particularly focused practice ground for living this way. It gives us a way to mark the time with intention, to wait on the Lord not in idleness, but in focused activity. And as we move through these days in the earth’s cycle where on this part of the planet, daylight grows short and night stretches on, and in this year when isolation and illness and injustice cast long shadows, we are reminded through all the lights that adorn trees and homes and wreaths, that we can shine, we can illumine a way for others who are trying to find footing, we can nurture the lives of others through love and care, we can share what we have, we can pray with and for one another, we can do what we can do.
And for all that we cannot control, we wait on the Lord, we look for Spirit, we rely on the visitation of the Christ, trusting that the long night will end, that morning is coming. And our waiting will never be in vain, for in each and every day God is Emmanuel, God with us. And in the fullness of time our long-expected Jesus will come into the world to usher in that perfect peace, that divine justice, that ancient hope for the consummation of God’s creation that is the desire of every nation, the joy of every longing heart.