A few years ago on the Sunday after Easter Sunday, we celebrated how the resurrection turns the world upside down by having an Upside Down worship service. You might have been here for that. (I was not. I helped with planning; then I made sure to get out of town!) What happened was the church service began with the postlude and benediction and it ended with the gathering songs and welcome. Prayers started with the word “Amen” and ended with “Dear God.” Some folks wore clothing backwards; the bulletins were printed upside down. It was funny.
It’s funny how we get so accustomed to routine; we don’t even realize our attachment until it all goes topsy-turvy and wibbly-wobbly. We intuitively rely on a certain Order of Things and when that falls apart, when the timing doesn’t work out, it reveals a truth I know I would rather not confront. It’s this: we human people cannot really control time.
And there’s part of me that really wants to control time, because come on, there’s never enough of it! There is always too much to do, and it’s not like I have all day. Seriously, who has all day?! So I schedule, and calendar, and carve up all the days into hours, and fill up all the hours with obligations and feel for a moment like I can take a breath. See how I am managing my time…
As though time were mine in the first place. As though time will allow itself to be managed. Or saved. Or killed.
As though we human people have any say over how much time we get, or whether time will do its job and run a reliable sequence of events letting us believe the beginning comes before the middle which comes before the end. The truth is, this is not what we have been promised. We simply cannot schedule when we’ll fall in love, or when we’ll die, or when we’ll come back to life. We do not know when.
Now on this day, we’re beginning a new liturgical year —not with the words of creation in Genesis, not with the story of Mary finding out she’s pregnant, not even with a story from Jesus’ early days of ministry. On this first day, the story begins with the days leading up to the table, as in the Last Supper of Maundy Thursday, as in Jesus is sitting with his disciples in the looming shadow of the cross. This does not feel very Christmasy! Yet year after year, the first Sunday of Advent begins with warnings of the apocalypse. (Why can’t we just have sheep and angels, I know.) And I know the Gospel will not follow my schedule, thank God.
Today the Gospel reading comes from the book of Mark which was the earliest Gospel probably written in the late sixties. In this era, it was believed that the end of the first age was actively underway, and a new age would be beginning sometime soon, and Jesus will return to usher in this new age. So the people of Mark’s community are living in between these ages, pretty sure this one is ending soon and wondering when the new one will begin.
In response to this uncertainty, The Gospel gives two conflicting sets of instructions. One recommendation goes like this: It is impossible to say when the new age will arrive. It could take a long time, so settle in for the long haul, and here are the signs to watch for. This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place… Okay. The second recommendation also calls for watching for signs, but this side brings blinding, blaring urgency. Jesus will return very soon. Watch out! Don’t go to sleep!
In the scripture Dick read, both types of instructions are intertwined which makes it sound like Jesus is giving a mixed message. We know the world is about to turn its power upside down. God’s kingdom will come, the hungry will be filled with good things, the rich will be sent away empty, you will be handed a baby to hold in your arms, and see this baby is God. The sun will go dark, and the stars will fall, the angels will keep watch.
We know this is coming, but some say “Settle in and wait, it could be a while,” while others say, “Hurry up! It’s already happening!” And I can believe they’re both telling the truth, but this clashing leads to a confusing warning.
I mean, if we don’t know when the new age is going to arrive, why does Jesus ask us to stay awake? Seems to me, you’d want to stay up all night watching because you’re expecting it to happen that very night. But if you don’t know when the world will turn, you might as well get some sleep in the meantime. The panicked urgency doesn’t make sense.
Jesus tells them, “Therefore, keep awake —for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn, or he might find you asleep when he comes suddenly! What I say to you, I say to all: “Keep awake.” (Mark 13:35-37).
Here in these days before the Passover with his disciples, as the Gospel writer tells it, Jesus is foreshadowing what will happen. In the evening, they eat together. At midnight, Jesus is arrested. When the rooster crows Peter realizes what he has done, and at dawn, Jesus is put on trial, and you know this whole long night in the garden, his disciples just cannot stay awake. They can’t help it; they don’t know.
It’s like the Gospel is an effort to go back in time and warn us: “This time, stay awake.” It’s like time is not just a line with a responsible beginning at the beginning and an ending at the end, but what if time is moving in a circle? Or a cycle? Or a forward-moving spiral, all spiraling out of our control?
As though time moves in God’s order, in God’s orbit, not ours… So the table leads to the cross which leads to the empty tomb, which leads to the promise of God coming into the world as a person, which keeps going… The kingdom is coming one day and it is already here, and no one knows how much time we have, or when…
Now what looks like a threat could be something more than a threat, because the ending really might be the beginning. It’s not just “Keep awake or we might fail Jesus before he dies.” It’s “Keep awake because you’ve got to bring your sheep and go find that baby!”
What if the urgency does not come from the screaming deadline at the end, but what if the urgency of the Gospel comes from the word spoken at the start saying “Let there be…” from those angels singing Hallelujah all night long… So do not be afraid.
No one knows the day or the hour, and maybe this is not a terrible threat. Maybe this is the good news. What if this uncertainty is what keeps us watching and waiting without the fever-pitch panic? What if not knowing the when, not being in charge of time, is what impels us to make room for God…
I know, for many of us this is a season that brings with it heightened anxiety. Simply living in the world these days —being a human person in the world these days— is an anxiety-raising enterprise. How is it possible to pay attention and not panic? How can we even think of making room for joy? People are suffering… And there is so much to do before Christmas, and who’s got the time? As though time will allow itself to be gotten, or lost, or saved.
So for those of us feeling swept up in this swirl of all the everything, I invite you to join me in hearing the words of the Psalmist who is also overwhelmed, and who has this to say to the author of the universe: “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.”
She continues singing: “Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD and of your steadfast love, they have been here forever.”
Right in the middle of this desperate song for help, it’s like the Psalmist stops, and gets a chair, and plunks it down, and sits on it. Then she looks at the LORD our God, and says, “You know, I have all the time in the world. For you I wait. All day long.”
It’s really hard to stay swept up in the frenzy of the panic when this is the threat you just issued to God. See I’m not leaving. No one knows the day or the hour. See the sun is turning dark, and the stars are falling, and the cross is looming, and who knows if we’ll get everything done, and in this moment, I am not leaving. It’s like the Psalmist just reached up and turned off the clock. She is watching for God. And so could we.
Now when you don’t have a minute to spare. When this season of too much becomes just too much, may these be the words we summon:
“To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul… for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”
All night, all day, angels are watching, and still we are watching and waiting for God. Amen.