Faith Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, MD
November 29, 2020
Dary and I have always done a lot of hiking. We love to be outside in the quiet cathedral of a forest, leaves crunching underfoot, no sound but birdsong and your own heart. When Maddie was born, we were quick to get a variety of backpacks and carriers so she could come along, too, and she did – happily – for about the first year or so. But when she really got the hang of walking, she insisted on it. And as you might imagine, the pace and tenor of our hikes changed a bit. I always thought I hiked because I enjoyed being in the woods, and I do… but hiking with a toddler helped me realize that I really hike to cover ground. Part of the enjoyment for me is arriving somewhere – the lookout point, the mountaintop, the waterfall. So I had to shift my thinking about what was fun about being out on a trail. This applied to walks in our neighborhood, trips to the park or the zoo, really going anywhere. Little kids take their time. They aren’t preoccupied with arriving anywhere in particular, they’re just glad to be on the journey… until they’re not, and that’s why God made snacks.
As a toddler, Maddie was fascinated with everything: rocks on the path, leaves, lichen, moss, mushrooms, flowers, insects – anything unusual was subject of interest. This meant her best walking companion turned out to be my mother, the founder and president of the Greyland Drive Nature Lover’s Club. Honey is happy to stroll along at a snail’s pace, and appreciate the wonders of the world with her granddaughter. It helped me to realize there is a psychological reason for this dawdling: little kids haven’t yet learned to prioritize information. Everything around them has the potential to teach them something, so everything is potentially important, and worthy of attention. For better or worse, they don’t screen anything out. Grownups can’t make it through the day like that – we have to categorize, prioritize, block out distractions, and focus – hike the trail, get to the top! Take in the view! Turn round, head home. There’s something to be said for efficiency, but hiking with Maddie has woken me up to some of the beauty and wonder I’d been missing.
This is the first Sunday in Advent, which means it’s the beginning of the church year. Always refusing to conform to culture, the church starts its new year in November, a month before the calendar year ends. We church folk begin at the end: that is, we start the new year not by making resolutions or setting goals for the immediate future, but by thinking about THE END OF TIME. That’s why the lectionary gives us this apocalyptic text about the second coming of Christ. The church starts its year with a wake-up call. We don’t know when the end will come. The text says no one knows the day nor the hour – so we should be vigilant and stay alert, so we can be ready when the time comes. It’s a drumbeat for Mark’s Jesus – keep awake, keep watch he says.
We all get wake up calls from time to time. Sometimes the call is personal: it may come in the fluorescent light of a doctor’s office, with paper crinkling on the exam table and a scary diagnosis ringing in our ears. It may come as a fall that inspires us to take better care of ourselves. It may be a phone call late at night, or an unexpected knock at the door, with news of an accident or a death. And it’s not always bad news that wakes us up– it could be your baby’s first cry on the day of her birth, or a milestone birthday or anniversary that makes us realize the passage of time. Anything that shakes us from our slumber, turns our world upside down, and inspires us to live life more fully and more faithfully can be a wake-up call.
But I don’t know if we really need a wake-up call this year. 2020 has been one long wake-up call, hasn’t it? (And this congregation seems like it was pretty woke even before that!) The events of this year, the pandemic, the uprisings for racial justice, the vicious election cycle – the whole year has shaken us from whatever slumber we might have existed in before. Our institutions have been shaken to their foundations, our healthcare system and those who make it run stressed almost to the breaking point, small businesses and restaurants obliterated, the routine of daily life overturned like an applecart.
It has all felt a bit apocalyptic, hasn’t it? After all, an apocalypse is a revelation, it reveals that which was hidden before. And we certainly can see more clearly now the fragility of our economy, with so many out of work and in need of help that isn’t coming; the disparities in health and education that have come into sharp focus over the past 9 months; and the cultural fault lines that divide our communities and country are even more pronounced.
This year has been scary, uncertain… Many of us were taken by surprise. Cast your memory back to the third week of March, and the plans that we made then to accommodate a temporary shut-down. A few weeks of vigorous hand-washing and life would be back to normal! Wake-up calls can be surprising, even scary. They disrupt everyday life, disorient us, and make us question what we thought we knew about ourselves and the world we live in. As this year has taught us, disruption and disorientation are not easy to navigate. But hopefully, the questions that arise bring us closer to understanding God and ourselves.
I know, this text is a bit scary – looking toward the end of time can be terrifying. It’s important to remember that Mark calls his whole story “Good News.” Our passage starts with the phrase, after the suffering… after! In the previous chapter, Jesus says the suffering of the present day are but the birth pangs of something new that is being born! Apocalyptic prophesies were intended to bring hope to desperate people. Remember, around the time of Jesus’s birth, many faithful people were convinced that the world would end in their lifetimes with a cataclysmic battle between good and evil. Prophets predicted God’s intervention to put an end to suffering and political oppression. Jesus, then, is giving his disciples a wake-up call: calling us to be ready, keep watch for God to intervene. Our job is to be vigilant – faithful – even in the face of desolation. Even when we feel hopeless. Be alert, keep awake Jesus says. No one knows when or how, but we must trust that God is hard at work, transforming this broken old world into something new. Stay true to the path and work of discipleship, Jesus says, and watch closely for what God is doing.
Driving around the city, it seems like people have been preparing for Christmas for weeks now, hanging tinsel and lights, putting up trees and decorating them. In fact, earlier this month, news outlets from Denver to London were reporting that people were decorating for Christmas earlier than ever this year. Maybe you’ve noticed this, too, or maybe you’ve had your tree up for weeks already, too! There are multiple reasons for this – decorating makes us happy, and it’s been a hard year. Bright pops of color and lights in the darkness help stave off the winter doldrums. We feel nostalgia for Christmases past when we put up our décor, remembering friends and family even when we can’t be together. Many of us are just ready for this year to be over, so we’re looking toward Christmas in the hope that 2021 will just hurry up and get here already!
But that kind of preparation is not necessarily what Jesus is calling us to. Don’t get me wrong, I love carols and cookies as much as the next person! Put up lights if they make you happy! But Advent invites us to prepare by being present here and now, so that we can attend to what is being revealed in the world around us. To look past the lights and decorations and see people desperate for good news, and hungry for hope. And to realize that God is already present, working in and through people like you and me, working for transformation. Like little Maddie on a hike, we are called to stop and notice God’s presence and activity in both small and astounding ways. To expect divine intervention!
So this Advent, maybe instead of wanting time to hurry up, what we need to do is slow down. Notice what is happening all around us. And expect good news. What’s more, what might happen if we found someone to come alongside and walk with us, to help us notice the wonders of the world. After all, everything has the potential to teach us something, and is worthy of our time and attention. So friends, keep awake. Go slowly. Find someone to walk alongside at your pace. Notice what is being revealed. And trust that God is already at work making all things new.