Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
November 27, 2022
Begin at the End
Maddie got a Choose Your Own Adventure book for Christmas last year – do you remember these books? It’s a story with many different plotlines all in one book. As you read, you decide after each page how you want the story to go: do you explore the underwater cave? Turn to page 40. Or do you stay in your submarine and continue to move along the sea floor? Turn to page 45.
I remember loving these books as a child, and reading with Maddie, I saw that she did exactly as I used to do – she would make a choice, but mark the page so she could return to that point in case the story went south and she needed to retrace her steps and go in a different direction. Many of the storylines do not end well, the main character dies or something else happens to end the adventure. So invariably, when reading together, Maddie and I will flip back to an earlier fork in the story, to see if we can get to a better ending, by making different or better choices.
How will the story turn out? This is the motivating question for those of us who read, or watch, or listen to stories. What’s going to happen? The end matters! We want things to work out in the end, for conflicts to be resolved, people to reconcile, for justice to be done; I want love to win. This curiosity is a great motivator, it’s enabled me to push on to finish more than one book with a meandering plot line.
Today, on the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year, we begin with the end. We start the new year by looking towards the end of time, the promised second coming of Christ and the culmination of God’s work in history. The question of when Christ would return was a serious one for the early church, because they believed the end of the world was imminent. This apocalyptic eschatology, a big word our children learned in Sunday school a few weeks ago – this thinking that the end of the world was near, was the dominant worldview in Biblical times. The gospel writer’s community was growing restless – wondering, is this ever going to happen? How much more time would pass, how much more suffering would they have to endure before Jesus returned to make all things new?
We are living in what seem to be perilous times. We know that because of climate change and industrialization, we are living through the sixth great extinction. We know more now than ever before about the epochs of life on earth, the millions of years that our planet has existed, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs and the ice ages, we give them names like the Pleistocene and Cretaceous period and so on. We can see that earth will likely exist far into the future. This age of the Anthropocene is just a tiny blip in a very, very long timeline. If we have read any books from the Left Behind series, it is likely out of cultural curiosity and not because we really believe the end is nigh. So what do we make of the apocalypticism that we read in today’s text, and the promises of the prophets about the peaceable kingdom to come?
First, the truth: Matthew is right; Jesus is right: we cannot know when the end will come. Not for us, nor for those we love; and not for our planet, either. We can only live and know in the present. Right here. Right now. In this moment. So this is the time for faithfulness. Right here, right now is the time for us to act with compassion. For us to love one another. For us to serve our neighbors. For us to forgive and admit our failings. For us to seek peace.
The temptation, of course, is to wait… wait for it to be easier, wait for some unknown time in the future when we have more time, or more money, when the need is greater or the path more clear.
Mary Oliver, patron saint of wonder, wrote these brief “instructions for living a life” in her poem “Sometimes”: “Pay attention./ Be astonished./ Tell about it.”
I believe she’s right. We are called to pay attention – not to sleepwalk through our days, just to go through the motions, but to be present in the world. Awake, and aware that life is precious. Precious precisely because it can be precarious, fragile, and unpredictable, even as it is beautiful, and filled with moments of awe and open-mouthed joy.
Two days ago, Dary and I watched the orange of a blazing sunset fade away and a tiny sliver of a moon appear in the night sky over the Blue Ridge Mountains that ring the Roanoke Valley. It was absolutely ordinary. To share that moment with him, out of the happy chaotic jumble of our family, was an absolute gift.
I saw a graph the other day that mapped the average time we spend with other people in our lifetimes: how much time we spend with our parents and family of origin, with our partners, our own children, our friends and colleagues. Time with parents and family peaks, obviously, in our early years, dramatically decreasing after age 18 for most people. A friend of ours said he tries to hold this in mind when he’s with his family, and his in-laws – how many more dinners will we have together, all crowded around the same table? Twenty? He says it helps him let go of the minor annoyances, and to better appreciate what each person means to him.
The marching drumbeat of this Advent season is the words “keep awake.” “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” In the gospel of Mark, it’s repeated again and again – keep awake! It is tempting to allow our daily routines to lull us into a somnolent daze. Easier than ever, really, to be numb to the relentless deluge of news that pours from our televisions and smartphones – somewhere, someone is hungry. Somewhere, someone is sick. Somewhere, someone is suffering. But the message of the gospel is to keep awake! Pay attention! Keep at the work of discipleship, trusting that God is at work, that Christ is coming and will come again and again and again.
See, I’m not sure that I believe in a cataclysmic, apocalyptic second coming. I ascribe to Dorothy Day’s belief that Christ comes to us over and over in the people whom we meet – in those with whom we break bread around the table. In those whom we serve, and in those who serve and help care for us. And, when we wake up and pay attention, we can see God’s beauty and the sacred that shimmers right in the midst of the ordinary routine of each day, and the ritual of our traditions. The reign of God, breaking through all around us.
We cannot know for sure how the story will end. But we can trust in the promise of the prophet: that one day the weapons of war will be made into garden tools. When we choose to invest in food security instead of artillery. We can trust in God’s promise that we will know peace… if and when we wake up to Christ’s holy presence within and around us, coming to us in moments of ordinary transcendence. Every day. So we can make choices that lead to the end that is promised. We can be faithful, here, and now. We can love one another and work for peace here, and now. We pay attention and notice the sliver of the moon, be astonished, and tell about it. Thanks be to God.
 Oliver, Mary, quoted by Jenna Barnett, “10 quotes from Mary Oliver, Patron Saint of Paying Attention,” Sojourners Magazine, https://sojo.net/articles/10-quotes-mary-oliver-patron-saint-paying-attention