Scripture: Mark 13: 24-37
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
Here we stand, once again, on the first Sunday of Advent at the beginning of our retelling of the Christian story. Themes of hope, joy, peace, and love woven throughout our telling, wrapped around the opposing reality of our world. We work from strands of memory and history that have encompassed the telling of the Christ story since the days of those who stood on the Palestinian hillside in the early shadows of the cross. We grab onto these strands of memory and history braided together and offered to us in the rope of our faith, running from Gethsemane to Golgotha, it having endured the torments of the cross and exile, slavery and famine, holocaust and war, segregation and poverty. We hold to a rope far stronger than all of these and through it we both receive and offer a Word of hope. Today we light a candle in opposition to the despair of the world and we begin to retell the Christian story.
It would seem that on such an occasion our retelling would begin from the beginning, that we would read a passage from Scripture in which John the Baptist foretells the coming of Christ or maybe we would hear the prophetic words from Isaiah of the one calling out, “Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God” or that, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
But while manger scenes, wreaths, and garland already adorn the streets and shopping malls with good tidings, we come to church this morning to hear the adult Jesus telling some crazy apocalyptic story about the end of the world and the second coming – about a time when heaven will quake and stars will fall out of the sky – and yelling at us to “Keep Awake!” lest we miss this disturbing doomsday scene. No sugarplums or candy canes for us fine church-going folk this morning…not yet at least.
As strange and out of context as this vision may seem it does remind us that the work of Christ in this world was not complete with his birth, or his ministry, or his death, or his resurrection. There’s more to come. The Christian story continues to unfold in this world and it doesn’t necessarily begin or end in the manger or the empty tomb.
Someone recently interviewed me for an academic paper they were writing on leadership. When we sat down together to talk he asked me if I believed in such a thing as utopia – or an ideal society. I said, “Well, I don’t know if I believe in utopia, per say, but I believe in the kingdom of God prevailing in this world. I believe those words that Jesus taught us to pray that, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ If I didn’t believe that we are working toward bringing the hope, peace, joy, and love that Christ proclaimed and embodies into this world in the very realist of ways, my ministry would be in vain and my faith would be hollow.”
As we gather on this first Sunday of Advent to retell the Christian story, themes of hope, joy, peace, and love abound despite the opposing reality of our world. We do so with Jesus reminding us in this snippet from Mark’s Gospel, of the already/not yet quality of the divine drama in which we live. Already Jesus has established the means by which we are drawn into relationship with God through his incarnation, but not yet do we live in complete communion with God. Already the kingdom of God is evident in the person of Jesus, but it is not yet established in the world. Today we gather to light the Christmas candle of hope in opposition to the world’s despair, to offer this our prayer that, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
E.B. White voiced a similar prayer where he wrote, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
We know that the baby in the manger did not herald in utopia or world peace. Pain did not end nor did war or hate or exclusion. But we wait during these days and weeks because we hold to the hope that such a kingdom of our God who had the power to break into this world in flesh and bone indeed has the power to reign on earth.
Like ours, Jesus’ world was far from utopic – he lived in a tumultuous time. The Judeans had battled Babylonian, then Persian, Greek and now Roman oppressors. The vision of the end-times that he offers in Mark’s Gospel is one that is born out of a tradition of such prophetic pronouncements in the face of social and political unrest. And Jesus warns us, in the midst of suffering and oppression, keep awake to the presence of God in the world. And so we gather on this first Sunday of Advent to retell the Christian story, themes of hope, joy, peace, and love abound despite the opposing reality of our world. And we are tasked with the question - how will we be a part of rewriting the story of our world with such strokes of hope, joy, peace, and love?
Right now in this country and in this world of economic instability and inequality there are those who believe they are striving to bring about the kingdom in this world. Whether or not you agree that we are a part of the other 99% or whether or not you understand their objective or whether or not you believe they understand their objective. Whether it infuriates you that they are speaking up and camping out or it infuriates you that little is being done in response, it is, nonetheless, a movement that is taking hold in our country at this very moment among a people who sense deep deficiency in this world. They are, in a sense, keeping awake and working toward what they understand to be the establishment of the kingdom on earth; of a place and a time when justice will roll down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
Like the black preacher from Alabama who offered a dream amidst segregation, the Indian lawyer who offered a word of non-violent resistance amidst oppression, the German theologian who spoke justice amidst a holocaust, the Albanian nun who spoke a word of healing amidst the poor, sick, and dying. Jesus urges us to speak a word of hope in a world that offers a different story, to continue to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is to tell the Christian/Christmas story.
Right in the middle of the apocalyptic scene that Jesus paints in the gospel, he plants a tree. A fig tree. In a story about the end times, Jesus plants a tree and says that, “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28). In this doomsday story, Jesus plants a tree of beginnings, of new life, of hope.
The beautiful story, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, chronicles the difficult life of a young girl named Francie growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. With an alcoholic father and a mother who never has enough money to make ends meet, Francie faces one obstacle after another and has little reason to believe there’s a way out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In the middle of this despairing story, the author plants a tree. There is one tree in Francie’s yard that was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It has pointed leaves that radiated from the bough, making a tree t looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people in her neighborhood called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree that struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the poor tenements districts.
Every Sunday afternoon in the summer Francie would sit on the fire escape of the tenement building where she lived and she would imagine that she was living in this Tree of Heaven.
We are a people in need of hope, planted right in the middle of the tenement districts of the world and of our lives. Hope so strong that it grows out of cement and boarded up lots and rubbish heaps. Hope so strong that it can turn a cross into resurrection and a baby in a manger into salvation for the world.
Advent is our tree of heaven, waking us up to the seeds of hope that we are to plant in this world. In the manger God plants a tree of new beginnings, of new life, of new hope amidst a world that otherwise tells a different story.
 Copenhaver, Martin in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (25)