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Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Advent – November 27, 2011

May the Christ be seen when we look behind us, the Spirit be found walking ahead, and the Creator look with love over all creation. Amen.

A priest dies and is waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him is a guy who’s dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans. Saint Peter addresses this cool guy, ‘Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven ? ‘

The guy replies, ‘I’m Jack, retired airline pilot from Houston .’ Saint Peter consults his list. He smiles and says to the pilot, ‘Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom.’ The pilot goes into Heaven with his robe and staff.
Next, it’s the priest’s turn. He stands erect and booms out, ‘I am Father Bob, pastor of Saint Mary’s for the last 43 years.’ Saint Peter consults his list. He says to the priest, ‘Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom.

‘Just a minute,’ says the good father. ‘That man was a pilot and he gets a silken robe and golden staff and I get only cotton and wood. How can this be? ‘Up here – we go by results,’ says Saint Peter. ‘When you preached – people slept. When he flew, people prayed.’

I hope I don’t end up with the cotton robe and wooden staff!

“Keep awake!” That’s my wish during this sermon and it’s the direction Jesus gives us on this first day of Advent and the beginning of a new church year. Advent is a word that means “coming” and it is a season in church life devoted to reflection on both the coming of Christ into our world on Christmas and his coming again—his return—at the end of time as we know it.

Far from being a season of doom and gloom, which the readings today might suggest to us, it is a time for hope, expectation and eager anticipation of God’s intervention in our lives and in the world. Yet we can’t escape the scary language of the scriptures and, in particular, the images of destruction we find in Mark’s Gospel. They are a common feature of what is known as apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic writing is a language of mystery, strange beasts, global catastrophes, distress among nations, and the roaring of the sea and the wave— the form of writing that emerged among Jews and Christians when they faced the worst of times.

Biblical scholar N. T. Wright argues that these words of Jesus probably refer to the end of the existing social order of his time rather than to a final destruction of the world. They must have seemed very real to the Jews who came to hear Jesus and lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and the harsh religious laws imposed by the temple leaders; and these words must have seemed real for Mark’s first audience who had experienced persecution at the hands of the Romans for their belief in Christ. And for us, who hear them today and who are bombarded by news feeds that are full of equally scary stuff, it may seem like this world may never bear good fruit again.

Is there anyone who thinks that the world we know is what God wants it to be? Do we think that God wants a world where there is such profound poverty alongside such embarrassing — even sinful — wealth? Does God’s idea of the kingdom include nuclear arms and never ending war? Genocide? Hate crimes? That one out of six people in the world lack access to drinkable water? The good news that may be hidden under the striking images and language in Mark’s text is that God loves to intrude and we long for some divinely fashioned intervention that will bring change to our world and to our lives.

How many of us feel powerless about the predicament of our nation’s economy and all that it implies: loss of jobs, income, health benefits, social services, increased homelessness, hunger, and poverty? We are overwhelmed with problems of our world so much larger than our collective resources for finding solutions. We are not unlike the people who heard this Gospel first hand or anyone through the ages who has faced hard times and experienced oppression in any way. Jesus wants us to be aware that something is afoot. The future is God’s who makes a way when we thought there was no way. Tomorrow may not be exclusively in our hands, and knowing that can make a difference in what we make of today.

“Watch,” Jesus says. Notice what’s going on around you. Notice all the troublesome things happening. Notice the seemingly insurmountable problems of the world. Notice the injustice, the greed, the bigotry, the despair. But most of all notice the fig tree—or any tree you come across. They are now almost bare, the leaves are being carted away—symbols of an ending, an interruption in Life, one that will bring us to a glorious renaissance in the spring—signs of new creation.

Look for the fig trees in your life this Advent and discover where and how God is reaching in, interrupting, and surprising you.

The late Cardinal Cushing of Boston told the story of the little girl who sat on her grandmother’s lap to listen to the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. As the story unfolded, her grandmother noticed how quiet the child became and asked her, “Well, what do you think about it all, Dear?” The little girl answered, “Oh, I love it! You never know what God is going to do next!”

The hope of Advent—the hope that keeps us going—is rooted not only in our belief that we “never know what God is going to do next” but also in our recognition that God’s creativity is not exhausted in the past.

This Gospel is not so much a projection into the future. It is a command to come to full attention to the here and now; to look for signs of new possibilities, like the tender leaves on the fig tree, to ask ourselves whether we wait for larger, dramatic signs of God’s activities in our lives and in the world rather than building on less obvious ones. The fact that the moment of God’s arrival in our life may lie in each moment, rather than in some distant huge encounter, brings with it a whole new perspective. “Keep awake!” is not a command involving the future, but a directive for now. Today.

So this morning we have been saturated with readings that call us to be alert to “Apocalypse” a word that means “revelation,” as in that moment when you are looking at something you have looked at half your life and suddenly you see it for the first time, whether it is the sun coming up through the trees like an iridescent peach or the sorrow in your neighbor’s eyes or your own face looking back at you in the mirror.

Jesus talks about a person going on a journey. In your journey through Advent over these next four weeks, look closely and carefully at the cryptograms, the revelations at kitchen tables and on street corners and here in the pews and in your comings and goings and conversations with friends. Don’t miss the pulse, those pregnant moments that forecast new beginnings, new possibilities, new life coming your way. Listen for the signals, look closely at the dead branches, read all the road signs.

The Spirit is at the hub of an ongoing revolution in the making that will transform our world into the liberating realm of God. And you and I are meant to play a part in it—even if in small, seemingly unimportant or inconsequential ways. What fun that can be!

Stay awake—eyes wide open…you never know what God is going to do next!

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