Even though a largely peaceful Thanksgiving intervened, the recent weeks have been hard for anyone who follows current events. In the midst of all the bad news, I found solace in a fake front page of the New York Times (created by someone with the questionable name Joe Velx) circulating among my friends on Facebook. Like all good satire, it’s really funny and somewhat painful to read. Under a banner proclaiming just how awful everything is, the main headlines (hilarious but, I’m sorry to say, unrepeatable in the pulpit) mocked the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict and the Bill Cosby situation. But some of the lesser headlines were almost as good: “Study: Pizza Causes Cancer”; “Obama Found Crying Alone in Bathroom Stall”; and my favorite: “Weather Alert: Entire Sky to Catch Fire.” For some of us who have lived through the past several weeks, everything does seem at times simply awful. There are days when I, too, feel like crying alone in a bathroom stall. What is this world coming to?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first of four Sundays leading to Christmas. Advent only looks toward Christmas itself near the end of the season; here, at the beginning, our focus is paradoxically on the last things. So here, today, the Advent season speaks to our apocalyptic dreads. Whenever we sense that the world is ending, it’s good to recall that we’re not the first generation in history to feel this way. In today’s Gospel (Mark 13:24–37) Jesus depicts an apocalyptic moment—the sun darkened, the moon dimming, stars falling from heaven. The people to whom Jesus spoke would soon feel, with the impending destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, that their world would be ending. Cataclysmic change rarely feels good when we are standing in it. When we have become used to and invested in the way things are, change can indeed feel like the end of the world.
In the last month we have witnessed a string of events that feel apocalyptic: the spread of the Ebola virus; the continued beheadings of Americans by ISIS; the Ferguson Grand Jury’s failure to indict a police officer in the shooting death of a young black man and the outrage which resulted from that decision; the dismissal of charges against former Egyptian President Mubarak for the deaths of hundreds of non-violent Arab Spring protesters; and just yesterday, yet another shooting spree, this time in Austin, Texas. Both abroad and at home, it seems that an established order is ending, bringing with it nothing but bad news. How are we to make sense of all this change?
One way to begin might be to think back to Jesus and his contemporaries. The world they inhabited was changing rapidly, too. The Roman Empire, seemingly at its height under Augustus, was beginning its slow slide into ruin and decay. In a few decades, the Jewish nation state, organized around the king and the Temple, would be totally destroyed and dispersed by that same empire in its desperate flailing attempts to exert control. Jesus’ followers would soon experience the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of their leader. Everything’s awful, indeed.
When Jesus tells his companions, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” he is not predicting the end of the world. He is predicting the end of their world. The order that they have lived with and grown used to, as unjust and oppressive as it might be, is on its way out. A new order will replace it, and it’s into that new reality that his followers will go when they gather and go forth after Jesus’ resurrection. Even though that old world was marked by suffering and oppression, it was still their world, the reality they had come to accept. A new world was on its way. What would it look like? How could they prepare?
The only way they could prepare, says Jesus, was by watching and waiting to see what God might be up to. “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Faced with historical events beyond their control, Jesus’ friends are counseled to watch and wait for signs of how they are to read and adjust to the changes that are coming their way.
Watching and waiting were just as hard then as they are today. What do you mean, watch and wait? Can’t we at least do something? We want to be doers, yet Jesus tells us to be watchers. How can we live with all the dread and anxiety if all we’re going to do is watch and wait?
Last week I came upon this quotation from the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and resistance leader imprisoned by the Nazis and executed by them in World War II. Reflecting on the season of Advent from his prison cell, he wrote this:
“By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent: one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (November 21, 1943, pp. 188-89)
We wait and hope and watch for the door of our prison cell to be opened from the outside. Bonhoeffer was a lifelong activist. He risked his life to resist oppression. And yet even such a doer as Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized that there were some forces and trends that he was powerless to control. All he could do, in a seemingly endless prison cell Advent, was watch and wait, keeping awake to signs of God’s hopeful, liberating activity.
The world wasn’t ending in the first century; their world was ending. The world wasn’t ending even in the Nazi prison camp: their world was ending. The world isn’t ending now. But our world is ending. Even as they desperately try to exert themselves, certain kinds of violence and privilege are coming to an end. Whether they like it or not, ISIS represents a kind of intolerance and brutality that the world will always reject. Whether we like it or not, the privilege that white people, straight people, and men have always counted on is also passing away. The world isn’t ending. But our world is. What will come to replace it? Will it be better than what we know now? We can only watch and wait.
Let’s remember, though, that watching and waiting are not passive verbs. Jesus tells us to “keep awake.” Though we hope for the new world as an act of God, we can begin even now to live as if that world was our present reality. Jesus dealt with the oppression and injustice of his day by gathering a community in which life could be lived even now as God intended that it be. You and I can keep awake for God’s new world today by living life on God’s terms now. We can renounce violence and hatred now. We can give up our unearned privilege now. We can empathize and make common cause with those who are marginalized, oppressed, and degraded by the structures of a world on its way out the door, and we can do that now. Our waiting can be active, not passive. We can make common cause with others and strive with them to realize God’s reign of love, justice, and peace now.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we begin our shared four-week vigil, watching in Bonhoeffer’s words for the prison door of the present moment to be opened from the outside. Christmas is coming, but let us not get ahead of ourselves. We live, for now, in an Advent world. The old world is ending, the new one dawns. We await the coming of one who will set us free not to shore up the old reality but to inhabit the new. Our world may be ending, but as followers of Jesus we hope and wait for the new one that will replace it—a world more just, more loving, more compassionate. This new world dawns on us even now. There are signs of it everywhere. In the words of today’s collect, let us “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Let us reach out to each other and all creation to help God bring that world to birth. Let us remember the words of Jesus: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Amen.