Sunday, December 3, 2023

First Sunday in Advent

“Hope” Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Isaiah 64: 1-9, NRSVUE)

Gospel Reading (Mark 13:24-37, NRSVUE)

Every morning, as I leave my driveway heading east, I manage to catch a glimpse of Grandeur Peak (well, at least the top half of it, anyway). But when I make a right turn onto Highland Drive and head towards Holladay, the mountain vistas becomes markedly more grand as the vantage point improves (I guess there’s a reason they call it “Highland” Drive); about a half mile from hom, the Wasatch can been observed extending southward as far as the eye can see.

Though I, like most people, generally try to travel the shortest distance between two points in order to get where I’m going as efficiently as possible, I must confess that I don’t typically do that on my way here. In fact, on most days I actually go out of my way so I can drive down Holladay Boulevard behind City Hall in order to get an unobstructed view of Mount Olympus. I then meander back towards 2300 East and turn right, hoping to get stuck at the traffic light facing south before turning left and heading up the hill to church so that I can gawk at the mountains front of me for a while. Twin Peaks? Lone Peak? I’m not really sure what their names are, but I frankly don’t care; call them whatever you will, they’re simply awesome to look at.

I can’t tell you how many photos of that particular view I’ve taken (and shared with my friends and family in other parts of the country). I felt like I had to do this because those mountains look so incredible — and so different as the seasons go by: the first snowfall, the first leaves on trees in the spring, the eerie mixture of light and darkness before and after a summer thunderstorm, the changing colors in the fall. Heck, my kids could probably create a coffee table book out of all the pictures I’ve sent them of the view at that traffic light. It may seem like an odd thing for me to do but, you have to understand, you just don’t see stuff like that in any of the places I’ve lived before this.

And so for those of you who have spent far more time here than I have, I’d like to ask you a question: How often do you really stop to pay attention to those mountains?

You see, I notice them because they’re still kind of new and unfamiliar to me. After almost three years here in Utah I haven’t gotten used to them yet, but at some point I probably will. And when I do, they’ll get lumped together with all the other incidental details of my life, instead of being things that capture my attention. 

Sure, I may stop to notice them or to think about them from time to time, but they’ll inevitably blend into the background as other things come to occupy the space in my mind currently devoted to them. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but it’ll happen someday. And that’s unfortunate because looking at unfamliar things — or looking at familiar things in new ways — is often what jars us out of our various habits and patterns and ruts, and opens us up to new ways of seeing. But, sadly, our ability to do that often takes a backseat to all of life’s other stuff.

Does the season of Advent sometimes lead us into such a mindset, into a rut of sorts? I kind of suspect that it might. Every year, as soon as Thanksgiving passes — well before Thanksgiving passes these days, actually — it starts all over again. We’re suddenly bombarded with constant Christmas music and an endless litany of holiday ads that dependably equate love with the amount of money that we are either willing and/or able to spend. If I’m being completely honest with you, I must say that I try really hard to tune it all out.

As if the constant holiday media barrage weren’t bad enough, we’re also probably thinking a lot about all of those things that we need to get done: sending out cards, buying presents, hanging up wreathes and lights, setting up our Christmas trees. All of this seasonally-specific activity, of course, is in addition to — not instead of — the myriad other things we continue to deal with in our everyday lives — going to our jobs or to school; doing homework, housework or yardwork; grappling with illnesses and injuries and losses; shopping for groceries; heading to appointments of various types; dealing with family issues. These things don’t just go away because its almost Christmas.

And yet everything around us — on television, online and on the radio — tells us that we’re supposed to be of good cheer at this time of year, tells us that we’re supposed to be all festive and happy. This is a lot of pressure!

All of these things conspire to drown out the real meaning of Advent.  And that’s a shame, because we’d find a lot there if we could only stop and take a look at some unfamliar things, and at some familiar things in new ways.

And so now we arrive at the inevitable “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season,” part of the reflection. Christmas, as anyone who’s watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” can tell you, is not about unbridled consumerism; it is not about fancy trees, a resplendently decorated doghouse, the Christmas play or presents, it’s about celebrating Jesus. 

But even the Bible, which obviously celebrates Jesus a whole lot, can sneak up on us and challenge our assumptions about things we think we might already understand.  And that’s exactly what today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel does. It reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that Advent is not only about the story of Jesus’ birth; but also about hope — the hope for Christ’s return and the hope that we might find right now in the living Christ.

This passage from Mark seems like a really strange reading for the first week of Advent, as we begin to anticipate the arrival of baby Jesus. The three synoptic gospels — the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke — all tell similar stories of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, but Mark’s is the only one that doesn’t talk at all (I mean not even one bit) about Jesus’s ancestry, his birth or his childhood. Today’s story is, in fact, situated near the end of Jesus’s life.

On top of that, this story seems to focus primarily on the second coming of Christ at the end of the age. It’s commonly referred to as Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” which sure doesn’t sound very “Christmasy.” There’s neither manger nor magi to be found here. There is, however, a darkened sun and moon, stars falling from above and some shaking going on up in heaven, all of which just screams “Happy Holidays”! In other words, those of you who might be seeking some Christmas pageant material here in this passage will probably need to look elsewhere (unless, of course, you’re planning to stage one really weird Christmas pageant).

But Mark doesn’t want us to look towards the sun and the moon and the stars and the heavens all doing things they would not otherwise do in order to scare the life out of us; No, Mark clearly wants to find hope in the return of Christ — which will bring about a change to the established order; that’s what all of these strange happenings are meant to signify. 

What’s not so clear, however, is when all of this is actually going to happen. On the one hand, Jesus states that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And, on the other hand, he tells us that “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the father.” This is all kind of confusing; so when is he going to show up?

And when Jesus goes on to describe the day on which he will bring God’s reign to our world, he makes things even more complicated. In talking about the signs of that day, he foreshadows events and details we’ll soon hear about in the upcoming passion story — evening and midnight and a rooster that crows at dawn and sleeping disciples.

So is Jesus saying that the Messiah, the Son of Man, will triumphantly appear two times — once when all that stuff happens with the moon and the stars and the heavens, and once when the rooster crows and the disciples get caught napping? Or is he really just reminding us that he’s here right now, that’s he’s already brought a little bit of heave to earth?

That’s exactly what Jesus is trying to say. The confusing and contradictory way in which he answers the question about when he will return underscores the idea that he sees this question as being irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that these first disciples (and we) have no idea when Jesus will return, and those who anticipated his birth had no idea when that would happen either. Let’s just chalk it up to the idea that uncertainty and anticipation are an inherent part of Advent. 

So, what does this all mean? Perhaps instead of trying to circle a day on the calendar and simply biding our time until Jesus returns, maybe we should be focused on “keeping awake” in the meantime — you know, on behaving as if he could show up at any second. In fact, maybe we should act as though Jesus were already here. And maybe we should ask ourselves how we should behave towards each other and towards all God’s creation knowing that he is already here.

At this time of year, we’re so focused on the impending birth of Jesus, that we tend to overlook the fact that he currently dwells among us. Similarly, when we try to forecast precisely the day and time that Jesus will return, we completely miss his presence in our lives today. 

Maybe this is Mark’s early gift to us as this Advent season gets unerway: A reminder that Christ’s birth and Christ’s return are events we should look forward to with great anticipation, and that Christ’s abiding presence in this world brings us hope in the present. You see, for Mark, the whole point is that Christ has never, ever ceased being with us.

So, how might knowing that Christ dwells among us — that he might just be the next person you meet — change the way we live our lives, right here and right now? Because that’s the real meaning of Advent.