December 3: The First Sunday of Advent

Valerie Conner has attended St. Hilda St. Patrick with her family for the past 4 years. She is currently involved in the Hospitality, Altar Guild, and Welcoming ministries, as well as a member of the Bishop’s Committee. The sermon for December 3, 2023 was preached in response to Mark 13:24-37 based on the manuscript below.

Happy Advent! I have a confession – even with how kitschy they’ve become, I love advent calendars. You can find them filled with traditional chocolate, of course, but nowadays you can also find advent calendars with cheese, ramen noodles, dog toys, or the other day I even saw one filled with paraphernalia from the 90’s TV show Friends. Not gonna lie, I was kind of thrilled that exists. But when you think about it, advent calendars, as fun as they are, are just a countdown. Everyone knows that Christmas will come on December 25, we make our plans around it, we open each box of the calendar and enjoy our treat. Christ’s miraculous incarnation, coming into the world as a fragile human baby, this already happened. Christ always gets born, and we just need to count down the days to celebrate it. This kind of “countdown” waiting requires patience, which can be frustrating, but ultimately we know the day, we know the hour that Christmas arrives. That’s not the hardest kind of waiting.
The hardest kind is the not yet. Waiting in the unknown for something that we yearn for deeply but can’t know when will happen. But that is just as much a part of the Advent season as the coming of a baby at Christmas. We’re not only waiting to celebrate Christ’s already coming incarnate, but also his not yet coming again.
This “not yet” waiting doesn’t get an advent calendar, and we don’t get a treat for each day we wait. We don’t know when Christ will come again. And not knowing can be the hardest part.
Just before the passage in Mark we read today, Jesus told his disciples that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, which, the disciples knew, was a sign of the end of the world. And the first question they ask in response is: when? They wanted to know what to expect. But Jesus’ ultimate answer, which we read in today’s passage, is: “About that day or hour no one knows.” No one knows. The disciples would just have to wait, sitting in the unknown as they yearned for God’s coming.
As Christ-followers, we are still waiting for Christ to come again to renew the world. And the hardest part of the wait is the not yet.
I am VERY familiar, personally, with this “not yet” waiting. Just as the Church waits this season for the arrival of the Christmas baby, I spent five years in my own long season of waiting for the arrival of a baby. Month after month for 60 months, I paid close, obsessive attention to the signs that could mean a child was near. I wept when once again the thing I thought was a certain sign came to nothing, and I just had to keep waiting. I longed in the deepest part of my being for something that I couldn’t control. The not yet was the hardest part.
There is always grief in waiting: if we are waiting, it means we want something different than what-is. While we wait, there is no getting around that sense that all it not as it should be. This is the human condition. I’m sure everyone sitting here today can think of a dozen things you are waiting for: some of them huge, life-altering, some as small as hoping the preacher will wrap up soon.
Jesus knows the wait is hard. Today’s passage in Mark is part of Jesus’ farewell speech before he is arrested, and he starts this final speech by telling his disciples about the suffering they must endure while they wait for his return. There will be wars, earthquakes, famines, persecution, hatred, destruction. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the news, that all sounds pretty familiar. It also sounded familiar to the first readers of Mark, who had seen the temple fall in 70 A.D. and were experiencing severe persecution. It felt then, as it feels now, like the end of the world. But these things, Jesus says contrary to popular belief, this suffering NOT the end. It is just the beginning, the Braxton Hicks contractions before true labor starts. This suffering does not get the final word – the Son of Man does, as we read today, when he comes with great power and glory to complete God’s purpose for the world and make all things new. And not only does he promise to return, but he promises in today’s passage that it will be very obvious. When all the lights in our universe abandon themselves in favor of THE light of the world, we will know, unmistakably, that Christ is here again. For us, waiting and wondering here today, that certainty brings comfort.
But – it’s still not yet. Jesus underscores this in today’s parable of a master going on a long journey. He tells his servants to keep awake, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” At the end of this story, the Master has still not returned. The servants, like the disciples, like Mark’s first audience, and like us 2000 years later, are waiting in ambiguity. Not yet.
When we were trying for a baby, I quickly learned that even some of my closest friends could be the most hurtful when they tried to skip straight to the joyful end, ignoring the ambiguity of waiting. When they told us stories about others who got pregnant “as soon as they ‘stopped trying’,” or that all we needed to do was take a relaxing vacation, or follow a certain diet, or that they “just knew” that this month was the one for us! They didn’t know. They couldn’t know. But it is so hard to sit in the grief of waiting.
But the thing was, I couldn’t skip the waiting. I still had to do the hard stuff: attend appointments, run tests, get injections, hear the results. Greive the results. If I wanted to get to the joyful end, I couldn’t skip any of that suffering. Hard as we might try, none of us can skip the wait.
But some Christians throughout the ages have tried to skip to the end. Tired of the “not yet” waiting, they pinpointed the day and the hour (in 1959; 1988; 2000; 2011; 2021), the day and the hour when they “just knew” that Christ would come again. But listen to the words of Christ: “about that day or hour no one knows.”
According to one recent survey, 10% of Americans “just know” that Jesus will return in our lifetime. They want to skip the wait, and in doing so, skip engaging with the world’s suffering. If we KNOW the world is ending so quickly, we don’t need to fight against things that impact future generations, like climate change or systemic racism. After all, the thinking goes, why polish brass on a sinking ship? They seek relief in skipping straight to the end they hope for. But it is a false relief. Skipping to the end relieves us of our responsibilities, leading us to ignore the suffering of others and of our world, or even see this suffering as God’s means to an end. God’s means to THE end.
On the other side of the spectrum from those who skip to the end, are those who fall asleep during the wait. The Master has been gone for so long, so they think we might as well get cozy! The world’s needs are great and it can seem like nothing we do makes a difference. So why should we inconvenience ourselves on behalf of our world or our neighbor? It is a form of hopelessness: if we lose faith that the Master will ever return, that there could be a better future on the way, then what else is there beyond my own comfortability? Grown calloused to the wait, we can focus on easing our own suffering, and maybe cozily dream that others will do the same. It’s easier to fall asleep.
But Jesus calls us to more than comfortability. In today’s parable he has given us a very serious responsibility. The Master, before leaving, puts his servants in charge, each with their work. God has given us work to do! Keep awake!
In the five years that we waited for a baby, our hope tangibly manifested as work preparing for a child. While scheduling medical appointments, we also took steps to get jobs that were more family-friendly. While deciding whether to continue treatments, we painted the nursery. While completing our adoption homestudy, we attended parenting classes. We clung to hope as we prepared our hearts and our home for a baby whose arrival we could not predict. And when we got the call that another mother had made the excruciating decision that we would be the ones to take her baby home from the hospital that day, when we learned that after our long, long wait today was the day, this was the hour!; all was ready.
It is not on any one of us to solve all the world’s suffering. But God has given each of us our work to do. And God has also given us a Helper – the Spirit who sustains us and a community of fellow workers.
One of the things I appreciate about this congregation is our ability to sit with each other, even when it’s hard. I’ve seen the ways we vulnerably share our struggling, not trying to skip to the end. At the same time, it is very obvious that we are, individually and as a whole, doing the work God has given us to do. We steward our time, talents and treasure as we send backpacks to the alternative high school, work to unpack systemic racism, knit blankets, and of course, submit our pledges. Even while acknowledging the reality of grief during this long, long, wait, we have not given up hope.
This is our call to stewardship. Not trying to skip to the end and ignore our job here, not falling into a complacent sleep, but taking on our responsibilities to God and to one another until Christ comes again in glory for the renewal of the world. And, Jesus tells his disciples as he tells us, we must be ready at any moment to give account of our stewardship when the master returns.
Keep awake! The work might not be easy, especially in this space of not yet. But, God will see us through as we wait this Advent season for the already coming of the fragile, vulnerable, glorious newborn baby held in awe by a weeping mother.
While we wait, we hope in Christ. And while we hope, with the help of God, we work. Amen.

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