The End and The Beginning
Advent 1, 2023
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
In the name of the living God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. We begin Advent today a season of preparation for the coming of the Lord. For those of you who are new to the liturgical tradition, you just need to know a couple of things small before we go along. Advent means to come and it’s a four week season prior to Christmas, the beginning of the church year, but Advent’s also a really confusing time. I’ll probably make it more confusing today. The first thing that’s confusing about it is there’s a lot of talk about light, light, light, and yet I don’t know about you. It gets dark so early it’s dark when I wake up, I don’t see a lot of light. I see darkness. The other problem of course is that while most of us here, I say most of us because I know some of you have your fingers crossed, most of us here are trying really hard to focus on preparing for Christmas, not celebrating Christmas. The reality is out there in the world, they’re already celebrating and have been since about Halloween, and so it’s a confusing time because it puts us as liturgical Christians out of joint with the rest of the world.
Christmas begins on the 25th of December and goes for 12 days. Everyone knows that, right? Well, that’s just the calendar confusion. The confusion runs deeper because what does a baby wrapped in swaddling close? Much less chestnuts roasting on an open fire have to do with all the doom and gloom of the in time readings that we have today and all season. How do we reconcile the little drummer boy with calls to penitence preparation and judgment? The short answer is we don’t. The longer answer though is the meat of what I want to get into and it has to do with our confusion about time and specifically the end times that we as Christians are trying to live out our faith in this world today. Now, I didn’t mangle that sentence. I said what I said the end times that we are trying to live in today, all this gets to the problem with that English word, the end for doing theology. What if I told you that the end was already behind us? You say that again? What if I told you that the end was already behind us? Now, I grew up around here, not too far from here, and I know that the Christian culture of this area perseverates on the idea that the end is something that’s yet to come. You can buy cassettes, DVDs, many, many, many books that will tell you that the end is something that’s going to come and alternate ways to avoid it. Buy freeze dried food, judge your neighbors, take your pick. But the point is the end is coming,
But what if I told you the end is in our rear-view mirror? Now, the funny thing, and I’ll get into this later. For some of you that might, I know it’s confusing for all of you, but for some of you that might be good news for some of you, well, you might be disappointed, but yes, what I’m going to tell you today is that the end is a historical fact, not a future to fear. The problem you see is definitional. In English we have the word end, but there are two other words that end both describes. One is apocalypse and apocalypse doesn’t actually mean end apocalypse means unveiling, or as the last book of the Bible puts it, revelation, but then there’s another word, the Greek word telos. Telos also means end, but it means end in the sense of our ultimate object, aim or purpose, our goal. So you see the problem already, don’t you? When I say let’s talk about the end, are we talking about what will be revealed or what our purpose is, what will be revealed or what our purpose is? Both get described by the word end and we get real confused about end times today. My hope is to show you that the apocalypse, the unveiling, the revealing is not something to get out your star charts and look forward to.
It’s already happened. Yes, stone me after the service, I am saying the apocalypse has already happened and that the apocalypse informs our telos, our end or our purpose, but the apocalypse isn’t our end or our purpose. It informs it, but it’s not it, and I also want to talk about what that means both for how we celebrate Advent and more specifically for how we live today. Our gospel today is why I’m taking this dangerous track. Blame it on Jesus. Verse 24 starts with a question. Jesus says, in those days after that suffering, do you hear the question? Okay, Jesus, which days? What? Suffering, which days, those days that suffering, what suffering. We have hints in the text. The first hint we need to take seriously, you’ve heard me say this again and again is context, context, context, context. This, friends is a holy week story. This is a holy week story. In chapter 11 of Mark, Jesus enters Jerusalem with the waving of the palms and the donkeys. You remember that by chapter 14 we’re going to have the Passover, last supper and Gethsemane, so chapter 13 is a holy week story. It’s called the Little Apocalypse, the little unveiling, the crisis parables. It’s set right within those days where Jesus is spending his mornings in the temple getting the priests so mad, retiring to the home of Marian, Martha, and Lazarus and the tension is rising
And Jesus says in those days after that suffering, let’s go further. Let’s look at some of the verses in light of that. Verse 24, he says, the sun will be darkened in those days after that suffering. Luke 23:44 says this about when Jesus is on the cross now, it was about noon and darkness came all over the land until three in the afternoon because the sun’s light failed. Verse 24 mentions a shaking in the same verses. Luke mentions an earthquake at the moment when the veil of the temple is torn into verse 26, the Son of Man said, will come in clouds and great glory. Go all the way back to Mark nine verses seven and eight. What do you see? Clouds and great glory as Jesus has revealed between Moses and Elijah and we hear the words that this is my beloved son. Listen to him.
Do you ever wonder about that story about the fig tree? You know the one, not the one we have today, the one where Jesus is walking along and he sees a fig tree and it doesn’t have fruit and he curses it and it withers, but scripture itself tells us that it wasn’t the season for figs. It always seemed like Jesus was kind of mean, didn’t it? I mean here, it’s not the season of figs and yet he curses a fig tree for not having figs. Aha. Here’s the answer. Learn this parable from the fig tree whenever its branches become tender and put out its leaves. You know that summer is near, so also when you see these things happening, know that he some mysterious he is near. I submit to you that Jesus cursed the fig tree because the fig tree didn’t know what time it was. He was near and there were no figs. The faults not gods. It’s the trees.
Verse 29, he is right at the gate again, what gate, back to chapter 11, the Palm Sunday entrance of an unwelcome and unexpected king and let you think I’m making this up in the old lectionary. Do you know what the reading for first advent was? The poem Sunday entrance. How’s that for a Christmas celebration? Because do you see what’s going together here? When we look at the verses in context and we look at what happens to Jesus on those last horrible three days and it all adds up, sun, dark temple, curtain, ripped earthquake, even the dead walking, and then we say in those days after that suffering of the Son of God on a tree he didn’t belong on, we see in fact that the unveiling, the revealing that Isaiah and Israel and the whole world has been waiting for has happened. The culmination of the mission of Jesus in crucifixion, atonement and justification is the prophetic focus here, the incarnation of God, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ showing us the friendly heart of our Father. God is the apocalypse, is the revelation, the unveiling and it’s for us therefore, an occasion of hope, not fear and because it’s behind us in time, wow, that means our future is secure.
The apocalypse literally has got our back as we journey on. Now, do I believe in the second coming? Of course, it’s scriptural and do I think there’ll probably be some hiccups along the way as the earth has rolled up like a scroll and is renewed? Yes, but you know what that’ll really be? That’ll be a reprise of the greatest hits. Been there and done that already. Now, if the unveiling the revelation, the main point of scripture is already behind us, not something that we worry about in the future as we listen to our AM radio. If the apocalypse isn’t, our telos isn’t our end. If destruction is not the ultimate purpose for the children of God, what is and we’re in east Tennessee. I want to say that again because how radical, what I’m saying is listen very closely. If destruction in some kind of fiery ordeal in the future is not our ultimate purpose, do you feel the freedom? Just in that question, our text today can help with the answer of that too in verse 31, referring to not only the apocalypse of holy week, but what will ultimately happen. Jesus says, heaven and earth will pass away, but the word will never pass away
And this world of change, what a comfort. The word will never pass away. Jesus is our goal. Jesus is our telos. The proper term is kosis to become like Christ. Paul puts it this way to grow up unto him who is the head? John in his first epistle says, we do not know what we will be, but we will be like him. We will be like him in the midst of this world. I mean look around. How can we trust this? Well, let’s go back to the context of our gospel reading because there are other words around that time, words from the word as it were. What are some of those words? Father, forgive them. They just don’t know what they’re doing. That’s good these days I’m lucky to get my socks to match. I certainly don’t know what I’m doing. It is good to know that my forgiveness is predicated on the loving heart of God and when I doubt that John 19 says, it is finished sin, law, death, the devil paid in full. It is finished. The apocalypse has dealt with the old order, the apocalypse dealt with at the root level the working outcomes later, but at the root level, the apocalypse dealt with my sin, my death,
My temptation and torment and so now my aim, my telos is Christ and his kingdom, Christ and his kingdom. As I said, even if you give credence to this tradition of interpretation or to how I’ve presented the apocalypse and end times today, it can be really hard to trust in it wars and rumors of war, famine, pestilence, earthquake. Jesus says, when you see these things lift up your head because the time is drawing near. I only will have the confidence to lift up my head at the second coming if I believe in the unveiling of the first. See, I mean the mystery is what Paul talks about. The fact of the matter is if the apocalypse is behind us, the kingdom has come, has past tense, but as Paul says, it’s an already but not yet reality. It is finished, but like a pebble dropped in a pool. The ripples haven’t spread out the whole way just yet. Anglican priest and scholar Fleming, Rutledge puts it this way in a very deep sense. The entire Christian life in this world is lived in advent between the first and second coming of the Lord’s second comings of the Lord. In the midst of the tension between things, the way they are and things, the way they ought to be,
Things the way they are, the truth has been revealed, unveiled, and yet the implication of that truth has not yet been made manifest everywhere things the way they ought to be. We’ll get to that in a second because the question then becomes, if the apocalypse is behind us, our telos not yet achieved. We haven’t gotten to our purpose. What should we do for Advent? I know it sounds funny, but if Fleming Rutledge is right, if this is right, it’s not a question of do we put up tensile now or wait till December 17th? When does the tree go up? It’s a question of if the truth has already fixed everything but not completely, how should we live this Advent and indeed every day of our lives? Well, we have one more word of Jesus that will remain that I want to think about today, and that’s the one. The first time they see him again, John 20:19 to 23, it’s Easter. It is finished as already three days stay, and this happens:
On the evening of that day. The first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came and stood among them and said, peace be with you. When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord, he said to them, again, peace be with you just as the Father has sent me so I send you after this. He breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven and if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained, a word that will remain peace, receive the Holy Spirit’s forgiveness. Let’s flip those around. Forgive this Advent. Forgive this Advent. I was gone for almost 10 years. One of the things I can tell you that I don’t much like a lesser apocalypse and unveiling to me is I came back and found out how afraid and angry we all are. Forgive. Can we be generous and forgiving in an angry, angry world. That’s a good way to anticipate the kingdom, receive the Holy Spirit. When we receive the Holy Spirit, what do we receive? Well, we receive love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control
May be very clear. We don’t cultivate them. We receive them when we receive them. It’s a gift, a real Christmas gift, the opportunity through the power of the Holy Spirit to be like Jesus. My simple observation in this season is gifts like that are best when they’re shared. Maybe the other antidote to anger and hatred is a little more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I don’t know. I’m just kind of riffing on the book here, but perhaps the last one, the most important one for us now and always and for this Advent season is peace. He breathes on them and says, peace. I give you my peace. The dead bloody guy, his peace. Peace I give you not as the world gives. That’s good because looking around, I mean father less, are you sure the apocalypse is already happening? I mean, look around, but the peace isn’t as the world gives. There was a brief period in my childhood when I had some peace. My mother was reasonably into her recovery, and we had a little two story apartment on Neper Lane in Oak Ridge a couple of days. I’ve walked over there from where I work now. It’s really creepy,
But I remember as a kid because things were finally going okay in our house. I remember sitting on the top of the stairs and seeing the Christmas tree, the first Christmas tree that we had had, not that we had borrowed from my grandparents. When we went over there and pretended we were a happy family, it was our first Christmas tree and there were actually presents under it, and I remember being this little guy was probably eight or nine and sitting on the top of those stairs and it was dark and quiet and the lights were on and there were those presents and I couldn’t shake the anticipation. There was peace and it was a particular kind of peace. Everything was stable, but something was coming. I didn’t know what was in those boxes. I didn’t know what my mom could afford, and believe it or not, you can worry about that when you’re eight. I knew something was coming and despite my hopes, despite my fears, I didn’t really know what, but in that moment I can still close my eyes and feel that breath I took in for the first time. I knew for a change what was coming was going to be good.
That’s the peace of Advent. That’s the peace. When the apocalypse is behind you, lot’s going to change. Friends, yes, but we can respond with hope, not fear, because based on what was revealed, we may not know what’s coming, but it’s going to be good.