Yesterday, I preached my second sermon at St. Lydia’s, this time based on Mark 13:24-37, in which Jesus offers an apocalyptic vision:
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
Leon Ferrari presents us with a richly ambiguous image in his piece, “Western-Christian Civilization”.
Are we to understand this figure as one who suffers?
Do we identify this broken body with the bodies broken by death-dealing forces?
Ferrari may be holding up a sacred mirror to reveal the image of God in those we destroy.
But this is not all we can see in this piece.
Do we not also see the figure of Christ mounted on this warplane precisely as a bomb to be deployed on our enemies?
Ferrari refuses to relieve us of this painful tension in his piece.
What has any of this got to do with Advent?
Theologian John Caputo has quipped that Advent, meaning arrival or incoming, can be taken in the military sense, “Incoming! Hit the deck!”
Annie Dillard has famously observed that if we knew what power we were invoking, we “should all be wearing crash helments” in church.
But instead of donning crash helmets to prepare ourselves for our encounters with the divine,
we put on battle helmets and deploy the divine,
claiming God’s favor, as we crush our global competitors in war and commerce,
in the name of Western-Christian civilization.
Yet if the figure of Christ Crucified can be represented as a bomb,
perhaps Advent celebrates a time when God lobbed a hand grenade into the world –
and what could be more disruptive than the arrival of a human being full of demands?
If ordinary infants undo our tidy worlds,
how much more a Baby Jesus Hand Grenade?
Yet the undoing this bomb-throwing God brings is of another order
than the destruction wrought by the death-dealing forces that compete for control of the world.
This God sends a little apocalyptic bomb to undo the world itself.
This is an undoing that is more total than anything humanity has ever wrought
and yet this is what makes this disruption the condition of the possibility of new life.
As death-dealers, we have only tried to control the world, in various ways;
what Christ does is to change it.
Remember that this God annihilated the world once already with a flood, and swore to Noah never to do so again.
What Baby Jesus Hand Grenade threatens to do is to upend our world so completely that we will never see and experience it the same way again.
To undo our sense of ourselves,
to eliminate our resources for meaning, be they cultural, political, religious, or otherwise,
to undo all the ways we give meaning to our death-dealing.
All the ways we use God to justify the destruction of God’s image in the world.
In the verses preceding our text this week, Jesus describes all the earthly and human ways we destroy each other: deception, betrayal, hatred, and the idolatry of nation and of violence.
All the ways that we destroy in order to control.
And then our reading picks up where Jesus invokes an image from the apocalyptic, prophetic, book of Daniel,
“The Son of Man coming in the clouds”.
Then Jesus brings us back “down to earth”, if you will, with an image of a fig tree.
A tree whose tenderness points to the coming of summer, a time of fertility, growth, and new life. And then, just so we don’t miss how earth-bound his vision is,
Jesus tells his companions that they will witness this apocalypse,
even though the time of its unfolding is wrapped in mystery,
which is why he says, “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Jesus’s vision here in the Gospel of Mark is apocalyptic.
An apocalypse is an unveiling.
Another word we use for this is revelation – to reveal – which means to un-veil
(although a lot of discussion of apocalypse seems to Re-veil, to make everything more obscure, rather than to un-veil!)
And where will this un-veiling take place?
Here, among us, it would seem.
Jesus starts with describing the wretched condition of the earth,
then describes the Son of Man coming to that earth,
and then brings us down to earth, where this apocalypse will unfold.
Something new is incoming, but make no mistake,
we are not being swept up to the clouds the Son of Man is riding,
he is coming to us, to bring this apocalypse into our midst,
in the context of the world we are bent on destroying.
This apocalypse will not take the form of destroying the world,
but undoing it, by undoing us.
This is the Baby Jesus Hand Grenade of Love that undoes the world.
I want you to take just a moment now and think of love.
Think of an experience you’ve had of love: love of family, love of friends, romantic love.
Recall someone who has loved you or whom you have loved.
Recall what it is like to love,
it may be a happy memory or a painful one.
Ok, now, keeping that memory in mind,
I want us to think about what it means to be undone.
When the prophet Isaiah encountered God, when God was revealed to him,
Isaiah cried out,”Woe to me! I am undone!”
Judith Butler writes about what it is to be undone.
She says, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of the other.”
Now, I asked you to recall an experience of love,
to remember someone you love or have loved,
because there is a deeply erotic sense of what it means to be undone.
Christ is talking about an intimate undoing of our world and ourselves,
of how we understand ourselves and our world,
and I recognize something deeply romantic in this apocalypse.
I want to be clear that being undone has nothing to do with being destroyed.
Violence produces destruction, but love produces undoing.
So think about how the experience of being in love,
or of falling out of love,
changes the way you experience the world.
I know that for me, my beliefs about the meaning and goodness of the world seem pale in the absence of love,
and that a hopeless situation can be redeemed by the experience of love.
In my experience, love changes the way I understand and relate to the world,
changes how I act,
disrupts my sleep.
I can remember nights made beautiful by staying awake all night with someone I love.
This is Christ’s call here, that we keep awake,
alive to the world and to what is being revealed in it through love.
What Christ is unveiling here runs counter to our hateful, selfish destruction of the world.
What Christ is unveiling here is a love that undoes the world,
that undoes us,
that doesn’t leave us the same,
a love that comes in the form of a body shared with others.
So I believe the call in this apocalypse is for us to keep awake and do the same.
Martin Luther wrote that, “As our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.”
Our neighbor bears the image of God,
is the face of God in the world,
and the image of God will survive the apocalypse
wrought by the weakness of sweet baby Jesus and the weakness of Christ Crucified.
Our death-dealing world will not fare as well.
So as we celebrate this incoming of God,
we had better be sure we are ready to be taken to pieces by this event,
and have our world so shattered
that we refuse to accept any longer a system in which we fight for control of a world in which Christ is dropped like a bomb on our enemies. We must keep awake and look for the incoming love of Christ.