The First Sunday of Advent
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Mark 13:24-37



Happy New Year! This is the First Sunday of Advent, so today we begin the new Church year, a new liturgical year. Year B. You’ll be able to tell because our Gospel readings will be mostly from Mark (instead of Matthew, as was the case in Year A), with a little John sprinkled in like every year. But most everything else will stay the same. Oh, there will be seasonal changes as we cycle through the year, a different color, a different fraction anthem, a different sanctus tune from time to time. But every year, we tell anew the same story of how God has acted and how God still acts in the world.

And that great story starts with Advent, which we begin today. We tend to think of Advent as a season of preparation for that wonderful event in the manger. A time to get ready for the baby. And it is. It is a season of anticipation for the birth of Christ. It is a time when, as a community, we are all pregnant, waiting for God to come among us as a cute little baby.

And that’s kind of fun. At least it is for me. I get a hard time sometimes for my insistence on keeping Advent. I get called “Scrooge” and accused of “bah-humbugging” Santa, which isn’t true. I love Santa Claus. But I also love waiting, anticipating God’s birthday party. And I’ve never been pregnant, and know I can never be, so I like being sort of spiritually pregnant, especially since spiritual pregnancy doesn’t cause morning sickness or even swollen ankles!

So it’s fun, awaiting that special child. (And I know every woman here who has ever had a baby is thinking, Yeah, Steve, I wish you and every man in this room could experience he “fun” of giving birth. But, that’s not my point. My point is you can keep Advent and still have fun, awaiting, anticipating the birth of Jesus.) But there is another side to Advent. A side that isn’t so warm and fuzzy. Because Advent is also a season of judgment and uncertainty as we contemplate the second coming of Christ.

Judgment and Uncertainty. Now there’s a couple of cold, prickly themes if ever there were any. But they are there for us, and so to begin Advent, we read from what is known as the “Little Apocalypse” in Mark’s Gospel.

Apocalyptic literature was all the rage for a couple of centuries on either side of Jesus’ time. It’s characterized by exotic, often bizarre imagery depicting cataclysmic events. And we have a dose of it here. There will be great suffering, Jesus says, and afterwards “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken, and heaven and earth will pass away, and no one know when.”

Now, as apocalyptic literature goes, this is actually pretty tame stuff, but it’s enough to get my attention. And it begs the question, “Is this any way to get ready for a birthday party?” The sun dark and heaven and earth passing away and the stars falling from the sky?

It seems pretty scary to me. (Even scarier than seeing parishioners homes decorated for Christmas at the beginning of Advent.) But the truth is I need to be scared. I need to be shaken up, occasionally. & what the Little Apocalypse emphasizes is what Jesus tells us: “Be alert!” “Keep Awake!” And we need to have those things emphasized—if you’re like me.

I’m not very good at being alert. Staying alert. I tend to slip into a complacent routine. I tend to slip into living my life as if it were going to last forever, so I don’t think of it – life – as my one wonderful, precious opportunity to make the most of right now because I don’t know when it will end.

It’s so easy to just keep on keeping on as you watch yourself put one foot in front of the other without ever lifting your head to see where you’re going, without ever asking, “Is this where I should be in my life? Is this how God wants me to use this one precious opportunity?”

A long, long time ago, when I was in high school & college I used to play poker. My friends and I played for pennies and nickels and dimes. We didn’t do it for the money. There wasn’t much money involved. We did it because we loved each other and we wanted to be together. But we were teenage boys and, of course, we could never talk like that, so we played poker.

But even though we knew we weren’t there to try to make money, we also knew that we had to play for at least a little money. Everybody who has ever played poker knows that you have to play for at least a little money or the game won’t be any fun, because the bets won’t mean anything. People will bet wildly with no consequences. You have to know that at some point you’re going to cash in and see whether you ended up ahead or behind where you started. That’s how you win or lose at poker.

Most folks know that about poker. So why do you think we so easily forget it about our lives?

As we prepare for the birth of the cute, cuddly Christ child, the coming King, the God-with-us, the Emmanuel, let’s keep a faithful Advent, so that we are in the proper frame of mind to receive him at Christmas. Because unless we know that this life is our one precious chance to live to the fullest of our potential (which is what God wants for us), unless we know that it will end we-don’t-know-when (and our potential judgement is our own realization that we went through life with our heads down watching one foot step in front of the other), unless we know that we really do have a finite amount of time to get the community, the connectedness, the relatedness, the love that we all long for deep in our souls; Unless we know these deep hard things that Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” forces us (or at least calls us) to think about, then we will not know just how very, very much we need that soft, sweet little baby of Christmas.

Listen, we all know that life isn’t a poker game. But like a poker game, there will come a time when we will be out of time, and we’ll have to take stock (cash in our chips) and see how we did.

That little baby that’s coming can only mean as much as the way we live allows him to. So, live as if the sun will be dark, and the stars will fall from heaven, and no one knows when. Stay alert! Keep awake! And whatever the stars may be in your life, whatever glitters in the holy heavens for you, reach for them. Reach for the stars in your life before they fall.

And if you live that way, spiritually alert, awake, alive, I believe you’ll find that the brightest star of all is over the manger.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.