We enter Advent slap bang in the middle of Mark’s little apocalypse; this end of the world, stars falling out, desolating times piece of prophecy: the little apocalypse.
The thing about apocalypse is that it comes up over and over in the Bible, so it can’t always be the end of the world. Mark is quoting massively from the book of Daniel, a masterpiece of the genre, which was written to encourage the people under the oppression of the Seleucid empire to stay strong, keep the faith: look, said Daniel, this has happened before, in the time of the Exile, and faith kept us following God back to the promised land. A couple of centuries later, Nero fiddles as Rome burns, he blames it on the Christians, and someone called John receives an apocalyptic Revelation. The stories of the apocalypse describe the end of the world as we know it, an ending that happens over and again, sometimes even within a lifetime; and at the same time they keep the faith that God knows what God is doing, and that God will bring us home.
Do you remember the story from Daniel of the three men in the fiery furnace? Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three minority men persecuted for their culture and their faith, thrown into the fiery pit. When the king looked to see their fate, he noticed four men. An Angel of the Lord walked with them, protected them, led them out of the fire and into the light.
That is the promise of Advent, after all, that even as darkness falls and it looks as though the light is failing, Emmanuel, God is with us, and will return to bring us home.
This is a good time for Advent to begin, just after our Thanksgiving for all that we have, and the realization of all we have lost, the empty places at the table, the words thrown away that cannot be taken back; and still we give thanks. This is a good time for Advent to begin, with passion burning in Ferguson, grief flowing in Cudell Park, the disbelief and distress of a family slain, in the midst of a world on fire, hearts on fire, or frozen with fear and frustration. This is a good time for Advent to begin, for apocalypse to break in, and remind us that we have been here before, standing at the end of the world, in the fading light, with the fires burning all around, wondering where to turn.
People are fond of quoting Mahatma Gandhi: be the change you want to see in the world. I love Gandhi, and it’s a good mantra, but for Christians it needs just a twist. God has already made a change. Emmanuel, God with us, the Incarnation of Jesus changed everything. That is the good news of the gospel, the good news of the apocalypse, that God is already with us, and that the new world is already within sight. We almost have it.
So I would say that the charge for Christians is to be the gospel that we want to see in the world. Be the good news that you long to hear. Be the gospel.
Paul says, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We know from our baptism the call to see each person as bearing the Christ-child within them. We know that we are bound and committed to uphold the dignity of all persons. We have promised to proclaim the gospel in word and in deed: to be the gospel we want to see and hear in this world. And we are not lacking the means, the grace, to do it.
Last Monday, Michael Brown’s parents asked anyone listening to take four and a half minutes of silence, stillness, after the announcement of the Grand Jury decision, whatever it might be. Four and a half minutes to represent the four and a half hours their son’s body lay in the street. Four and a half minutes to remember that whatever the evidence presented, and conclusions reached, somebody’s son lay dead in the street for half of the day.
Later in the week, we found out that Tamir Rice lay fatally shot, mortally wounded for four minutes before anyone would come to his aid. Four minutes while a child lay dying, and this one, too, a child of God.
Four minutes, four and a half minutes, four and a half hours. Whatever we may know or think or believe about individual cases, I think that we can agree that any portion of those intervals is too long to suspend another person’s humanity. It is too long to turn away from the imago Dei, the image of God in the other. It is too long to turn away from a neighbour in need.
One of the most disheartening things I read this week was the comments section of the online news reports. In them are too many comments labelling our neighbours as animals, and worse, to be ignored; bold statements reducing whole swathes of humanity to a category beneath concern or even contempt. But when we separate ourselves from one another, by race or by class or by occupation, we spit on the image of God. Pretty much no sentence that begins with “Those people” ends with a word of grace. Add a lethal weapon, and these divisions become deadly.
The gospel answers, boldly, This one, too, is a child of God. Don’t disrespect the imago Dei, the image in which we all were created.
Let me say it more plainly: in the gospel, as expansive as it is: in the gospel, there is no room for enmity. There is no room for cheap damnation. In the gospel, there is no room for racism. The gospel does not make peace with injustice.
The stories of the apocalypse are about a world set on fire by sin, and by sinful systems that oppress and do violence to the people of God. The gospel counters that it is not the end of the world, that God is still with us, that there is always hope, that there will always be prophets who keep the faith, who walk through the fire, to proclaim the gospel to those most in need of good news.
Sometimes, prophets are found in unlikely places, even on an NFL player’s football page. Of course, he does play for the Saints. Benjamin Watson wrote this week about the encouragement that he found in naming this problem, the one we have seen in Ferguson, the one we have lived in Cleveland, as sin. At the end of a thoughtful piece, which it’s worth reading in full, he says,
I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope. (https://www.facebook.com/BenjaminWatsonOfficial?fref=nf)
The gospel gives us hope. Be the gospel you want to see in the world. You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we await the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the meantime, may angels walk each of us through the fire. Amen.