Advent 1B Sermon (2023)

1st Sunday of Advent
Texts: Mark 13:24-37;
Isaiah 64:1-9

Facebook live (sermon begins at 27:45): https://www.facebook.com/BethaniaLutheran/videos/366220152475341/

“MAY HE NOT COME SUDDENLY AND FIND YOU SLEEPING”1

I’LL BET YOU’VE HAD THE EXPERIENCE OF nearly falling asleep at the wheel. For me, it’s most likely to happen late at night on an interstate. The dotted lines between lanes seem to hypnotize me and soon. . .yawning. . .and. . .WHOA! WOW! YIKES! I find myself drifting off and am suddenly jolted back into awareness. I pull over, maybe get a cup of coffee. It’s scary and dangerous!

The same thing happens to us on many levels. Perhaps we go on autopilot in our marriages and our marriages gradually drift off the road. Or we ‘fall asleep’ on our jobs and make a serious mistake. Or we ‘fall asleep’ as parents and don’t realize how much trouble our kids have gotten into until we get a call from the school. Perhaps it’s even worse than that: we fallen asleep as parents and grandparents collectively, and so we are handing over to our children and grandchildren a world that’s less safe and more difficult to flourish in. Our that we’ve fallen asleep as citizens, by seeing things in the usual terms of how everything affects our pocketbooks.

We can also ‘fall asleep’ at the wheel spiritually. We think, “I go to church, I give my offering, I sing the songs, I say the creeds. I believe the right things.” But our rituals and beliefs hypnotize us, like those broken lines between lanes, and we don’t realize that our spirits have nodded off to sleep. Soon, we’re driving off the shoulder into apathy and complacency, or we’re driving into oncoming traffic with the same kind of bitterness and resentment, or even racism and hatred, that we find around us in our culture right now. Have we fallen asleep spiritually to the point that we have not answered our calling to make a difference in this world that God created and sent the Son to save?

That’s why Jesus uses such strong language and such disturbing stories so often. Many people think he was predicting the literal end of the world, but, more likely, he’s warning people of “the end of the world as we know it” that will come inevitably if we fall asleep and take our blessings for granted.2

In today’s gospel, Jesus is talking about the choice they have before them right now in their own culture. Mark chapter 13 begins with Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which did happen in the year 70. Talk about the end of the world as they knew it! Their spiritual center was in that temple — a thousand years of their history as a people. Their way as the people of God would be altered forever.

Why? Because Jesus wasn’t there to keep them drifting off with the steady rhythm of their rituals. He was there to call them to the best of their faith tradition that invited them to be nothing less than a better generation of human beings. The figure of the “Son of Man” coming on the clouds in today’s Gospel? That comes from Daniel chapter 7. Daniel has a vision of four terrible beasts coming up out of the sea — four beasts who symbolized the last four empires who had ruled over them. But coming on the clouds before God, the Ancient of Days, was a “Son of Man,” a new generation of being human. Jesus saw himself as pioneering this new way of being human, a better way than the way of beastly human empires who rely on dictatorial force backed by well-armed armies. Jesus had grown up in a Judea ruled so ruthlessly by the Roman Empire, and he knew that their way of political violence was enticing and enchanting. The idea of their own Jewish political violence to fight the Romans was thick in the air.

But Jesus also knew that if they continued to fall asleep to the best of their spirituality, the choice of political violence would be their end. They would be crushed by Rome, their temple destroyed, their way of life altered forever. It would be the end of their world as they knew it. Or . . . they could choose the alternative that Jesus came to show them as the “Son of Man,” as a new generation of being human. A way of being human that sees the Law, the Torah, as fulfilled only in the power of love. A way of being human that actually trusted in the Peaceable Kingdom as envisioned by the great Hebrew prophets like Isaiah. Jesus also knew that such a way would begin with his own nonviolent resistance to the beastly empire of Roman by suffering their violence on the cross. It would begin with he himself suffering our typical human violence rather than believing in simply trying to marshal a superior firepower. What has that belief in violence ever gotten us but a fresh round of destruction and death? The end of the world as they knew it for whole communities and nations of people?

The world we are turning over to our children and grandchildren is once again facing these kinds of choices, right? Personally, I believe that we in the church have been falling asleep to the choices Jesus offers us for more than 1500 years now. The first several centuries of followers of Jesus took up his nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire, and rooted in his same faith in the resurrection they never backed down. To the point where Emperor Constantine finally decided that, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ He made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. And we’ve been gradually falling asleep to the invitation Jesus came to give us, that we might finally lead humanity into a new way of being human that is fundamentally different than that of the beastly empires.

Two thousand years later, I think we are being presented with another crucial moment when we are being called to wake up. Many of our fellow Christians are actually still supporting what is basically a ‘Christian’ empire — what should be considered an oxymoron if there ever is one. They call themselves “Christian nationalists,” and they believe in the same political violence that ended the world as they knew it for Jesus’ own people so long ago. When will we wake up?

Will we wake up over this coming year with the elections ahead of us? Or will we still be sleep walking in seeing these elections through the same old lens of, ‘how is the economy working for me?’ Can we wake up and see that things like Christian nationalism and belief in political violence are at stake? I believe that choices are before us for which Jesus’ language of the end of the world as we know it is prescient and appropriate. If we find ourselves falling asleep at the wheel, treating the choices before us now in the same old ways, the crash could have terrible consequences.

Jesus came to his own people at just such a moment in history. He comes to us again this Advent season at just such a moment in history. He invites us once again to nothing less than what he represented as the Son of Man. He invites us to a new way of being human. Where the power of love reigns supreme in every aspect of our lives. In God’s name, and for the sake of the world we are leaving our children and grandchildren, let’s wake up. Wake up! WAKE UP! Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, December 3, 2023

Facebook live (sermon begins at 27:45): https://www.facebook.com/BethaniaLutheran/videos/366220152475341/

Notes

1. This sermon is inspired by a sermon from Brian McLaren, of the same title, from A Stranger and You Welcomed Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle B, edited by Deacon Jim Knipper, Clear Faith Publishing: 2020, pages 3-5. The opening and closing is almost verbatim from McLaren’s sermon. The development in the middle portion is my own.

2. This is the point at which I leave off from McLaren’s sermon. What follows is my one development, until the closing sentences of the sermon.

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