The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
December 3, 2017
Yesterday a merry band of parishioners, under the good leadership of the altar guild, the flower guild, and the subsacristan, spent the morning preparing the church for Advent. We hung wreaths and arranged greenery in the windows and on the altars; the advent wreath was set out; silver was washed and altar frontals changed; some woodwork was repaired, and everything got a good sweeping. (Every year at the greening of the church I am reminded how hard it is to sweep fir needles.) Musicians have practiced and planned; service leaflets have been printed; acolytes have rehearsed; flower envelopes have been counted and recorded. All week we’ve been preparing, planning, making ready for today--preparing for Advent, this season of preparation. Of anticipation.
We’re putting out the Advent wreath. We’ll put out the crèche in only three weeks! (It’s a short Advent this year.) We’ll celebrate with carols services and parties and gift giving. And all to prepare for, to celebrate, the birth of an infant--of the very Son of God--in Bethlehem, in a manger.
Isn’t that what we’re preparing for?
And so you’ve come here this morning, expecting the smell of fresh greens, the cheer of preparation, maybe even some readings about John the Baptist, or Mary, or an angel… And instead we hear this passage from Mark:
‘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. (Mark 13.24-25)
We hear omens of destruction and devastation, desolation even. And we’re told to watch. To keep awake.
While our downtown neighbors are putting up holiday decorations, even projecting a laser show of Santa Claus dancing on the tower of Christ Church so large you can see him down Broadway—while the world around us is celebrating--celebrating something, even if it’s not clear what--Christians are reading a passage about cataclysmic destruction at mass on Advent Sunday. What’s going on, a reasonable person might ask.
The passages we read today from Isaiah and from Mark fall within the genre of apocalyptic--a body of literature that has in mind an epic upheaval and restructuring of the world. It’s not limited to Judeo Christian thought, of course, but there is apocalyptic in our scriptures. Think of Noah’s flood, for example, an archetypal story of apocalypse. The Revelation to Saint John the Divine exhibits aspects of apocalyptic. The structure is something like this: The world has become corrupt and evil, damaged and distorted. There’s anxiety and suffering and the poor and dispossessed are calling out to be saved. An outside divine force judges the world to be enters and, through destructive force, wipes away the powers of evil and reestablishes a new world order--a re-creation--where justice is restored.
Now the problem with apocalypse is that it’s violent, right? We focus on the destruction. We focus on the judgment.
And we should be worried, shouldn’t we. After all, we’ve seen what happens when humans take the idea of apocalypse into their own hands. Consider the young Xhosa woman in the middle 19th C who, inspired by visions of her ancestors, prophesied that if the Xhosa people would only destroy their cattle that the spirits of the dead would rise up and drive the colonial British settlers into the sea, and that their cattle and crops would be restored--a destruction, and a restoration of justice. Many of the Xhosa did indeed kill their cattle, and, in a sad twist, this crippling of their economy probably made it easier in the long run for colonists to settle and take over their lands. The promised restoration never came, and the Xhosa cattle killings stand as a hard reminder of what apocalyptic vision looks like when humans take things into our own hands--when we try to manage, alone, the re-ordering of the world.
The utopian community known as Jonestown that Jim Jones and his followers built in Guyana was modeled on principles of justice and equality, but Jones’s own untreated mental illness and heavy drug abuse fueled his paranoia. He held residents there against their will, abused them, murdered legislators investigating his management of the community, and ultimately instigated a pre-emptive murder-suicide event that took the lives of almost a thousand people. He staged his own apocalypse. And innocent people were murdered.
It’s no wonder that we hear these promises of apocalypse and are nervous.
But I’d submit to you that even in these apocalyptic visions there is hope. For what we are celebrating in Advent, what we’re looking forward to, what we’re anticipating, what we’re preparing for this Advent Sunday, is not simply the coming of a baby--not merely the first coming of Jesus, born to Mary somewhere in Bethlehem. That birth has already happened. That child has been born. That messiah has come, and by his very presence he has given hope to the world.
But the hope doesn’t stop there. What we’re celebrating is not merely an historical event, a baby born two thousand years ago--but the promise that that Jesus, born as an infant, crucified as a man, raised, ascended, will always be with us. That in fact, as we say each week in the creed, he will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.
That’s what the prophet is calling for, the breaking in of the divine: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (Isaiah 64.1) or, in the old Authorized version, “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, as when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!” (64.1-2)
Rend the heavens, O God! Shake up this mess that we’ve made of things. For some of it is our fault, Lord. And some if it has been visited on us--some of it we cannot control. But we know we can’t fix it alone. We can’t fix this ourselves. Rend the heavens and come down.
And we hear that promise in the gospel of Mark, in the good news, that in the midst of this moment, as the sun and moon darken and stars fall and heaven shakes, that “they will see ‘the Son fo Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect fro the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13.26-27)
The prophet isn’t calling for destruction of creation, only a wiping away of the great evil that has set it off course. This apocalyptic language in Mark doesn’t promise destruction wrought against God’s people, but rather a salvation--a coming with power and glory--to re-order all things, to make all things new. After the destruction, after the suffering, after the world has done the very best it can, that evil seems to have gained a stronghold, that the very foundations of the world have shaken, that we can expect that even the heavens will shake, and tear open, and God will make all things new once more.
That Christ coming isn’t merely a one-off, a one-time event, but is the event that changes everything.
Because we know that what we’re preparing for is not just the joy of the birth of a baby. That’s a wonderful thing, and we will celebrate that. We’ll build the crèche. We’ll sing the carols. We’ll revel in the joy and delight that is the promise of the Christ Child come among us.
But right now, today, as we watch and wait, we know that there is evil, that there is suffering, that there is power that stands against the goodness that is God’s creation in the world. We know the powers of greed, of racism, of sexism, of violence, of addiction, of lust--we know how firmly sin has gripped our lives and the lives of people around us. How sin has battered and bewildered our society, our city, and our world. And we stand here, in the earliest hours of Advent, and cry out, “Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens, that thou wouldst come down..., that the nations wouldst tremble at thy presence.”
And we stand there, in that crying out, and we look, and we watch, and we wait, knowing the assurance of that very babe in the manger, of that very Word incarnate, of the very Son of God--that he has come, that he is, and that he will ever be. We stand and wait and watch and know that he is coming again to judge both the quick and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We stand and wait and watch because we have hope. Because we know that the evil of the world has no hope, no place to turn, no place to go. Because we know that God is faithful. We know that Jesus saves.
Even in the midst of darkness there is hope. A sure and certain hope. A hope in Jesus.
In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city that’s gained the moniker “murder capital of the world” for the high per capita rate of violence and homicide, there’s an orphanage called “Our Little Roses.” It’s not actually an orphanage; many of the girls have families. But they’ve been sent there, placed there, in a group home so that they may have a better life. So that they may be safe. So that they may grow up to have a chance to become a beautician, a college student, a teacher--anything other than another statistic in the world of poverty, drugs, and violence that surrounds them. A few years ago poet and Episcopal priest Spencer Reece spent some time there on a Fulbright scholarship. He went to learn Spanish, but he returned to write poetry--not his own, but to help the girls learn to write their own--to find their own voices. A documentary film has been made about Our Little Roses and Spencer’s time there with the girls; it’s called Voices Beyond The Wall: Twelve Love Poems From the Murder Capital of the World. I watched a screening of it last Tuesday. But there’s also a book, Counting Time like People Count Stars, of the girls’ own poetry, their voices in their own words.
One of the poems both the brokenness of the world--and the hope that we can find in God’s work of reconciliation. The hope that we can find in Advent.
This is a part of a poem “Counting,” by a girl called Aylin, who’s 15.
Every week, every day, every hour, every minute, every second that I pass without my family it feels like a knife trying to get inside a rock. I am the knife and the rock is my life. So this is me, Aylin, and this is my difficult life without my family. Some people think that living in a home for girls like Our Little Roses is a big blessing. Yes, I say to those people, it is a great blessing but at the same time it is a curse. Every night I start thinking and talking to God in my prayers: “Why, God, why did my family leave me alone?” There is no answer…Really all of us think the same thing that no one ever says: One day, will our mother come to visit us? …But God, listen to this: I am counting the time like people count the stars and I will keep counting until my mother comes… When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: I FORGIVE YOU! But for now, God, I am here, in Our Little Roses, counting.
Even as the very earth shakes, as we witness evil, and destruction, and anxiety, and fear, we stand here counting time like people count the stars, praying, O that you would rend the heavens, and come down. And God answers, in the person of Jesus Christ--not once, not that one time in Bethlehem, but always.
Friends, even in the midst of despair, there is hope. In the voice of a young girl that cries out, “I forgive you,” there is hope. In the presence of a babe in a manger there is hope. In the one who comes on clouds with power and great glory, there is hope.
I pray for you, I pray for us, hope this Advent. Hope in the one who makes all things new. Hope in the one who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
 Spencer Reese, ed., Counting Time like People Count Stars: Poems by the Girls of Our Little Roses, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. San Fernando, CA: Tia Chula Press, 2017 (dist. Northwestern University Press), p 103-104.