Last year in Advent, I followed my practice of the last five years of picking a theme to lace together my sermons for a whole year. Unlike those of prior years, my sermons this year have made scant reference to the theme. That theme has been “The Search for Meaning.” Broad enough, wouldn’t you say? I don’t know whether the theme or the sermons have been helpful to you, but looking at all the scriptures through this particular lens has at least been helpful to me. I have deliberately tried to imagine myself each Sunday as a newcomer to St. Stephen’s, trying to put myself in the position of one who has not been to church much in recent years. I have tried to look at scriptures through the eyes of one who might be vaguely searching for meaning, but more explicitly searching for identity, for a sense of place, a direction in life. I have listened to the words of the Bible, trying to experience them against the backdrop of not of very much Christian experience, or indeed any religious experience, but of a general lack of knowledge about what any of it means or how to put any of it to practical use. I have also kept in mind those who sit in these pews Sunday after Sunday wanting to hear something fresh, stimulating, perhaps even shocking to a point. I have some sympathies for those who fight the yawns of boredom with what can sometimes be a religion that seems to do its best to dull meaning and to dampen imagination. And, of course, no less important are those, young and old, who are genuinely excited by their faith and who want to dig ever more deeply to plumb it for ultimate Meaning.
This particular hermeneutic—the search for meaning—has gotten to be quite interesting. Hermeneutic, by the way, is what we biblical students call a principle of interpretation—what I sometimes refer to, as I just did, as a lens through which to read scripture. It has been interesting because, as this year has unwound, I have found myself eager to engage in conversations with people—both here and elsewhere—who are in fact looking for meaning, and who are willing to talk about it. Although I have been doing it for years, I have begun to do it with much more attention and energy than ever before. Just two weeks ago, I was in a kitchen full of people who were chatting about what they did and did not experience in Christianity. Some were people who had never had much if any experience of church at all. One or two had some experience, but it was mostly negative, constricting, hyper-judgmental, and critical. At least one was a young, enthusiastic convert to Buddhism. The average age of the group might have been thirty, or slightly less. I can’t quite get enough of such conversations. All of them teach me something about what many people are actually thinking these days about their own lives and what gives them meaning—or not.
So it is in that frame of reference that I hear this gospel message today. It is sometimes called “The Little Apocalypse of St. Mark.” We hear it today for a couple of reasons. One is that we have been reading Mark all year long, with few exceptions, and we are coming to the end of it, where this passage appears. Another is that we are two Sundays away from Advent. Even though some of us preachers slug it out each year with Advent themes like judgment, repentance, watchful waiting, hope, justice, and the signs and wonders that point to God’s future with humanity and the planet we live on, I suspect that most of that stuff doesn’t go down very well because folks have their minds on Christmas—which is in contrast much more pleasant to think about. Maybe there is a chance before we hit Thanksgiving and thus the grand opening of the “holiday season” to grab on to something shockingly apocalyptic. So my jumping off point today is to ask you what on earth can be the meaning of impossibly difficult things.
Difficult things. That is what we face as we look towards any future that we can reasonably imagine. If you are a recent college graduate and have landed in Washington, DC, because you have a job, you have already probably been through more job searches, more interviews, written more letters and networked more than I have in my entire life. You know that the future, while you are excited and positive about it now, is chancy and maybe even bleak. If you are approaching retirement, you must have some sense of foreboding as Congress plans your financial future in the process of trying to veer away from the “fiscal cliff.” If you have made it to your seventies or eighties and you are still in good health, perhaps you have a sense of an impending ordeal, for few of us get past 85 without some serious and hard challenges. And who among us can look at the mounting evidence of a rapidly changing climate and not worry about the future? Forget what is causing them: storms like Sandy and Katrina and record snowfalls and melting ice caps do not promise an easy time for planet earth and its dithering politicians.
Lest you think that I am totally out of line in bringing up such a string of pleasantries, allow me to point you to the gospel for today that mentions just a few of the signs of a pretty dark future. Try earthquakes, famines, and wars. “Aha!” someone will say. “We must be at the end of the world now! Look at how many of these prophecies are coming to pass!” Well, yes. And they came to pass last year, and ten years ago, and fifty years ago, and a century ago, and five hundred years ago, and every single day and year since Jesus said them and Mark wrote them down. There is nothing new here, and, come to think of it, nothing all that “apocalyptic,” if by that you mean “revealing,” which is what the word actually indicates. Wars, famines, earthquakes, and a host of other things do in fact reveal things, however. All such things expose human weaknesses. All of them underscore our vulnerability. Each of them propels us into crisis. Not one of them, nor any other such catastrophe, can be thoroughly tamed—not even war, which, while not theoretically inevitable, still proves among striving, competing, driven people a very attractive option. Witness the reluctance on the part of many actually to bring to an end our longest war to date. Witness even more the eagerness on the part of some to inflame war with Iran. Witness those who this very minute rub their hands in anticipation of yet another showdown between Israel and the Palestinians. Mark Twain somewhere called original sin “ordinary human cussedness.” There are few signs of a human future free of ordinary human cussedness. So put all this together and you have a recipe for ongoing apocalypse: a very difficult future.
Now if that were the only meaning in life, I doubt that you would need to come to church to find out about it. But the whole point of this story is that the disciples are asking Jesus questions about when his prediction of the Temple’s destruction will come to pass. Jesus sets them straight about how when is not the issue but rather how to be disciples under tough circumstances. Now that is something that we can get a hold on. How can we live as people of faith, as people of hope, no matter what the future brings? Keep in mind that there is no such thing as “the future,” only what we can imagine or predict now, in the present. The important thing is always who we are and what we do now. Jesus says to his disciples in this whole passage (only part of which we read today) to keep cool. Stay centered. Do not go with the latest fads. Don’t follow everyone who comes along claiming to be the newest messiah or who claims the mantle of Jesus. When you are under pressure, keep calm and carry on, never worrying about what to say or fearing what will happen to you. In short, Jesus’ words are words not terrifying but encouraging.
Now there’s a thought. We have to admit that an enormous amount of religious animus is invested in scaring the hell out of people. And that in turn is really about controlling people, usually for sinister ends and cynical purposes. But Jesus is not into that at all, though he certainly spares the religious establishment of his day no dire warnings. Just because you see the world falling apart does not mean that it is coming to an end, he points out. These things are the birth pangs of a new era. And what might that be? It is fairly clear that Jesus viewed the Kingdom of God as the onset of a new age, possibly a thorough renovation of the world as we know it, and certainly an age where love and justice would characterize relationships. If Jesus, like the Early Church, was indeed mistaken (I know that it may rattle some of you to think that Jesus ever made a mistake about anything, but hear me out), if Jesus was mistaken about the imminent coming of the reign of God, then is there any value at all in considering this new age being born?
The answer is that in fact that this “new age” is exactly what gives meaning to everything we do as Christians. This is where we find the meaning that we have been and are and always will be searching for. This “new age,” of which Jesus speaks, is another name for the resurrection life into which we have come through baptism. It can also be called “heaven,” because it is life with God both now and eternally. You may also refer to it simply as “Christian life.” If you find the notion of being born again attractive and helpful, that certainly is a biblical metaphor to describe it, for this “new age” is exactly what Jesus had in mind (I am bold to assert so!) when he talked about becoming as children, or being begotten from above. If you find the imagery of the cross particularly compelling, think of the new age as one in which you are taking up your cross and following him, for that is an apt description of discipleship, that state which is precisely what Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, John, you and me to live in and practice.
Time only moves forward. Reality, therefore, is always thrusting in the direction of what is yet to happen. There are two ways of living in time. One is memory and the other is imagination. Memory can be a good thing—thank God for it—but it can also be a curse. Most of us spend 99% of our time playing out of our book of memories. We are trying to work out the leftovers from past experiences in the present, trying to make this relationship better than the old one, measuring our current life by what is in the past. But imagination, or inspiration I’d rather call it, is to have a vision that is not necessarily tied to the past, at least not to past behavior or past events. And that is what Jesus’ resurrection opens for us. That is what the new age involves. It is a vision, in fact a whole gallery of visions, of what life can be with a few fundamental and key changes. It is, like those many paintings of Edward Hicks, a peaceable kingdom, where lions and lambs, wolves and sheep, dwell together, a veritable paradise where Republicans and Democrats, Jews and Arabs, stop hating each other. It is a vision of community rather than the illusion of personal self-sufficiency. It is a vision of life based on an ethic of charity rather than a value of acquiring as much as possible. It is a vision of a world where humans are no longer at war with nature, and God dwells in and with all people, who indeed recognize their oneness with God and each other.
You caught a glimpse of such a vision as you read or sang Hannah’s Song this morning [1 Samuel 2:10-10]. Not unlike Mary’s song when she was pregnant with Jesus, Hannah’s song rejoices in a life turned upside down, a radical reversal of values—the poor lifted from the dust, the rich cast down—because God makes no peace with oppression. The way that kind of vision works is not just to give us a phrase or two to put on Christmas cards, but actually to shape the way we think and live. Feature it as a kind of future that we literally pull into the present, as we begin seeing more and more that things which were cast down are being raised up, things that had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, Jesus Christ.
So were the makers of the Mayan calendar right? Is 2012 the end of it all? Suppose it is. Wars, earthquakes, famines, all the rest of the misery they can film and report: what would the meaning of it all come down to? And what would be the point of your life in the largest context you could conceive? If our hopes are built on anything less than the saving grace of God, author and giver of all things, then we might as well toss in the towel, because at best we have a few fleeting pleasures here and there, and nothing much will matter when there is no one left to tell the tale. But the Christian hope sees the vision of the new age as more than a pipe dream. It is real. It is true. It is dependable. Life for each of us will assuredly come to an end, but God will last beyond every dying spark. And those whose energies, lives, hearts, souls are wrapped up in God will not have gone to waste. Quite the opposite. We will be like God, for we shall be living in God. Self will cease to matter. God will be all in all.
And that is why the Christian life is full of little ironies, such as when we gather for each other’s funerals, affirming the meaning of life in the midst of death, saying the words of the Prayer Book, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
© Frank Gasque Dunn