“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
I speak with you in the name of the eternal God: Speaker, word, and breath. Amen!
Happy New Year!!!! No, I haven’t started to hit the holiday egg nog. No, I’m not so frazzled by Christmas shopping already that I want to skip ahead. No, I haven’t lost my mind. I know that it is not even December yet. I know that the New Year by the calendar on the wall is over thirty days away. However, I do seriously wish you a Happy New Year. This weekend is the Christian New Year. We have ended the long season after Pentecost, and we have entered into advent. As you have probably noticed we have changed colors from Green to Purple. We have also entered a new year in our lectionary cycle, the three year cycle of scripture readings appointed for each Sunday. Last year we were in year A where the Gospel according to Matthew was featured, or as a church geek friend of mine calls it the "wailing and gnashing of teeth Gospel according to Matthew." Now, we are in year B where we will read the Gospel according to Mark together.
Liturgically, Advent is what we call a penitential season. It is a season of preparation. We prepare ourselves spiritually by physically preparing for Christmas for the feast of the incarnation of God in the form of the man Jesus Christ of Nazareth. We decorate the church and our homes, with symbols of Christ. We fast from saying “Alleluia” during the Eucharistic prayer. We sing songs about the coming of the Christ child. All of these actions are taken to help us expect Christ, to expect the coming of the light of God during the darkest time of year.
However, all this preparation for the beginning leads us to and odd situation. Why do we focus on the end right here at the beginning? On this day where we celebrate the new year, the beginning again, our Gospel reading is from near the end of Mark’s gospel and is about the end of the world. Where we are in Mark’s gospel today, Jesus has already preached in Galilee, he has done the miracles and taught the parables there. He’s already processed into Jerusalem on a donkey, taught subversive parables in the temple, and broken with the temple establishment by predicting that the temple would be destroyed. Where we are in Mark’s gospel Jesus has retreated to the Mount of Olives just outside of Jerusalem to prepare for the passion, his suffering and death on the cross. Why, when we are preparing for Jesus’ birth, are we reading about him preparing for his death?
To unravel this a bit, we need to understand a little about what the disciples were hearing when Jesus talked about the end of the world. Just before our gospel reading today, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple. Then the disciples ask about the end of the world, and then our passage for today regarding the end of the world occurs. For the disciples, the end of the world was the destruction of the temple. The temple was the center of their worldview and identity. It held the symbolic meaning of all their foundational stories, the stories that formed their identity and told them who they were in the world. To the disciples, the temple was literally the earthly house of God. It was the place that Heaven and Earth commingled, that the veil between this world and the next was thinned. This is a little hard for us to understand as American’s because our identity isn’t attached to a building so much as an idea. For Jesus to say that the temple would be destroyed would be to us saying that the Declaration of Independence and the constitution would be destroyed; that we will no longer be Americans.
So, it is not surprising that just after Jesus makes this pronouncement, the disciples ask when is this going to happen. In Jesus’ response to their question he says two things of interest to us today: no one knows when this will occur, and look beyond history. Jesus says to them, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We aren’t to ponder or predict the end of our world, because no one knows the time except God. Furthermore, we are to look past temporal things such as worldviews and institutions, governments, markets, and societies. Jesus said that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” He saying that the center of their world, the temple, would pass away but that God is eternal and they are to look beyond the institution and see God. Jesus was calling them to rely not on the temporary buildings and institutions of this world but on God.
He says to them to be awake, to be alert, to be conscious, to notice “how things cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new…” Jesus begs us to be awake this day as well. This is why we ponder the end in expectation of the beginning. This is why we read this passage at the end of Mark’s gospel at the beginning of our new year: so that we are reminded to look for the coming of Christ in every moment. We are reminded to be mindful of God’s presence at all times. We are reminded that the cultural institutions of our day are temporary we are to be alert enough to see through them. We can not shop our way to Jesus. We can eat fancy food and sweets and drink egg nog our way to Jesus.
We can only come to this simple table. We can only come to this stark altar and receive meager bread and humble wine. We can only join our hopeful prayers with our fellow Christians in this house of praise that this meager bread and humble wine will be for us the body and blood of Christ. My brothers and sisters, be awake! Peel away the layers of temporal trappings this holiday season. Peer into communion at this table and see the everlasting word of God. Amen!