- Parish House
Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent – Mark 13:24-37
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
I love grocery store magazine racks. They are distillations of popular culture, signs of our hopes and fears and odd obsessions. There are the various magazines of style, the news magazines that range from gossip to serious analysis, and then there is the “there’s-a-magazine-for-that?” section with titles ranging from Crochette World to Cat Fancy (no offense if you subscribe). Always, it seems, there is a magazine that gives me a slight shock of horror, or amazement, or head-shaking incredulity. One of my recent encounters of this kind was with a magazine titled “Survival Guide.”
The whole of this magazine is dedicated to preparation for various apocolyptic events ranging from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attacks to nuclear strikes. The back is filled with adds for bombshelters and the articles cover such essential knowledge as how to survive a long term grid shutdown and how to make your own solar distillery. That such a magazine exist and is popular enough to be stocked in a grocery store is only a hint of a larger mainstreaming of the what’s called the prepper movement, people dedicated to prepparing for the inevitable breakdown of our civilization.
Lest you think this is an effort only for bearded men in camo, a recent article in the New Yorker outlined how some of the world’s richest people, including many in Silicon Valley, are putting their vast resources to work to preppare for the apocalypse. One developer bought an old nuclear silo in Kansas, outfitting it with luxury condos and a swimming pool. Outside camandos keep guard, ready for the breakdown of society whether it comes from North Korea or Climate Change, wealthy preppers will be ready. Each unit sold for 3 million a piece and were quickly snatched up.
Along with the preppers, our literary traditions have been supplying a larger and larger number of postapocalyptic books. What were once a few odd ball titles have grown into a whole genre with dedicated imprints at some of the largest publishing houses and major awards including the pulitzer prize given to titles like Cormac McCarthy’s T he Road . When Margaret Atwood, who has written a number of post-apocalyptic and distopian books, was asked about their popularity, she said that she thinks that people, especially young people, are going to fiction in order to reherse their possible futures, to work out how they will live into the the apocalyptic times that are to come through nuclear anahilation, pandemic disease, and ecological catastrophe.
Apocalypse and all its attendent anxieties seem to be on our minds and more than a few of us are exploring our options for survival. I was struck, then, by the title of a story in the New York Times Magazine a few years back that read: “Its the End of the World as We Know It…And He Feels Fine.”
The article was about Paul Kingsnorth, an English writer who lives on a small acerage in Northern Ireand, cutting his grass with a scythe, homeschooling his kids, and writing books about ecological catastrophe. From that description, Kingsnorth might seem to be another doomsdayer. In fact, he is anything but.
In his recent collection of essays, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist , Kingsnorth writes that he is giving up on all grand efforts to “save the planet” or more so to save this moment in history by making our current civilization more sustainable. Civilizations come and go and Kingsnorth points out that so often we confuse the end of the world with the end of our particular moment in history. As he writes in one essay, “Life is a series of collapses, staggered and staggering. If there is a trick then maybe it is simply to remember that collapse isn’t always bad. Death isn’t always bad.”
In a time that seems to be littered with collapse, our politics unsettled, our weather chaotic, our institutions unraveling–I find Kingsnorth’s perspective helpful. It is, I think, the same perspective offered to us on this first Sunday of Advent as Jesus addresses his band of disciples at a moment that seems like the end of the world.
Mark Chapter 13 offers us what scholars call the Little Apocalypse. To understand it we have to know something of the context of when it was written, so keep with me, we need to get through a bit of history.
We can’t know exactly, but the Gospel of Mark was likely written by a pastor to a church in Palestine during the Jewish-Roman war. At the time the Romans were fighting a group of Jewish zealots who had had some very good luck, winning some major victories even though they were outnumbered and out armed. It seemed to many that only God could have been behind such victories and many were beginning to think that this was the time that God would finally kick out the foreign rulers and establish a messianic king, the Human One spoken of in Daniel.
At the center of these hopes was the Temple–the central place of Jewish religious life. The Romans had built a huge military compound overlooking the Temple and while they allowed worship to go on somewhat unhampered there was a general feeling that the Temple was in captivity.
It would have been hard for a group of Jews, living in Palestine, to resist the revolutionary fervor of the time. The end of the World as they knew it, the end of Roman rule seemed to be at hand, and everyone would have been preparing for the battle. So it is that Mark reminds his church what Jesus had told them about the way of discipleship–that the way in which God will bring about God’s reign is through the Messiah crucified, a victorious victim, rather than a revolutionary rising up against the Romans.
Just a few verses before our passage today Jesus had predicted that the temple, the symbolic center of the whole of Jewish life and civilization, would be completely destroyed. Jesus was saying, essentially, that the end of the world as his disciples knew it would soon come to an end but that that would not be the end of world. The real end, he told them, will be something different. It won’t come through taking up arms and defending the way things are against their unraveling. Instead, it will begin to sprout in the world like leaves from a fig tree, or grass, breaking through the concrete until suddenly everything old is crumbling away and new life is bursting forth.
The first moment of this new creation, the leaf budding on the fig will be Jesus on the cross. This will be the Human One coming in the clouds in great glory accompanied by a darkness over the land. It is at the cross that Jesus defeats the powers of evil and death. The cross and resurrection of Jesus are the critical moment of history and so whatever seeming catastrophies come, whether it is the fall of a civilization or an upset in the election cycle, they are only minor events, people passing on the sidewalk as the the roots of the new creation work slowly to break through in the unfolding of God’s reign.
So if we are not to be among the preppers or doomsdayers, worried about suring up our own survival in the face of another civilization’s collpase, what are we to do to get ready for the coming God’s kingdom, the coming that began with the birth of a boy in Bethlehem.
Paul Kingsnorth is a Buddhist, and a fairly secular version of one, but when it comes to the attitude we should have in the face of catastrophe I think we can learn something from him. It is the attitude that I think will help us live into the call to be Awake for the kingdom that has already begun to grow in the crevices of our cracked world.
What we need now, Kingnorth says, is to pay attention. “Our culture is hopeless at paying attention,” he writes, “It glorifies action and belittles contemplation.” Our work then is to move against our culture. “If we sit with the Earth, with the trees and the soil and the wind and the mist, and pay attention, we may know what to do and how to begin doing it, whatever burden we carry with us as walk.”
As we begin this Advent season, let us stay awake; slow down and stop trying to save the world. Let us remember that the revolutionary act has already been done and now we are living in the future, even if not everyone realizes it yet. There will be wars and rumours of wars but those, but won’t be the end. There will scandals in the places we wrongly imagine the power to be, but we shouldn’t worry about them. Instead we should welcome the beauty that remains in the world; the seed from which the renewed creation is sprouting. Let’s turn off what passes as news and listen to the stories of our neighbors, entering for a moment into the only history that won’t become dust. Instead of our frantic striving let us worship God and in that act train our desires on the only things worth wanting in the end. Let us look for the places in the concrete of the world where the grasses of God’s kingdom are are breaking in and water them daily, spreading compost across the cracks as we watch new life spread and grow. We may not b ready to survive the momentary catastrophies of human invention, but we will be prepared to live into the reign of God that has already begun to break through all around us. Keep awake.