Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Sam Wells, an Anglican priest and author and the vicar of St. Martin’s in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, London, says that there are two mistakes we make in how we understand the story the Bible tells us. First we think of the Bible as a one act play in which all meaning is understood before the curtain cones down. Though I might suggest that many of us might understand it as a two act play—the Old Testament sets up the need and the New Testament resolves it. Either way, it creates a mind set in which the priority is the here and now; that life is only about what we experience without honoring our heritage and the contributions of our past to our present and to our future.
Instead of a one act play or even a two act play, Wells suggests that the Bible is a five act play. The first act is creation…In the beginning. The second act is Israel—the covenant God establishes with Abraham followed by the love story of God and his chosen people in what we call the Old Testament. Act three is Jesus. This is the center of the drama. It is the encounter of the divine with humanity and the ultimate work of salvation. Act four is us—the church. The church receives the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and begins to live into her call of partnership with God to build up the kingdom. Act five is the final act. It is the end. We call it the apocalypse—the second coming—when Christ the King will return and restore all things to their perfection.
So, if the first thing we get wrong is the number of acts in the play, the second thing we get wrong is that we believe we are living in the wrong act. Most of us believe we are living in the end times. Hollywood has made a fortune capitalizing off that belief. Not only is one of the primary types of the thriller genre, apocalyptic, we have moved beyond that into a post-apocalyptic imagination that describes how the world looks when the end times cometh. Spoiler alert—its never pretty.
The apocalyptic genre is not new. The book of the prophet Isaiah is credited with the earliest inklings of what will come to be known apocalyptic writing. Isaiah writes about the rending of the heavens, asking God to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains will quake, the fire will kindle, and the nations might tremble.” This is no meek and mild baby Jesus the prophet is calling to come to earth. This is the final day, end-of-the-world, apocalyptic Jesus that Isaiah points toward.
Isaiah does more than simply point toward an apocalyptic Messiah; he invites him to come down from the heavens to the earth. Isaiah knows that he is in the second act of God’s salvific work. He may not know how many acts there will be, but he knows there is at least one yet to come. He recognizes that the people of Israel have fallen short in their relationship with God and desires God’s presence, though potentially unpleasant at first, in order to be redeemed. He sees himself and his people as clay and God as the potter and implores God to not be angry with us since we are the work of his hand. Isaiah lives into this second act life—a life which years for God and speaks hope and possibility to anyone who might listen.
In the Gospel of Mark this morning, we hear Jesus tell us, “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.” And “the Son of Man” will be “coming in the clouds with power and great glory.” We might point to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions—natural occurrences that are, at times, misconstrued to be signs that the end is near. Though that seems to be a reasonable explanation, I am not sure that is always correct. We know when an eclipse is about to happen and the times of year that stars cascade from the heavens. But Jesus tells us, “about that day or hour no one knows…only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
Believing that we are living in the end times, or act five, is the second mistake we make. In truth, we are still in act four—the church. We overemphasize our role in God’s drama. We place ourselves at the center of the story. We make ourselves the priority and assume that nuclear weapons and climate change are at the end of the story. Maybe that’s true and maybe not—NO ONE KNOWS THE END OF THE STORY except God. By living in act five, we paralyze ourselves and the world with fear—that we perpetuate. We circle our wagons, become more concerned with the individual and our tribe, and lose the perspectives that encourage creativity, courage, even mystery. The church becomes a place of rigidity more concerned with right answers than good relationships; a faith built on belief rather than trust in God. To believe we are living in end times supports the weaponizing of scripture and the judgment and condemnation of our fellow human beings not to mention the rest of creation.
None of us are running for our lives through desert terrain, fighting off a wild, black leather, spiked collar, mohawk wearing motorcycle gang with Mad Max. We don’t live in one of twelve districts in which our children are subject to a reaping each year to compete in The Hunger Games. The zombie apocalypse hasn’t started and California has yet to fall into the ocean. As thrilling as it might be to believe that the end is near—there is no evidence or proof. We aren’t living in the end times until we are living in the end times. We would do much better to concern ourselves with life in the fourth act—the life Jesus calls us too—the life and work of the church.
Living as a Christian may not be as sexy as being Left Behind, but if we can orient ourselves to our position in time as Isaiah did, we discover a peace and a hope that far exceeds the excitement of the sky falling. In that place we nurture a relationship with Christ that nurtures our Christian witness. Jesus told his disciples to make Christians of people by baptizing, sharing the Good News of loving God and neighbor, breaking bread in remembrance of him. It may have been two thousand years ago, but what if in the great scheme of history, we are closer to the early church than to the end times? What if we still are the early church—working out exactly what Jesus meant about relationships over rules and love versus judgment?
If we think we are living in act five—the end times—and allowing fear to drive our beliefs and choices, then we are missing out on the joy, opportunity, and creative nature that is the church. Most of all, we are missing out on nurturing our relationship with the one who shapes us as the work of his hands: the Father in which we are the clay and he is the potter.
That is the life we are invited too by Jesus’s first coming even as we await his second coming. Advent is the season of preparation. We prepare to receive Christ on our hearts as a baby born in a manger. At the same time, we prepare for the second coming of this Prince of Peace and King of Kings. We cannot know the day or the hour, but as we look to the skies in anticipation of his coming in the clouds, we also know that day is not yet, not yet.