Last week was Christ the King Sunday where we heard the parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew’s gospel – the last teaching Jesus gives before entering Jerusalem. Today we begin Year B with readings from the Gospel of Mark and this is a teaching where Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and we are in Holy Week. So you can see that the end of the last liturgical year carries through to this one. Just as Jesus’ teaching last week was about the last judgment, today’s is a continuation speaking in apocalyptic language about the end of all time. We profess in our faith that every end signals a new beginning and every beginning is connected to an ending.
Apocalyptic language gives Episcopalians the yips because it so easy and so often misinterpreted. St. John the Divine did not sit in that cave on Patmos and wonder what he was going to say to the people of Brunswick Maryland in 2014. He was using highly symbolic language to speak to the people of his own day. So too was the prophet Daniel as well as Isaiah, from whom we heard this morning. Jesus’ words need to be understood in the context of how Mark is telling the story to his own community. Mark is often called the Gospel of persecution because of its emphasis on suffering and healing. It is believed Mark was written between 66 and 70 AD – during the time of the Jewish Revolt which resulted in the utter destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD and the annihilation of thousands of Jews. For those living in Jerusalem, witnessing the fearful and awesome power of Rome crush this rebellion and destroy the temple must have seemed like the end of all things. Jesus’ words “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” is best understood within the context of Mark’s audience. They witnessed this destruction.
But when we read these passages, they are a reminder that there will be an end to all things and in that grand cosmic scale, we are very small indeed. We become mindful of how small we are and the distance between ourselves and God. This distance brings to mind our sinful state. This is what Isaiah is referring to in the reading we heard today: “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” This state of Sin is one of the twin powers Paul speaks of in so many of his writings: the Powers of Sin and Death. These are not just the small failings of our everyday lives, these are powers beyond us which hold us in chains and hold our will in bondage. This is heavy stuff indeed! But the fact that we live in bondage to Sin and Death is not Gospel – it’s what I call “a page out of the Book of Duh!” It is what it is, but it reminds us that we have no power within ourselves to save ourselves. This is where the Gospel enters the story.
Dame Julian of Norwich said it best in her writings. Dame Julian was a 14th century mystic who lived in a small room attached to the cathedral in Norwich, England. She had two windows out of this small room: one which looked into the cathedral where she could contemplate the Blessed Sacrament and the other looked out into the town square so she could give counsel to all who came seeking spiritual guidance. Kings, noblemen and women, bishops, priests, laborers and farmers – many people from all over would come seeking her guidance. We know little about her life, but she left a beautiful legacy. She left us a book called “Showings of Divine Love” which was the very first book published in the English language. Now mind you, this was Middle English and for any of you who have read Beowulf, you know what Middle English is like! There are modern translations of Julians’ book. But in it she shares the visions she had from Christ himself telling her that everything of God was about love. She was shown that our sins are not counted against us but are the “stars in our crown.” She wrote that our sins are “behovely” – which is a Middle English word meaning necessary, advantageous and useful. That probably sounds strange to you especially in light of our Calvinistic and moralistic society. But it makes sense when she goes on to say they are behovely because Sin was the precise reason Christ came to us in human form. If we were not in bondage to Sin, there would have been no need for Christ at all! God could have stayed distant from the created order … but God did not do that. Rather, God humbled himself to become real flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. And this is gospel – because God in Jesus Christ could do for us what we could not do for ourselves … save us from the powers of Sin and Death.
And so, you see, in spite of the surface appearance of doom and gloom in today’s readings, they remind us our bondage to Sin and Death does not get the last word. We always have a way to turn back and return home to Christ’s heart. Advent prepares us not only to celebrate and remember that first Christmas over 2,000 years ago, but also to remember we are living into the Second Advent awaiting Christ’s coming again. It also reminds us that Christ is being birthed each and every day in this community of faith – right in our own hearts – as we seek to serve each other in his name. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again … thanks be to God.