First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017; Year A
Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19; 1 Cor. 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the one who is present in suffering, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Yesterday I had the chance to go to the Concordia Christmas concert in Moorhead, MN. It’s been years since I’ve been able to get to one. The story of the incarnation, God being born into the world through a human being named Jesus, shapes the entirety of the concert.
The narrators quote from Scripture, each song moves us through the Christmas story, and the backdrop behind roughly 400 musicians and singers, displays beautiful artwork of Mary and Jesus, Joseph and the star, angels and the tree of life, tree roots and the heavens. The artwork spans the length of the auditorium and nearly goes up all the way up to the ceiling.
It is a breathtaking experience. Even though I’ve been to a number of Christmas concerts in my life, there was a first for me yesterday. I had never heard a Scripture reading or a song mention the darkest part of the Christmas story … the slaughter of the innocents. This is a story that rarely gets told because who wants to hear about babies being killed. Well, yesterday, one of the choirs from Concordia sang about it.
The story goes that King Herod wanted to make sure the baby Jesus was killed, so after Jesus was born, he ordered the slaughter of all male babies under the age of two, just to make sure Jesus would be numbered among the dead. It is an awful story, and yet, it’s part of our Christmas story.
The choir sang to a haunting and beautiful melody:
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee,
And ever morn and day,
For the parting neither say nor sing,
By, by lully, lullay.
[“Lully, Lulla, Lullay” by Philip Stopford]
Why do I mention a story that embodies such suffering? Because it is a part of our Christmas story, and also because today we hear from the Gospel of Mark, and what is often referred to as “the little apocalypse.” Our reading starts out with Jesus saying, “But in those days, after that suffering.” A natural question for us to ask is, “after what suffering?”
If we back up a bit in chapter 13 we find out that Jesus is talking about the destruction of the temple. He tells his disciples that when it happens, just run. Get out of Jerusalem because it’s going to be bad. People will suffer like nothing anyone has ever seen, perhaps even worse than the murder of the babies.
Now to us today, we may think, destruction of a temple, “big deal.” But for the Jewish people and Jesus’ disciples, the destruction of the temple was like the end of the world.
Their whole way of life centered around the temple. The temple was where God was known to be. It was God’s house. If the temple were to be destroyed it would mean that God would no longer be with the people. This would be completely devastating and Jesus says that it’s going to happen.
And it did happen in roughly the year, 70 A.D. There was a Roman Jewish war from the years 66-70. The Roman Emperor, Titus, marched into Jerusalem, burnt the temple to the ground and destroyed Jerusalem. His soldiers crucified hundreds of thousands of Jews. The story goes that 500 people a day tried to escape the city and were captured, tortured, and killed. The people would be hung on crosses all around the city for intimidation.
Historical accounts of this event, written by Josephus, tell of the suffering inside the city: “The victims of famine are dying in countless numbers. Hungry rebels like mad dogs stagger from house to house searching for food. Shoe leather and grass is gnawed on.”
He continues: “To narrate their enormities in detail is impossible; but, to put it briefly, no other city ever endured such miseries …” [http://www.josephus.org/FlJosephus2/warChronology7Fall.html]
The kind of language to describe this kind of suffering is likened to the sun being darkened, the moon not giving it’s light, and stars falling from the sky as we hear in our Gospel reading.
And even after all this suffering, Jesus is saying, it is not yet the end.
This where our reading picks up. I imagine that some of the people in the Jerusalem at the time of Titus marching in wished that it really was the end of the world. But Jesus says, “No, the end is yet to come, and no one knows when it will be.”
How do we relate to a historical crisis like this and a Scripture reading that includes the shaking up of the whole cosmos?
Maybe a better question for us is this: How are we to be when the world seems like it’s falling apart?
Now this is what we can relate to. Our world can feel like it’s falling apart all the time. A loved one dies, we lose our job, a relationship is broken, our country is at war, there are mass murders, there are drug wars, children are trafficked, few people can have a civilized conversation if they disagree, glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and tens if not hundreds of thousands of people die in natural disasters each year.
Perhaps this is why so many people over the centuries have thought to predict the end. We are suffering so much, they think, surely these are signs of the end. “No,” Jesus says. “They are not.”
What Jesus is saying is that no one is immune to evil or suffering. All kinds of things outside of our control happen all the time. Jesus is a realist. He tells us, you will experience suffering. But, he also gives us hope. “Even though heaven and earth will pass away, my words will not.”
This was good news for those who would endure the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, and they are good news for us here today too.
Jesus words to us are words of promise. “The end is impossible to predict it, but I promise you, I will come again, and it will be as obvious to you as springtime leaves.”
Advent is supposed to be a time of expectation, of waiting, and of hope. We are not to worry about the end. It is out of our control. We are to trust that even in the difficult times, in times of suffering, we can know that God is working in all things for good.
Suffering is present even in the Christmas story, the story of our salvation. As Christians, we believe that God did tear open the heavens and come down in Jesus Christ. God’s first coming in Jesus was not to make mountains quake or stars fall, but to turn the hearts of all people towards God.
At Christ’s second coming, truly then, it will be the culmination of this age and birth into the next. We have nothing to fear because we know Jesus is the one who is to come. He has already given up his life for you and we wait for him with patience and hope.
At the Christmas concert, right after the song about the slaughter of the innocents, came a song called, “Thou Shalt Know Him When he Comes (by Craig Carnahan).” This song is about how we will know, without a doubt, when Jesus comes. The choir sang:
Thou shalt know Him when he comes,
Not by any din of drums,
Not his manners, nor his airs,
Nor by anything he wears.
Thou shalt know Him when he comes,
Not by his crown or by his gown,
But his coming known shall be,
By the holy harmony
Which his coming makes in thee.
We will know when Christ comes again by the joyful music that is made in our souls.
There are many pieces of this sermon that are heavy and maybe even hard to understand. Sometimes our Scripture readings lend us to talk about difficult and sad things. But always throughout our whole worship service, through prayers, through song, through liturgy and communion, we hear the good news of God in Christ Jesus.
We know our God has the last word over suffering and that Jesus never leaves us in times of trial. On this first Sunday of Advent, and in the waiting, knowing this is enough. And so together we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”