We think we are alone . . .
Mark 13:34-37 and Isaiah 64:1-9
St. Alban’s Annandale
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
Time, time, time . . . there are all sorts of time.
There’s a time to get up, and a time to go to bed.
A time to eat, and a time to stop eating (even on Thanksgiving weekend!).
A time to work, a time to play, a time to worship.
But what IS time?
Some people say that time is in a line, and I wonder what that would look like?
Ah, wait a minute, here it is (pull out end of gold ribbon). . . time in a line.
This is the very beginning, when time was brand new. It is the newest part; it is just being born. Now look!
Time is getting older. The part that was new is now getting old.… (continuing to pull ribbon from right to left). Even while we’re here thinking about time, old time is passing away and new time is being born. The time that was so new when we began has passed away and new time keeps coming into being.
I wonder how much time there is? I wonder if time will go on forever? I wonder if time will ever ….Oh, look, it ended. . . .
This is the end, but it’s the very newest part. So it’s kind of like a beginning.
And this is the beginning, but it’s the oldest part. So it’s kind of like an end.
Look– we have a beginning that’s like an end, and an end that’s like a beginning.
Long ago, the Church did something wonderful. The Church took the beginning that’s like an end and the end that’s like a beginning, and tied them together so we can always remember that for every beginning, there’s an end; and for every end, there IS a beginning.
Here on the first Sunday of Advent, we begin again. And here at the beginning of a new church year, our readings are all about endings. It is like that every year;
Every year, as we want to wait quietly for the Christ Child’s sweet beginning, we are confronted instead with the grown-up Son of God pronouncing an end to all things. I used to dread this day, this drama, with its scary images and strong warnings. Who would look forward to a day when the sun will be darkened, and the moon give no light, and the stars fall from the heavens? Who except a fan of the dystopian literature and disaster movies that attract such crowds these days?
What is the appeal of those things, I wonder? When things are so terrible all around us, when disease and injustice and violence and desperate need are all around us, why are we as a culture attracted to visions of end times?
I think it’s because we know, deep beneath our culture’s disdain for Christian truths, deep in the darkest corners of our own hearts, that every ending is a beginning – that something broken and crooked must give way, before something good and new and whole can be born. It’s a birth worth waiting for.
This is what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples in today’s gospel. They are gathered at the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city of Jerusalem, having just witnessed a poor widow give her all, having marveled at the temple’s beauty and having heard Jesus warn them that all this glamour and glory will soon be lost. Not a stone will be left upon stone. An ending.
But WHEN? beseeched Peter and James and John and Andrew. WHEN – the question of their age, and of ours.
Without answering that very human question, Jesus proceeds to describe the most terrible anguish, an anguish that in fact did occur when the Roman army overran Jerusalem and overthrew the temple just a few years later.
But today’s passage takes us beyond that history, into the disciples’ future which is our present, and beyond our present into the future which is also somehow our past. Because time doesn’t always run in a straight line, we come to an ending that is like a beginning: A new creation.
The picture Jesus paints today portrays a cosmic unraveling. He seems to be undoing his own creation. He through whom all things were made is undoing the creation that began with Let there be light! and will end with the sun, moon and stars descending into darkness. Strange as this may seem, there is comfort in this calamity.
Because in that apocalypse is the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s plea that God would “tear open the heavens and come down.” In the midst of the misery of the world, the Son of Man will come in clouds of glory. That’s the promise Jesus makes today; it’s the promise we recite in our creeds week after week; but it’s a promise that seems to fade into fantasy in the midst of our mundane lives.
The first Sunday of Advent each year reminds us that this promise is real. This promise is for us. The end of time as we know it will inaugurate an era beyond all time.
Notice that in today’s gospel, Jesus does not say what happens AFTER he “gathers his elect from the four winds.” He doesn’t say HOW God will fix the earthly miseries that only God can fix. But Mark’s gospel, the one we will read for the next year, gives us a pretty good idea. The kingdom that Mark’s Jesus insists “has come near,” the kingdom that is “at hand,” will finally arrive. Gone will be the reign of greed, of self-serving, of anxiety and fear and violence. In their place will be a reality best illustrated by a story that takes place in darkness.
Brian was 15 and working his first job, cleaning pots and kettles and tools in a bakery. For hours each night, he was shut up alone with horrifying chemicals and hard labor; then nightly, he would trudge home in the dark. “I hated it from day one,” he said, “but I couldn’t quit. I was afraid to feel like a failure.” This went on for a week, until one night he came out the bakery’s back door into an alley that he says “looked like a good place to get shot.” A bulky man was slumped against the wall, smoking, and Brian figured he was about to get rolled. He was almost glad, because then he’d have a good excuse to quit. The man stood up and approached Brian, and instead of a weapon, held out a … sandwich. ‘Boy,’ he said, ‘I run the shop next door and I see you in here working, and I bet you have not eaten, and that’s awful hard work. I know how that guy leaves his tools. So here’s a sandwich. It’s not from me exactly, but from my wife, who keeps a sharp eye out. So there you go.’
A few days later, Brian did quit the job but he still returns to that alley, just to watch.
“Even now, sometimes, I see that man smoking in the alley,” says Brian, “and standing up, and being kind to a kid he didn’t know. Even now I’ll be walking along and suddenly there he is. Waiting to be kind. We think we are alone but we aren’t.”
We think we are alone, but we aren’t. Even as winter closes in with its gathering gloom, we know that darkness is not the end. After our suffering – the suffering of a world rife with disease, destruction and death – there will dawn a kingdom where people give their all for others, a world of kindness, and mercy, and grace, and forgiveness, and love.
We do not have to wait for that day. We can begin to live that kingdom now. While we wait for the babe of Bethlehem, while we wait for the coming of the Son of Man, we can remember that the end is coming, and so is the beginning. We can keep a sharp eye out, watching and waiting, amid the world’s miseries, for a chance to be kind. We can practice, this Advent, telling the good news of the gospel: “We think we are alone, but we aren’t.”
For every beginning, there is an end. And for every end, there IS a beginning.
 Adapted from Jerome W. Berryman, “The Circle of the Church Year,” in The Complete Guide to Godly Play, Vol. 2 (Denver: Church Publishing, 2002), 26-27.
 Brian Doyle, “In the Alley,” Christian Century, September 17, 2014.