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After that suffering... the hope of co-creation

A sermon on Mark 13:24-37

[for an audio recording on this sermon, click here; photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash]

I often mention in my sermons and Bible studies that we must pay attention to the context from which the biblical writings arise, in order to thoughtfully interpret them. It is equally true that we need to pay attention to our own context, in order to hear how these ancient writings speak into our lives.

It is that second kind of context that drew my attention to three little words in the first verse of today’s gospel reading: "after that suffering”

I don’t think I have ever paid much attention to this introduction of the prophetic pronouncement before. But this year… this year it echoes in my soul. It reverberates with all of the pain, and loss, and anxiety that these last 9 months have held: of lives cut short, and inadequate goodbyes, and lost stability, and people we cannot hug, and exhaustion in the moment, and fears about the future, and everything just feeling stalled, and wrong, and trapped inside this global catastrophe that is not going away.

I hear the words “after this suffering,” and my heart responds “yes? What comes after this? Tell me, please, I need something to hope for.”

And I want God to say: “after this suffering, I will bring healing. Every tear will be wiped away, and the world will be remade as a place of love and grace. And no one will be lonely, or sick, or hurting, or anxious again, for I will be with you.”

And if I cannot quite believe in such a utopian promise in the immediate future, at least I can cry out with the prophet Isaiah “Oh that you would tear the heavens and come down.” (Is. 64:1) Or else I can plead along with the Psalmist “stir up your might and come to save us!” (Ps. 80:2b)

But the promise that follows those three, evocative words in today’s gospel, is not a message of comfort… at least not the way I am used to thinking about comfort.

It’s a prophecy of chaos, and the end of the world;

And a confusing contradiction between recognizing the signs, and no one knowing the day or the hour;

And a warning to “keep awake” on constant vigil for Christ’s return.

In other words, the stuff that comes “after that suffering” is not at all what I want to come after the current suffering.

Then, in the midst of my disappointment, I realize that the suffering the gospel is talking about is orders of magnitude worse than anything I have been living through. The description that comes before verse 24 includes wars, and earthquakes, and famines, and beatings, and imprisonment, and betrayal, and hatred. And it concludes with the proclamation that “in those days, there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.” (Mark 13: 19)

This is not the suffering of our normal routines being disrupted, or economic strain, or an increase in daily stress and anxiety. This is the suffering of catastrophe, of one’s whole life in shattered fragments. Meaning, if I want to understand this gospel, I need not to pull away from suffering by looking for a release. I need to lean closer in.

If I really want to hear what Mark is saying, I have to – in the words of the SALT Commentary “listen alongside the traumatized soldier, the displaced refugee, the heartbroken addict, the exhausted nurse, the mourning spouse. This is where Mark lives. These are the depths from which he proclaims his good news.”[1]

But how does this make sense? How can we hear the message of this gospel from the depths of despair and somehow find in it good news?

This is the challenge of the church’s Advent discipline. The challenge of standing in the midst of a society focused on the pretty distractions of cultural Christmas and saying “wait.” This is not the way to prepare for God-with-us. We cannot understand, much less be changed by the miracle of God deciding to join us in our human frailty… until we are willing to admit, to own, the totality of that frailty.

Advent calls us into the painful but powerful discipline of telling the truth. As Debie Thomas explains: “During Advent, we stop posturing and pretending. We quit trying to make God’s hiddenness okay. We shed our greeting card assumptions about the Divine. We get real. Our world is not okay," is what these Advent readings declare in stark, unflinching terms. God's apparent absence is not fine — it hurts. It hurts so much we can barely breathe from the agony of it. We are surrounded by evil and suffering, we're not sure our faith can endure what our eyes reluctantly witness each day, and though we long for a Savior to rend the heavens and come down, the very ferocity of that longing is wearying our souls. Hope itself has become a grind.”[2]

It seems counter-intuitive, but the practice of stripping away our shallow platitudes and habits of distraction to actually face our pain… that is what is necessary for healing.

Social science tells us about the power of such truth-telling, by revealing how it equips us to make meaning from struggle and loss.[3] Strange as it seems, we have to recognize how bad things are in order to forge lasting hope that our pain is not the end.

This is a truth that Christian theology has long understood: the truth that Hope is about things not yet seen; the truth that healing starts in the most apparently hopeless place, where all the things we have held onto get stripped away and life starts anew.

I have a quote hanging on my office bulletin board from Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. It reads “new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”[4] Our culture, and even our religious language, has an unfortunate habit of talking about darkness as though it were synonymous with evil, or at least a place to be avoided.

But it’s only in the darkness that the light of a single Advent candle shines brightly, as a beacon of beauty and hope. And so, it is in the darkness… in the time of long nights and limited daylight…in the shadows under our masks that hide our faces…in this season when the usual bright bustle of Christmas gaity is muted by stay-at-home orders… that we are called to the practice of Advent hope.

Borrowing again from the SALT Commentary, we can apply our current realities to the work to which the church is called this Advent: “(the church year begins) in the shadows of despair, war, sorrow, and hate. For it is precisely there that the God of grace will arrive, and accordingly, it’s precisely there that God’s church is called to light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love against those shadows”[5]

This Advent our community will be listening for God’s call to co-creation as the theme for this season. We will be pausing to hear where God might be calling us to see not only the pain around and inside us – important as that is - but also to see hope… to not only see it, but to be part of bringing it to pass.

When we see or experience suffering, we are called to ask what life we can nurture in this time before the light.

What seed might we germinate?

What new life might we be part of forming?

What resurrection might be waiting in the darkness that reveals needs we might ignore if the lights were blazing?

Are there people whose loneliness we can now recognize, because we too feel cut-off from others?

Are there service staff whose low-wage jobs we can value now that they are classed as “essential workers”?

Are there hurting people whose addictions can make more sense to us, now that we are drawn to that glass at the end of another dreary day?

Is there a unity that can emerge when we and those we disagree will learn BOTH how to listen and how to tell a story of hope that can actually break through the lies and self-confirming biases?

Our gospel reading today begins with “after that suffering,” and if you – like me – are tired and worn down by the suffering of our world, we might wish that what comes “after that suffering” would be God’s miraculous and fantastic intervention.

But what actually comes next is the call for us to “keep awake”… not out of fear, but out of hope. Because it is only when we are awake BOTH to the realities of suffering AND to the hope for which we wait, that we can be part of the work of co-creation, by which God IS with us in the work of healing our suffering world.

Thanks be to God.


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