On Urgency, Uncertainty, and Grace
A sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash]
As a general rule, I am not a huge fan of time pressure.
I think it’s an anxiety thing. I know for some people the pressure of a deadline, or a countdown clock can help them to focus and work quickly…
But for me, it just makes me feel tense and panicked.
I don’t even like those ads for the Royal Match game app. You know, where the cartoon finger is making matches agonizingly slowly while the poor, portly king is about to be drowned, or burned, or eaten by a giant snake.
Seriously, I find myself gritting my teeth and hunching my shoulders because the time pressure to save a fictional animated monarch is that intense for me.
I honestly could not care less that it’s a game app that doesn’t require wifi – I am NEVER downloading it.
So yeah. I don’t usually appreciate time-related urgency.
That being said, there is something in the urgency of the prophet’s prayer from our first reading today that resonates deep in my soul.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.
Yes. I can pray that prayer of time-related urgency.
Not that I want the mountains to literally quake – as the prophet requests – but I do sort of want the nations to tremble at God’s presence.
I want God to show up in a way that forces attention… a way that interrupts the patterns of people either ignoring God and assuming they will never be held accountable for their violence and greed and hate, or else using God’s name like a stamp of approval to advance their own selfish and power-hungry agendas.
I want God to show up and use an act of power to reverse the catastrophic damage that we are doing to our planet,
and to reallocate obscenely hoarded wealth to feed starving children,
or maybe just to design a health care system that actually helps people without making them jump through ridiculous hoops and bankrupt themselves and still maybe not get any clear answers, let alone healing, at the end of the process.
When my news feed, and my personal text messages both are a seemingly non-stop reminder of how much is broken and hurting in our world, I can quite eagerly pray:
Come on and speed up the clock, God! I’m tired of waiting. Please come back NOW!
Or, at least, I could pray that prayer if I stopped reading Isaiah’s cry after verse 4.
But then, Isaiah goes off on this riff about how God’s absence, and the suffering of God’s people, is really their own fault because they made God angry with all of their sin.
And his plea isn’t for God to put everything right – because that means a very uncomfortable justice – but rather for God to remember that “we are your people.”
But maybe that’s an even better prayer.
Because it’s a prayer that calls us to own our part in all the problems.
It’s a prayer where we don’t pretend that the brokenness of the world in an unfathomable mystery that doesn’t make any sense if God is actually good… because the things that are wrong in the world are not a result of God’s design, but a result of human selfishness, and short-sightedness, and sin.
It’s a prayer that tells the truth about what we really need, which is not just the POWER of God to fix THINGS, but also God’s GRACE to reshape US.
And my mind can get there.
I can imagine that God tearing open the heavens to come down, to reshape what has been twisted – even if it is our own hearts – will be unequivocally good.
But, I have to admit, that when I read Jesus’s description of his second coming in today’s gospel… it doesn’t fill me with delighted anticipation.
If I’m honest, my purely instinctive, physical reaction is actually a lot closer to watching a Royal Match advert, except it goes a lot deeper.
The tension in my shoulders feels like bracing for an assault.
The clenching in my jaw feels like holding back words that will betray my fear.
And there’s a churning in my gut, signaling for me that this doesn’t really sound like good news:
Sun and moon going dark and stars falling from heaven…
The powers in the heavens shaken…
The warning that we have to keep awake, because there will be no warning…
NONE OF THIS IS EASING MY ANXIETY!
It all sounds disorienting. More than that, it all sounds downright terrifying! Jesus’s promised return doesn’t just propose to fix the things that I think are wrong with the world… it sounds like it’s going a whole lot farther than that!
As our Advent worship resource expresses it “It’s the end of heaven and earth as we know it. (And) it is especially terrifying because we have no ideas when it will happen.”
I may hate the frantic urgency of time pressure, but I hate uncertainty even more. Uncertainty is like a count-down clock that I know is ticking, but I can’t see it or hear it so I have no idea when the time will run out.
And whether the end of the clock means good news or bad news, that kind of ambiguity is wildly uncomfortable.
But there is one thing from today’s gospel that I find a least a little reassuring in the face of this uncertainty.
It comes in verse 32, when Jesus confesses that even HE doesn’t know when his return will happen.
He has just made all these intimidating predictions about that day of power and glory… but then he admits he’s in the dark about it too.
Which is a little bit funny. And it also gets me wondering… doesn’t that mean that the final day is not actually what we should be focusing on?
Doesn’t it mean that neither our longing for God’s fixing-power nor our fear of the unknown future God will establish should be the center of our attention?
Doesn’t it mean that the count-down clock is not ticking for our ears, so there’s no point in worrying about it?
Instead, I think we are supposed to be focused on the tasks our master has given us for this time in between.
That’s where Jesus goes with the uncertainty: “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with (their) work…” (Mark 13:34).
We are to expect his return at some point – so we are not to give up hope when things are broken that we can’t fix.
And we know he won’t be gone forever – so we shouldn’t get too attached to our way of running the house that never belonged to us in the first place.
But in the meantime, we have work to do. Work that won’t completely remake the world, but that can make a difference… work that can clean up some of the messes… work that can grow an appreciation and value for grace.
Again, I think our Advent worship resource says it well:
“Because we exist in the space between Jesus’ first arrival and his second, we have to live with certain situations that we’d rather God end right now. Yet because we exist in the space between Jesus’ first arrival and his second, we also catch glimpses of the new way that will be the whole of reality in some future day. Even amid their distress, the voices of Isaiah 64 and Psalm 80 give us clues about where to look. Wherever people return to God, wherever people allow themselves to be shaped by God’s presence as a potter shapes clay, wherever real restoration takes hold, wherever neighbors care for one another and enemies become friends, wherever someone calls on God’s name – there is a sign of God’s new way breaking into our plain old endless reality.”
It's not a release from the urgency or from the uncertainty of living with the knowledge that the world NEEDS God’s remaking, but the time is not yet now.
But it is a powerful grace nonetheless. It is the reminder that before Jesus comes back in glory, he first comes back in the smallest action we engage in to make God’s way our way, here and now.
Thanks be to God.