There is a story about a great king—could just as well be a queen—who said to his servant: bring me something that will make me sad when I’m happy and happy when I’m sad. The servant searched all over the land, asking everyone: where can I find something that will make the king happy when he’s sad and sad when he’s happy? The king’s faithful servant didn’t know what he was looking for, but he figured he’d know it when he saw it. And he did. He came back to the king with a package the size of a small shoebox. Inside was a sign for the king to put on his desk. The sign said: “this too shall pass.”
These great buildings will be thrown down. This too shall pass. Many will come and try to lead you astray. This too shall pass. There will be wars and rumors of more war. This too shall pass. Nation will rise up against nation. Kingdom will rise up against kingdom. This too shall pass. There will be earthquakes. There will be famine.
Oh, and don’t worry. The worst is yet to come.
The gospel reminds us that we are on shaky ground. We don’t have to look too far to find news around the globe that reminds us the world we inhabit is a troubled and unstable place.
Every year on this Sunday just before the last Sunday of the church year we have this collect that begins this way: Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life. And every year on this Sunday the readings are hard to swallow. They are not readings we want to be reminded to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.
This morning’s gospel is called the “little apocalypse,” because in a relatively short text, Mark echoes the apocalyptic vision of the Prophet Daniel, a selection of which we had this morning. The text is troubling to the disciples and it should be troubling to us. If you read ahead, you’ll see that it doesn’t get much better.
As for yourselves—Mark writes—
beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues….. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.
Sounds fun, right?
If there is just one message we are meant to glean from today’s Gospel it is this: Don’t get too attached to things as they are. Don’t count on things you ought to be able to count on.
Today’s collect and today’s readings remind us that Advent is coming. We are living on the edge of transformation of the world, transformation of the world in Jesus Christ. Each year at this time we enter into a dark season anticipating the light of new birth and the light of the bigger transformation that God has in store for all of us. I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but it is a pattern in our lectionary that we have these Advent-like readings in the middle of November. We are perched on the edge.
So how are we to live, how are we to go about our lives, on the edge of the transformation of the world?
For today, I find my answer to this question in this morning’s selection from the Letter to the Hebrews. We’ve been hearing the same message from the author for several weeks now: Jesus, the great high priest made flesh like you and me, offered a sacrifice for sin once and for all, rendering all other sacrifice unnecessary. This week’s reading from Hebrews has a bit of an edge to it. The image of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God waiting for his enemies to be made his footstool reminds us that in spite of Christ’s once-for-all offering, the enemies of God are still out there. This is one of the ways that we are living on the edge. So what, again, do we do about this?
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, writes the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Hope is a tricky thing, especially in the times we live, and in the times when Jesus lived. And yet, the evangelists had good news to proclaim. As do we. Emily Dickinson famously wrote that
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words –
and never stops at all.
Recently I came across the story of Alex Honnold, who is a free-solo climber. I didn’t know what that was. Free climbing means he climbs mountains without the aid of a rope or harness or pick or helmet or anything. All he has in the way of equipment are shoes and chalk. Solo means he does it all by himself. This guy knows something about living on the edge. In an interview, Alex talked at some length about the kind of focus he needs in order to do what he does. When asked how he felt knowing he could die if he fell, he said: “It’ll be the worst four seconds of my life.” Now there is someone who holds fast, without wavering.
The story of this rock climber is a true story, but it is also richly metaphoric for acting out hope when we live on shaky ground. I don’t know if any of you are free solo climbers, but I invite you to imagine holding on to hope the way Alex Honnold holds onto a rock face.
Today’s passage from Hebrews ends with what I consider to be the heart of the matter for living on the edge and for being church:
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. When was the last time someone provoked you to good deeds? When was the last time you provoked someone to love? Living on the edge of the transformation of the world is a provocative time. If we are to take seriously the lectionary readings from this morning and the weeks to come, we are invited to let go of things as they are.
Love and good deeds, meeting together, and encouraging one another….these are perhaps the words to the tune of hope. At the same time as we let go, we are invited to hold on to our hope, and to one another, with love, and encouragement. Let us hold fast.