You know those Christmas stockings you can get off the shelf with letters of the alphabet on them, so people can have a stocking with their initial? Every year Scott Gunn, priest and the director of Forward Movement Publications, posts a meme on social media of Christmas stockings at Target. They put them out right after Halloween at the latest, and he goes and arranges the letters into a message and takes a photo. Very clever. I think last year the stockings simply spelled “Advent.” This year, his photo is of stockings arranged to say “Too Soon.”
That’s how I feel about today’s gospel. It shouldn’t surprise me and yet every year in November I have this reaction: wait a minute….don’t we get all these end-of-the-world readings in Advent? It’s not Advent yet! I’m not ready! I haven’t had my annual Thanksgiving break! We haven’t had Christ the King yet! And yet, it is always too soon and it is always just the right time to listen to stories of the end times. For Jesus, the end of the world as we know it never goes out of season.
We live in a time when we regularly talk about our world “spinning out of control.” We pray for our country that seems to be spinning out of control. We rage and pray about elected leaders out of control, gunmen out of control, teenage suicide out of control. We weep and pray over fires burning out of control, destroying homes and lives and ecosystems.
This sense of things out of control was the collective experience of Jesus’ time and place as much as it is in ours.
To all of this Jesus does not say: Relax. Don’t worry. Be happy. He says: pay attention. And he says: it’s not what you think. Pay attention to human suffering. Pay attention to what’s next. Our Eucharistic Prayer B, which we pray in Advent, says that in these last days God sent Jesus to be incarnate, to take flesh in order to point the way through our unsettling, spinning out of control times.
Today’s gospel contains warnings that may be instructive to us as well: beware of anyone who interprets the daily news as a sign of impending disaster. Beware of anyone who says this is as bad as it’s going to get. Beware of anyone claiming to be an authority on what’s happening. Beware of saying or thinking: this is it. In these last days, this is only the beginning.
The place to look for signs of the end of the world is not in natural disasters or even in monumental destruction. It is in the everyday things we do to reject God’s Kingdom, God’s sovereignty and God’s promise. Look at our own behavior as individuals and as a culture. This week I’m thinking about the season of excess, the food orgies so many of us will have on Thursday, and of the unholy trinity of Black Friday, Local Saturday, and Cyber Monday—none of these are evil except maybe when people trample over each other in order to get the best deals, deals devised to remind us that consumerism is king, or when people go into crippling debt in order to show their love for one another.
So what do we do as we anticipate the end times?? Today is our last reading from the Gospel of Mark for a long time, and so I’m taking liberties and reading ahead. Just a couple of verses: And the good news—Jesus says—must first be proclaimed to all nations. There are implications in Jesus’ preaching about the end times for discipleship in any age.
The gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. We have work to do.
How do we follow Jesus and proclaim the Kingdom of God in times that feel like the end of the world as we know it?
Rafe Esquith was a controversial middle-school teacher with an imperfect past. In 2007 he published a book called “Teach like your hair’s on fire.” In the introduction he recounts the experience of giving a science lesson to a bunch of unruly students. It’s a long and detailed story but suffice it to say that in the middle of a demonstration there was a tiny explosion and his hair caught on fire. He had to decide whether to stop the class or keep going. It was at that moment that he not only truly captured his students’ attention for the first time, he also captured their understanding. He put the fire out, of course, but his teaching style and philosophy changed forever. He learned to teach every class with a sense of immediacy and urgency worthy of the Gospel of Mark, and worthy of the alternate reality to which Jesus calls us.
The Gospel must first be proclaimed to all the nations. I believe that we are called to preach the gospel as if the whole world were at stake. As if our hair were on fire. And let me say that I’m using a very expanded version of the word “preach.” I’m talking about proclaiming Good News in word and deed as each one of us promises at baptism.
This morning’s Letter to the Hebrews inspires us to provoke each other to love and good deeds. Now, more than ever, we need to encourage one another and provoke one another, even those people we must love and encourage from a distance. In these last days, God gives us opportunities everywhere we look to do this. To live like disciples paying attention is to live provocatively.
Our Eucharistic Feast of tasting and seeing God’s goodness is always a celebration of the end of the world as we know it, of the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. We get a taste of the Kingdom each Sunday, just as we anticipate it in Advent and sooner. The bread we break in this feast, strengthens us for the brokenness of the world. What we do at this table—our prayers for the world and our gathering of unlikely people in an unlikely time and place—is our counter culture, our new reality.
Another way of saying “preach like your hair’s on fire” may be to say “preach like every Sunday is Advent.” Preach like we anticipate with the immediacy of the Hebrew prophets and of John the Baptist. God is always breaking into the world to renew and restore us for the work God sets before us. Let us proclaim this with word and deed. Let us live provocatively.