Caffeinated Sweet Coffee Is No Longer Served In The Advent Church
Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Two years ago, our Sunday School department started serving only decaffeinated coffee at the morning fellowship gathering. Many people had voiced this preference citing all the side effects of caffeine. No more restless members with upset stomachs, rapid heart rates, and nervousness in our congregation. We had made a wise and wonderful decision that suited all our coffee drinkers. Now we could gulp large cups of decaffeinated coffee with the assurance that all was calm, relaxed, and restful on Sunday morning. Then came the first Sunday in Advent with the appointed lessons from Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37; followed by a quote from Anglican Bishop Michael Marshall and the "Sugar Rule" sermon of Reverend Emmett, pastor of the Church of the Second Chance.
Advent is the season when we wait with patience and hope for the joyous event at Christmas. We watch for God to come to us as a little child. All is right with our world because "all is calm, all is bright." But this is not the case when you combine the texts of Isaiah and Mark. In Isaiah, the community laments the Advent coming of God into a world where things are not the way they should be. In Mark, we are instructed to watch for the earthshaking and violent coming of the Son of Man. As disciples, we are to be on guard and to be prepared so that we might not be found unaware or asleep when Christ returns. These biblical texts are not to be read while sipping decaffeinated sweet coffee in the church parlor during Advent.
Mark 13 is usually identified as the Little Apocalypse by most scholars. Apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning "to reveal." Apocalyptic literature addresses people who are in distress and who feel abandoned by God. What is "revealed" is the assurance that everything happening around them or to them is still under the sovereignty of God. God has not left his people. What apocalyptic people need to do is to "watch" for the sovereign present of God working in their lives and their world.
Verses 24-37 in Mark 13 are filled with a sense of urgency, anticipation, and watchfulness. This section is divided into three parts: the coming of the Son of Man (24-37); the fig tree and the absent master parables on hope and watchfulness (28-36); and the concluding word that is addressed to everyone: "Watch" (32). The people to whom Mark wrote were a people in distress and persecution. Their temple was being destroyed, Roman forces were occupying their country, and their roots were being cut away. Many may have recalled a similar period six centuries before when their ancestors were returning from exile (Isa. 64:1-9) and cried out in lamentation.
The lament of the community in third Isaiah reflected the struggle of restoration after the exile (Diane Jacobson, World & World, "Isaiah in Advent: The transforming Word," Vol. X, [Fall 1990, Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary], pp. 385-386). Coming home to Jerusalem should have put an end to the shame, disappointment, and hopelessness of the people. But, the problems remained and even multiplied. The people lamented to God voicing their sense of abandonment. All was not right in Jerusalem and so God must have forsaken them.
The community of Isaiah 64:1-8 called for God to come and to restore the people. But God will not come as a little child, rather as a powerful force that causes mountains to quake, fires to burn, and nations to tremble.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil--to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! (NRSV)
This kind of Advent might cause us to spill our decaffeinated sweet coffee cups.
Meanwhile, the Markan Christian community was looking for Jesus to return and come again. However, he didn't seem to be around or even concerned. Where was Christ? The appropriate response, according to Mark Williamson discusses three present-day responses to Jesus' command to watch (Lamar Williamson, Interpretation: Mark, [John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1983], p. 242).
First, there is a literal response that expects the return of Jesus in the immediate future. Communities that understand it "watch" in this manner and stress the urgency of the future. Williamson cites the Afro-American slaves who found hope in this and expressed it in their songs like, "My Lord, what a morning when the stars begin to fall" (Ibid., p. 242).
The second response is one that expresses present responsibility as in this story from colonial America: Thee was an eclipse in colonial New England during which state legislators panicked and several moved to adjourn. But one of them said, "Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that the candies be brought" (Ibid.).
The third response is to demythologize the language into one's own experience. "Watch" means something individual and inward for each person's faith journey. It is not a communal event but a personal one. The return of Jesus is not cosmic, but individual.
Now if Advent is the season for us to watch for Jesus; to be on our tip-toes; to be looking for him; then why do we seem so relaxed and sleepy in our churches? Could it be that we have drunk too much decaffeinated sweet coffee and have become "decaffeinated sweet Christians"? Anglican Bishop Michael Marshall believes this is exactly the case. He says that, the problem with contemporary Christianity in America is that many people have settled for a facsimile of Christian freedom: running their own lives while at the same time saying they believe in Christ.
He further contends that many so-called believers have accepted a "decaffeinated Christianity--it promises not to keep you awake at night" (Michael Marshall, Great Expectations, [Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1991], p. 72).
We have forgotten how to stay awake and watch for the Coming One, because it's been so long and, two, we were so full of decaffeinated sweet coffee.
But before we blame "decaffeinated coffee" as the sole culprit for our drowsy lives, watch out for those two lumps of sugar. Sugar is a tranquilizer that lulls our minds and our spirits as Reverend Emmett discovered in Anne Tyler's novel, Saint Maybe.
As pastor of the Church of the Second Chance, Reverend Emmett was approached by a committee suggesting they drop the Sugar Rule of Abstinence. After all, it was a complicated rule since everyone ate sugar in all other foods. It was almost unavoidable, so why bother.
The sermon was on the Sugar Rule. Recently a committee had approached Reverend Emmett suggesting that the rule be dropped. It was just so complicated, they said. Face it, they were eating sugar every day of their lives, one way or another. Even peanut butter contained sugar if you bought it from a supermarket. Reverend Emmett had told them he would meditate on the issue and report his conclusions. What he said this morning--pacing behind the counter, running his long fingers through his forelock--was that the Sugar Rule was supposed to be complicated. "Like error itself," he said, sugar creeps in the cracks. You tell yourself you didn't realize, you were subject to circumstance, you forgot to read the list of ingredients and anyhow, it's everywhere and it can't be helped. Isn't that significant? It's not that you'll be damned forever if you take a grain of sugar; nobody says that. Sugar is merely a distraction, not a sin. But I feel it's important to keep the rule because of what it stands for: the need to eternal watchfulness (Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe [New York: Ivy Books, 1991], p. 220).
It's hard to wait and to watch for Jesus if you are so saturated with sweet decaffeinated coffee that it lulls you into a spiritual slumber. So, there is no Decaffeinated Sweet Coffee served in the Advent Church. Instead, we are a restless people: restless about injustice, street violence, abused women and children, global greed, broken families, and sleepy Christians. Our restlessness must continue, and--in this sense--it cannot cease.
Watch through prayer and worship, with restless and rapid hearts and nervous stomachs. Advent is the spiritual "alarm clock" that rings loudly and clearly. Get up and watch. Grab a cup of dark, rich, caffienated coffee with one hand, hold on with the other hand, and be filled with restless Hope.
Dennis R. Bolton, Pastor Mt. Tabor Lutheran Church West Columbia, South Carolina
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