Sermon Ideas For Mark 13:24-37 Part 3
Four times each year my husband and I meet with a financial planner. We are planning for our retirement some 30 years away, and the planning is not easy. We have found that planning generates more planning. What if such and such happens? When will you do this? What if one dies? Then what will happen? Which would you like to do when? The questions are as perplexing as the thick notebooks and statements that are partner to these questions. Yet we come away from these meetings with a sense of relief. Life is now ordered again. Our planner, with credentials initialled after her name, has experience in planning the future, and so we trust her with our future. She is our retirement guru.
Mark's gospel tells us that my husband and I are fighting a losing battle with all of our planning. Mark offers us the only effective strategy there is for the future as we await the return of Christ. "Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come...keep awake." Jesus distinguishes between being prepared for the ominous return of God and being prepared for the continuation of life as we know it. Mark expresses the certainty that very soon life will not continue as we know it, and the way to greet this impending transformation is through a posture of faithful waiting and watching. This gospel lesson for Advent counters any claim that future events are within the bounds of our control.
Annie Dillard speaks to this human impulse to create a false sense of order in her essay "Schedules": "I have been looking into schedules. How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred idyll."1
Ron Rash expresses this useless pursuit of order in his poem "The Cancer Years":
Because men in my family die young and expensively, I have left the earth, with these two prophets of the actuarial table. Clean shaven and decorous, well suited for their calling, they ease chairs closer to better spread their gospel of charts and brochures before me. . .2
Jesus tells his disciples that all of the natural world will be at the disposal of and controlled by the Son of Man in the approaching judgment day. The elect will be gathered in by the four winds; the sun and moon, stars and clouds will announce the arrival of this holy, ominous event. William Butler Yeats captures the apocalyptic mood of advent in "The Second Coming:"
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.3
Perhaps music is the medium most capable of conveying the import and power of the coming Son of Man. Verdi's "Requiem" employs an ominous minor key for tenors and basses in the opening Chorus of part two, the "Dies Irae." The section begins with a warning trumpet and the entire piece is laced with a steady, methodical beat of a bass drum depicting the periodic fall of a Judge's gavel. Full choruses sing:
Nigher still, and still more nigh Draws the day of prophecy, Doomed to melt the earth and sky. Oh, what trembling there shall be, When the world its Judge shall see Coming in dread majesty!
Shepherds, sailors, soldiers, and security guards keep watch. Their work is a mixture of vigilance on behalf of others and earnest expectation of what the future holds. Mark's gospel offers us timeless advice for the future which eludes even the most insightful financial planner: beware! Keep alert! Watch! Advent asks us to distinguish between careful preparation for the return of God and careful preparation for more of life as we know it.
Judy E. Pidcock Rochester, New York
1. Annie Dillard, "Schedules," in The Best American Essays 1989, ed. by Geoffrey Wolf (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), p. 71. This essay was first published in Tikkun. 2. Ron Rash, "The Cancer Years" in Doubletake, Summer 1996, p. 47. 3. William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming" in Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler Yeats, ed. by M. L. Rosenthal (Collier Books, 1962), p. 91.
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