The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
“Let us attend!” The ancient cry goes out in Orthodox liturgies, “Let us attend!” And people are drawn, people are commanded to listen to the words of Holy Scripture as recorded by one of the four evangelists.
“Let us attend!” is the Eastern Church’s “The Holy Gospel according to…” And “Let us attend!” is the Orthodox churches’ “Watch.” “Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.” “Let us attend.” We do not know the hour of the coming of Christ, but we know that he is coming.
But this rings false to ears that have seen Advents come and go, have celebrated the birth of the infant Savior, have marked these solemnities in as many ways as there are stars in the sky. “Let us attend!” tells us that there is more to watching and waiting than – simply watching and waiting. There is more to paying attention to the words of Jesus than sitting and listening. There is more going on here than meets our ears.
St. Mark’s gospel was written for readers who lived in the far north of the Galilee, or perhaps even in southern Syria. Years of turmoil were leading to the Jewish revolt of 66 A.D. And the people were peasants, peasants of the poorest sort. They lived in small, hardscrabble villages. They worked impossibly long hours for the meekest of subsistences. And they were heavily taxed by Rome, by the Herodians who ruled Galilee, and by the temple system in Jerusalem, miles and galaxies away. They lived constantly on the edge of survival and they were surrounded by the increasingly harsh brutality of Roman violence. They were a people with no hope.
Marks’ gospel was a gift to them bearing stories. Not fancy theology or elegant poetry, but a simple, peasant story. The story of one who came into their world to change their world. To change it not by replacing oppression with oppression, but by killing oppression with his own death. By resurrecting the light of hope that had lived in their ancestors by his own resurrection into the spectacular light of Easter morning. And the word came to these most humble folk: “Keep awake.”
“Attend.” This word was not one that simply asked them to not close their eyes. This word – Keep awake – Attend! – was a word that said “be alert and live in this moment, for here and now God is working new and dramatic and life-giving things. Here and now God is alive and here and now you will miss the beauty God’s present holiness if you are not attentive. Keep awake!
Mark called his readers to not be dulled by the weight of oppression that they bore, but to be raised to a higher consciousness by the hope that was breaking in to their world. Attend, for there is something deep here. Something profound, here in the midst of the intense and shaming burdens of living as peasants under Roman rule in an arid and difficult land. Something profound going on here. Attend. God is sending a word. God is breaking in. God is saying a new thing.
But this week it felt like God should break in more boldly. God should do something more overt. God should salve the wounds of the poor and the oppressed and God should lift up the lowly in a way that we just don’t seem to be witnessing. The chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, is merely a symptom of a deep, dark, odious vein of racism, power hunger, hatred in our society.
I must confess that I have trouble pointing at any one person, or at our system of government or at any particular people who are supposed to protect us and say that he, she, it, they are the problem. Because we are the problem. We live with racism in our veins. We speak of justice repeatedly and we act unjustly just as often. In all of the horrible pain and suffering and sadness, the crushed hopes and dreams of this week, we see a breaking through of the ugliness of our humanity, controlled by evil that would consume us.
Today the call to “Attend” is the call to pay attention to these things, to mend our ways, to do the dirty, painful work of exploring our personal and communal souls and of excising the cancers that we find there. The “Attend” of this hour is one that calls us to deep immersion not in preparation for Christmas, but in living – in this moment.
Advent has often been interpreted as a time to prepare for the coming feast, as if it were some sort of time to simply be got through. Today’s Prayer of the Day began, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come.” That ancient prayer was the cue for many centuries for women in the Church of England to go home and stir up their fruitcakes for the coming feast. And so many of our notions of Advent developed. But Advent is not about fruitcake or any other preparation, as much as it is about paying attention. Keep awake! Attend!
The church, in its wisdom, has said for many centuries that there are three comings of Christ. The first is the birth of the boy Jesus in Bethlehem. The second is the coming of the resurrected Christ in water, in bread and wine, in the Word spoken and sung, in community shared, as the church, the Body of Christ, gathers. And the final coming is his coming in glory that we still anticipate. So we live after the first coming, supported by the second coming, and drawn into the third coming.
This is a time of rich activity, not only for us, but also for God. The power of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the gift of God’s wisdom, is given in Holy Baptism and throughout the ministry of the church so that together we can know inspiration and guidance and so that we might be filled with excitement and joy in doing the hard word of love in a groaning world. The blessing, saving, profoundly deep mercy of Christ comes to us as we eat and drink the meal of the eschaton, the meal of the end time, right here, right now. And the creativity of God the Father and Mother of all fills the world throughout the ages with the constant promise of life, life bursting forth into energy and blessing as we console each other, sharing our sorrows and our delights.
This time, this Advent, does not call us to prepare. It calls us to “Keep awake!” This time, this Advent, this thinking about the comings of Christ, does not call us to wait. It calls us to “Attend,” to pay attention carefully to the incredible ways that God continually breaks into our broken world, bringing wholeness and hope, where there has been only racism and hatred and utter, sheer, despair.
St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. And neither are we. He tells them that they will be strengthened to the end, so that they may be blameless before God at Jesus’s third coming. And so shall we. He tells them God is faithful. And this has never been more true, even for St. Paul, than it is today. To all of these things, my dear people, “Attend!” Amen.