Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, 2020
Gurdon Brewster was a seminarian at Union Seminary in New York City in 1961 when he did a summer internship at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Brewster was white. His father was a lawyer and his mother a pediatrician. He’d gone to boarding school at Philips Exeter Academy. He has written a fascinating account of his Atlanta summer in his book entitled, No Turning Back.
What was distinctive about Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1961 was that the co-pastors were Martin Luther King, Sr. (known as Daddy King) and his son, Martin Luther King, Jr. Brewster, who’d never preached a sermon before he stood in the Ebenezer pulpit, preached a few times that summer to shouts of “Amen!” and “Preach it, bother!” and “Praise Jesus!” It was quite disconcerting for this New England Episcopalian. But the shouts of encouragement from the congregation, were punctuated by the deep voice of Daddy King, seated nearby, saying “Make it plain, Brewster, make it plain!”
Not a bad bit of advice for any preacher, especially when the texts seem so dense, so laden with forgotten history and hidden meaning as these from Isaiah and Mark with their images of the end of the world, the great judgment, the coming of Messiah: the heavens torn open, mountains quaking, fires so hot the waters boil, sun and moon darkened, stars falling from the sky, and the powers of the heavens shaken.
These are apocalyptic texts about the end times. But “apocalyptic” also means “an unveiling” or “revealing.” Biblical authors like Isaiah and Mark use these dramatic images of a supposed distant future to reveal something about the present. The 13th chapter of Mark was written around the year 70 of the Christian Era just as the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and the residents of Jerusalem fled the city. The text purports to come from the mouth of Jesus forty years before as a future prophecy, but for the author of the gospel, it’s really a description of current events.
The apocalyptic language of Isaiah was actually a contemporaneous description of the destruction of Jerusalem in the first part of the Sixth Century Before the Christian Era. The Babylonians destroyed the city and the Temple, and carried the residents off into captivity for a period of fifty years.
The Markan language about “the desolating sacrilege” and “the Son of Man coming in clouds” is actually taken directly from the Book of Daniel, another apocalypse written during the time of the Antiochus IV, the Seleucid Emperor who in 167 BCE desecrated the Temple with the sacrifice of pigs on the high altar and banned all Jewish religious practices.
So what we have here, to make it plain, are apocalyptic projections lifted from earlier contexts and applied to new, current situations.
These authors are looking around at their contemporary world – especially at the earth-shaking events that called into question the survival of the world as they’ve known it – and they’re asking, “What does it mean?” and “Where is God?”
Isaiah laments, “You used to speak clearly to our ancestors, the great heroes of our past, so where are you now? You talked plainly to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Elijah. But you’ve hidden your face from us.” “Our world is falling apart. But you are the potter and we are the clay. Make us anew, and sculpt a new world for us.”
When terrorists strike, when hurricanes and earthquakes and fires and famines and floods and Pandemics occur – we, too, look back at the apocalyptic predictions from the past and ask, “Is this the time?” Is this the end? Daily, we listen to the news: economic news, the number of positive COVID tests and hospital admissions; we spin the dials of our radios, scanthe newspapers, click our keyboards, surf the channels of our televisions searching for pundits (prophets) to interpret the signs.
- “Is this the time?”
- “What does it mean?”
- “Where is God?”
Theologian Christopher Hutson has written:
Amid the smoke of battle, the fog of politics, the confusion of economic distress, the babble of would-be leaders wearing God masks and claiming divine authority, how shall we know which way to turn? God’s people should not be surprised or confused, because Jesus warned us ahead of time that such things would happen.
The powers that be will lull us to sleep by reassuring us that they have our best interests at heart as they pursue their worldly agendas. They play to our fears, our prejudices, our self-interests, so we do not notice their demonic behaviors. Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake. The one who endures to the end will be saved.
The reality is that although there may one day be a final apocalypse, there have already been multiple apocalypses – ends of worlds as we have known them. The Babylonian Captivity, the Antiochine desecrations, the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, The Black Plague, the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, 9/11, multiple hurricanes and tsunamis, Global Economic Recession, climate change, the Covid Pandemic. Each was an unveiling.
- September 11 brought to an end the view that we were immune from evil; and revealed that the United States was not the City on a Hill and a New Jerusalem for all people.
- Katrina revealed the racism and poverty that had been so carefully hidden from plain view.
- The economic apocalypse of 2008 unveiled the greed and collusion that was rampant among bankers, financial institutions, markets, government, and rating agencies. And it revealed the cooperation of many of us who – even if we didn’t know the details of what was happening – nevertheless enjoyed the easy credit, consumer lifestyles, and the upward-spiraling Dow Jones.
- And the pandemic has certainly revealed just how fragile we are—fragile health, fragile jobs, large and small businesses as risk.
Here at the beginning of Advent, we’re invited to open our eyes and to stay awake. As the world rushes toward another Christmas, with its Black Fridays, Electronics Mondays and 4 a.m. store openings and stampedes, let’s pause to recognize that whenever one world ends, a new one emerges. The Potter’s hand is at the wheel as she reworks the clay and recasts her creation.
The people of God are asked to watch for signs of it, and to listen for the voice of God. It’s a time of waiting for the holy to be born.
But it’s not just a passive waiting, like a person standing at a bus stop. Rather, it’s an active time of caring for one another, serving the victims, and ministering amidst the brokenness of the latest apocalypse — all the while listening, watching, waiting on God.
Advent – God is coming – when, where?
God is speaking – how, what?
God is creating – why, who?
God is. Listen! Watch! Wait!
 Gurdon Brewster, No Turning Back: My Summer With Daddy King, Orbis Books: 2007.
 See David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2008, p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 24.