By now most of you probably know that the primary focus of my priesthood and ministry is the growth and development of our inner life. It’s the core of my preaching, teaching, and our life together at St. Philip’s. The inner life takes us from darkness to light. It means we are always trying to move beyond the world of external appearances to deep insight and wisdom. It values meaning over achievement. It is more qualitative than quantitative. Instead of sleepwalking through life we seek to live fully awake and watchfully. Rather than thinking about God we emphasize seeing and experiencing God. In short, we live from the inside out rather than from the outside in.
With that in mind I think today is one of the most important Sundays in the church year. It’s the First Sunday of Advent. It’s the beginning of a new year in the church. Today the cycle of liturgical feasts, fasts, and gospel readings begins anew.
Every year we come to this day and every year on this day we hear a gospel about an ending. This year it’s Mark 13:24-37. According to St. Mark, Jesus says,
In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
It sounds like the end of the world, the grand finale. That’s certainly how many have heard the gospel stories associated with the First Sunday of Advent. For most of us, I suspect, there is often some fear and anxiety about the end of life and the end of the world – in whatever ways we might understand that.
What if that’s not what this gospel is about? I wonder if we are often too quick to hear this gospel as being about the end of the world. Here’s what I am wondering. Maybe today’s gospel is about “an” ending and not “the” end. Maybe there’s more to our lives and our world than a single static beginning point and a single static ending point separated and defined by time. Maybe beginnings and endings are two sides or perspectives of the same event, recognizable moments of growth and transformation in Christ, deepenings of our interior life. It’s not time that separates and defines our beginnings and endings. It is, rather, that Christ joins and unites them. So every beginning finds its fullness in an ending and every ending is the context for a new beginning. And all that happens in Christ, the one who called himself the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.
Perhaps that’s why the new church year and this Season of Advent begin with a story about an ending. Every beginning starts with an ending. Today’s gospel confronts us with a necessary ending that makes space for a new beginning. It reveals a darkness from which new light will shine. It shakes us awake to watch for the one who is always coming. That is the gift and good news of this First Sunday of Advent. Sometimes we need to wake up and face the necessary endings in our lives.
Each of us comes to this day with all sorts of stories and experiences. I’m talking about the kind of stories and experiences that have defined us, shaped who we are, given meaning and direction to our lives, and have been the motives and drivers for what we do, how we think, and the ways we relate. They are powerful stories that give structure to our lives and upon which we have built. They are central to our life and identity. They are the stories that shape our view of the world, ourselves, others, and God. We could call them temple stories.
I’ve called them temple stories because that is the context for today’s gospel. Jesus and his disciples have just left the temple. In Jesus’ day the temple was the center of Jewish life and identity. It gave the people meaning and direction. One of the disciples, clearly impressed and influenced by the temple, remarked, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” “Not one stone,” Jesus says to him, “will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk. 13:1-2).
Today’s gospel concludes Jesus’ teaching in response to that disciple’s remark and the other disciples’ questions of when this will happen and what the signs of its happening will be (Mk. 13:4). Jesus is telling them that the story of their life and identity is changing and will be replaced with another. He’s telling them that they will need to let go of the old view of life, the world, themselves, even of God. They will have to let go of their temple story. So must we.
I want us to consider and reflect on the temple stories in our lives but before we do let me give you an example of what I mean by temple stories.
A few of you already know this, many of you may not. On a regular basis I see both a therapist and a spiritual director. My work with them is a part of my commitment to growing and deepening my interior life. It is also a part of my commitment to and care for you.
Last week I told my therapist an old story from my life. The story itself is mundane and uneventful. It’s significance is not so much in what happened but in how it has so profoundly shaped who and how I am. As I told the story I began to cry. The pain is as real today as it was back then. My tears were about more than just the event, however. I began to recognize how I had structured and built my life around that story and how it no longer gives meaning to my life, how it has impoverished my world, and diminished who I really am and who I want to be. I began to see how it has affected my relationships, the choices I have made, and my ways of being. This story has been foundational for my life and I realized it could no longer bear the weight of my life.
This is a temple story for me and I had come face to face with a necessary ending. I was being awakened to a new life. I was stepping into a dark place from which new light would shine. I was creating space for a new story. This was not the end but an ending that would become a new beginning. That’s the promise and hope of today’s gospel and this holy season of Advent, a hope and a promise that will be fulfilled and met in the coming of Christ.
So let me ask you, what are the temple stories you carry within you? What stories have been foundational for you but no longer give you a safe or life-giving place to stand? In what ways have these stories defined and determined your life in such a way that they have denied you the life you really want? How have they narrowed your view of God, the world, others, and yourself?
Look for the places where your world is small and your life is impoverished and you’ll find a temple story. Look for the patterns of conflict and difficulty in your relationships and you’ll find a temple story. Look for the ways in which you continue to do the same old thing the same old way with the same old results and you’ll find a temple story.
Every temple story has a necessary ending. It is the coming of Christ. His coming is the beginning of our new life and a new life story. He is our life and our story. But we can neither live his life nor tell his story as long as we cling to our temple stories. Are we willing to discover and face our temple stories? Are we willing to accept the necessary ending of our temple stories?
That’s the challenge of today’s gospel and this First Sunday of Advent. This day, however, is not about only a challenge. It also offers an assurance and a promise, the assurance that it is safe to let go of our temple stories and the promise that this is not the end but the context for a new beginning.
The entire Season of Advent echoes with challenge, assurance, and promise. We’ll hear it next week in John the Baptist’s words, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” a preparation that opens us to “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” We’ll see it in Mary, the one who will be inhabited by a new life and a new story, the one will give flesh and blood to that life and story, the one who will birth that life and story into our world.
I’ve come to believe that what we do with today, this First Sunday of Advent, will, in large part, set the tone and context for how we will experience and engage the coming of Christ throughout the rest of this church year. Keep awake. Watch. Look deep into your life for your temples stories. Name them, tell them, and let them go.
I know this is not easy work. It’s often painful and it takes time. We don’t do it all at once. But maybe this year we can be a bit more awake to and aware of our temple stories than we were last year. Maybe this year we can create a bit more space for a new story than we did last year. Maybe this year we can be a bit more trusting of the darkness and the necessary endings of our temple stories than we were last year. This is our Advent work, our preparation for the coming of Christ.
The Season of Advent 2014