Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The Second coming web

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13:24-37

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in San Rafael CA on November 30, 2014.

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,

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This last weekend I attended a meeting of the leading scholars in religious studies. For several days, graduate students, professors and independent scholars converge in a major US city for paper presentations, panel discussions, job interviews, and presidential addresses. This year the meeting (which is organized by the American Academy of Religion [AAR] and the Society of Biblical Literature [SBL]) was held in San Diego and one of the presidential addresses was delivered by an actual former US president: Jimmy Carter. This was my first year not presenting a paper so I was able to enjoy the talks and exhibits relatively free from anxiety and apprehension. I attended presentations on the Gospel of John, Jewish mysticism, climate change, and even on Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah (which the youth group watched for Movie Night and gave mixed reviews). And, throughout all of these discussions, there was one theme that seemed to keep poking out its monstrous head. This theme has been the subject of much debate for thousands of years and has recently been portrayed in films produced by both conservative fundamentalists and radical leftists. It is a major theme in this season of Advent and it is the matter at hand in our Gospel reading. The theme is apocalypse.

We often associate apocalypse with the end of the world, with chaos, destruction, the anti-Christ, the great tribulation, the rapture and all that. Many of us grow uncomfortable with these ideas and images mostly because they have been hijacked by biblical literalists and sidewalk preachers who use them as fuel for their fire-and-brimstone sermons, which demand that we all “turn or burn!” However, we cannot deny the presence of apocalyptic themes in our Scriptures, in our tradition and in the words of our Lord. If there is one thing that Historical Jesus scholars agree on it is that he preached about the end of the world.

So what is Apocalypse? Literally, the word means “disclosure” or “revelation” and, according to the official scholarly definition, it is a genre of literature in which a transcendent reality is revealed to a human recipient by an otherworldly being.[1] The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to “interpret the present, earthly circumstances in light of the supernatural world and of the future, and to influence both the understanding and the behavior of the audience by means of divine authority.”[2]

In order to accomplish this purpose, powerful and provocative imagery is utilized and this genre grows in popularity especially during times of traumatic change and enormous transition.

Jesus uses this style of communication in our Gospel this morning. In fact, chapter 13 of Mark, from which this Gospel passage comes, has been dubbed the “mini-apocalypse” of Mark. Jesus uses imagery of cosmic catastrophe in order to describe the immanent destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. And this was appropriate because the temple in Jerusalem was not only the dwelling place of Yahweh, it was also the center of the world, the axis mundi which held all things together. We can only begin to understand the trauma of the temple’s destruction for Jews by imagining ourselves as Muslims witnessing the complete demolition of the ka’aba in Mecca. It would be the end of the world as we know it (and we would not feel fine.)

The destruction of the temple was the end of the world as the Jews had known it. Jesus prophesied the end of the world and his prophecy was fulfilled. Today, Jewish historians and biblical scholars use the destruction of the temple to distinguish between eras in Jewish history: the era of Second Temple Judaism and the era of early Rabbinic Judaism. The world for Second Temple Jews was over.

In the Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples about the advent of their world’s end. And, my brothers and sisters, this morning Jesus warns us about our world’s end. Keep awake and keep alert. Not only are social and economic structures crumbling, our nation is also convulsing under the weight of past atrocities. Centuries of racial slavery and the genocide of Native Americans have collective consequences and spiritual residue that remain with us today. Some of us benefit from these atrocities and some of us continue to suffer because of them. And the world that benefits some and demonizes others, especially due to skin color, is one that is slowly dying. For those of us in power this end can be terrifying because it calls us to let go of our privilege and ally ourselves with those of us who continue to suffer the toxic residue of racial slavery and genocide. This Advent season calls us to not only pray but to embody the prayer of Isaiah: “LORD, you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” We are all your people.

In the midst of apocalyptic terror, there is hope. In the midst of all the darkness, there is a candle, which we light. In the midst of all the transition taking place right now in this community, amidst the confusion and the loss—the end of an era and the end of a world as many of us have known it here at Nativity—in the midst of all this, we light the candle on the Advent wreath, the candle that symbolizes hope. This is the candle that points to the birth of a new child who embodies a new world.

These are apocalyptic times for Nativity. And the apocalyptic readings for Advent give us the language to acknowledge this and to own it. And they also give us hope, reminding us that the end of the world is the beginning of another. You all know this because it is part of your identity as a community. It is in your name. You are Nativity. You are Birth, the Birth of the first fruits of a new world, the Birth of the Messiah. It is your feast day. You are the only Episcopal parish in the diocese with that name. You know that a new world is being born. It is true that the final spasms of death may overlap with the pangs of new birth during this season of transition, but you all know something beautiful is coming (adventus).

Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote the poem “The Second Coming” in the aftermath of the First World War, a war which certainly marked the end of an era. Although many see this poem as pessimistic, I see it gleaming with hope in the midst of monstrous chaos. I see it revealing to us the truth that what might initially look to us like a monster (like “a rough beast”) is actually the necessary mess out of which something new and amazing is being cooked up. Waiting through the mess is hard, but the waiting forms us and perfects in ways we can only imagine. That is why Paul gives thanks to God for the Christians in Corinth as they are “being enriched in every way so that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift as they wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The rough beast that slouches towards Bethlehem to be born is not a rough beast at all. It is the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the birth of a child who will commence a new community of hope and love that will forever change the world, a global community that will remain hopeful and loving through centuries of change and transition, a global community that includes this community here, the Church of the Nativity in San Rafael, which continues to light candles of hope in the midst of darkness as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


new sanctuary

[1] According to the official SBL definition, written by Yale professor John J. Collins, “‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” J. J. Collins, Semeia 14 [1979] 9.

[2] See David Hellholm, “The Problem of Apocalyptic Genre and the Apocalypse of John,” in SBL Seminar Papers 1982, ed. K. H. Richards (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982).

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