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Isaiah 40.3-8

Mark 13.24-37

It’s The End of The World As We Know It

First Sunday of Advent

There are two people I have had the privilege of marrying twice, each time to a different partner.  (And, actually, there is one couple I have married three different times, but that’s a sermon for another day.)  One is a woman I married in a previous church about thirty years ago, and then again on Block Island about eight years ago.  Ironically, in two months she will be marrying for a third time; she has not asked me to officiate this time around, and given my track record, I can’t blame her.  But I also married my cousin Tom twice, once in a Roman Catholic church in Middletown and then again many years later at Water’s Edge.  And I will never forget the music he chose for the start of the second wedding:  the bride and the groom came down the long walkway to the waterside gazebo  accompanied by REM’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.  I thought, “Really Tom?  This is the music you want at the start of your new marriage?  But we played it, and we all got a good laugh out of it, and I am glad to say they are still in a strong and loving marriage.

I thought about my cousin’s wedding song this week when I turned to the annual vision of devastation, doom and destruction to which we are directed every first Sunday of Advent.  I also thought about it because Martha Spong quotes it in tomorrow’s Advent reflection.  “These angels (from Revelation 15) embody the end of God’s wrath, but only because it is the end of the world as we know it.  Sometimes it takes an apocalypse to make space for a new beginning.”  That sentence made me think:  Sometimes it takes an apocalypse to make space for a new beginning. 

The story of Advent is the story of endings and beginnings.  As I mentioned last week, today, the first Sunday of Advent, marks the beginning of the church’s new year, with last Sunday marking the end of the previous church year.  Advent is the season we look ahead to the birth of the one who, as Revelation puts it, makes everything new.

Isaiah 40 marks the beginning of something new.  The book of the prophet Isaiah is divided into two sections.  Chapters 1 through 39 are a collection of prophecies of devastation, doom and destruction, much like our first Sunday of Advent gospel readings.  Nations like Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab and Damascus surround Israel, threatening to destroy them.  And as Isaiah’s early chapters are quick to point out, Israel deserves it.  Her rulers, her priests and her false prophets had become so nation-centered that they had relegated the God who had delivered them to a place on the margins of life.  If we want to read about doom and disaster, the first half of Isaiah is the place you want to be.

But beginning with chapter 40, which nearly all biblical scholars call II Isaiah, because it comes at a later time, by a later writer, and in later circumstances, the doom and disaster have given way to hope and promise.  In the second half of Isaiah we find multiple prophecies of the messiah who is to come – indeed, many of Advent’s readings, not to mention considerable portions of Handel’s Messiah, come from chapters 40 through 66.  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  The words Jennifer read this morning are familiar, because we hear them every year in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  And it may be that we hear them so often, and they have become so familiar that to us we gloss over what they actually describe.  When mountains crumble and valleys lift up, when rocky roads are leveled and hills are shorn, while we imagine it as a metaphor for justice, what we’re really reading about are tremors and earthquakes and geological upheavals.  We’re talking about entire villages and regions destroyed and landslides and fissures swallowing homes and inhabitants whole.  This is not some gentle change of theological attitude, but rather life being swept away and familiar terrain suddenly unrecognizable. “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.”   It’s the end of the world as we know it.

This morning’s New Testament image is similar:  “In those days, the sun shall 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.”  These are not words of comfort, nor are they words of hope.  These are words of terror, of worlds colliding, and of things falling apart.  Why does the church repeatedly and consistently point us in this direction at the start of every Advent?

I think deep down inside each of us suspects the answer to this question.  It is because things are about to change.  Things are about to change.  The world as we know it, the world as the Hebrews knew it in the days of II Isaiah, the world as Jerusalem and Nazareth and Bethlehem knew it two thousand years ago, was about to change.  The old ways had become unsustainable, and the world was ripe for something new.  Does this sound familiar?  Is our world in any sense sustainable, with its wars and its class divisions and its historic resentments and the daily anxiety of turning on the news, is this really an authentic and sustainable way of living out our lives, or are we too poised for something new?  The beginning of Advent stands us on the precipice of transformation.  There is a wonderful passage in Luke’s gospel at the time of Jesus’ baptism when John the Baptist comes with his own message of devastation, doom and destruction:  “You brood of vipers!” he berates his hearers, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  And the people’s response to this?  Did they run John out of town?   Did they ignore him and walk away from this wild-eyed prophet?  I love the way the New English Bible describes their reaction:  “And the people stood on the tiptoe of anticipation.”  The tiptoe of anticipation!  They could not wait to see what came next, which of course was the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.  Far from being frightened by this prophet of doom, they were ready, more than ready, for something new, something different, something transformative, something life-giving.  And what Bible passage did Luke use to introduce John just a few verses earlier?  Jennifer has already told us:  “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  When the people heard these words, they stood on the tiptoe of anticipation.

This is where we find ourselves at the beginning of this new season in this new year.  We stand on those same tiptoes.  Something is about to happen, something that will transform the world and everyone in it.  That something is still weeks away, but we can see it on the far horizon, and we know it will bring hope and redemption, or as Luke puts it elsewhere, it will bring peace on earth, good will to all.  Will it completely change the world?  I doubt it.  But it will change the way you and I understand the world, it will change the way you and I  live in our world, and it will change us. Sometimes it takes an apocalypse to make space for a new beginning. And for this first Sunday in Advent, it marks the beginning of something new, something unexpected, something so transformative that it really does represent the end of the world as we know it.

And I feel fine.

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