Sermon preached for the Second Week of Advent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
[Jesus said,] “In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.
“Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that he’s near, at the door. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.
“But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”
It was sometime back in September when the image first showed up on my Facebook feed—only 100 days till Christmas!
Now, a hundred days is a lot of days, and it wasn’t like the time would go any faster just because I knew about it. But I remember panicking a little—I was just coming off summer, don’t make me start planning Christmas!
The Christmas countdown is on with a vengeance now. Fifteen days, folks. And how many of your hearts jumped a little at that?
In my mind, I always see the 25th with a big red circle around it on the calendar. The countdown. The deadline. Creeping ever closer as we enter what is charmingly known as “the holiday rush.”
Maybe it’s not as bad anymore with all the online shopping, but I remember what malls used to be like the week or two before Christmas. Not much peace or goodwill there. A lot of tired, anxious, frustrated people trying desperately to beat the clock.
Sometimes Christmas day doesn’t beckon as much as it looms. Will our deliveries arrive on time? Can we wrap up work enough to actually enjoy the vacation? Will our families get in another fight this year, or will everyone behave? Will there be enough in the bank account to cover end of year expenses? Will what we’ve done be good enough, or will our families think last Christmas was better?
Somewhere along the way, we’ve made Christmas into a deadline. God, I think, never intended that. God intended Christmas to be a lifeline.
I was amused, in a very, very dry sort of way, to see this bit out of Mark’s gospel pop up in our lectionary for today. The passage I read is generally called Mark’s “little apocalypse,” and to be frank, I don’t think anyone’s really in the mood for an apocalypse fifteen days before Christmas. Not when this is supposed to be the hap-happiest time of the year. And besides, we just don’t have time for an apocalypse. We’ve got holiday schedules to keep to.
And yet here Jesus is, demanding that we pay attention to him, that we put him on the top of our to-do list, not the bottom. Keep watch! Stay alert! Christ is coming again.
It’s anxiety-producing stuff, this apocalypse. The lectionary cuts out much of it, the wars and rumours of wars, the persecution, the executions. We only catch the final scenes, when the sun and the moon go dark and the stars plummet to earth, when the heavens shake and planets are rattled in their courses. This is a story of the world—of all creation—falling apart at the seams.
It is also the story of what happens next. Because this apocalypse—as scary and painful as it is—is not the end. It’s merely the prelude, the prologue. It’s the sign that Jesus is very near.
Now it is tempting to want to read into this passage correlations to current events, or events we expect to happen. In almost every generation, some group has convinced themselves they’re living in the end times. So far, they’ve never been right, and as often as I survey the weekly news and am tempted to ascribe the term apocalyptic to it, what with floods and fires and shootings and wars, I think I know better. The point of this story Jesus told was not to scare his followers, but to give them hope. To let them know that if things got bad, it didn’t mean he had abandoned them. That even if the world fell apart around them, he wouldn’t stay gone.
Most of us are not dealing with big apocalypses first hand. But I also suspect most of us know that feeling, that shaky, anxious feeling, where it feels like the world goes a little dark and there’s no one coming to our rescue. Sometimes it’s little, silly stuff, yet it causes this black hole of worry in us all the same. And it can be so very, very lonely.
We have much to be legitimately anxious about, in our own lives and in the world at large. But even when anxiety is justified, it’s rarely helpful. And once anxiety sets up shop in our heads, in our souls, it can eat away at all that peace that Christ promised us.
We may have every reason to be anxious, but the problem is that anxiety doesn’t move us forward. Anxiety keeps us trapped.
Anxiety keeps us trapped in the what-ifs, in the maybes, wasting our energy on carefully detailed for a hundred scenarios that will never happen. Anxiety makes us fearful of others, what they might do to us, what they could take from us. Anxiety keeps us looking over our shoulder, checking our tracks to make sure everything’s still okay. It wastes our energy. It wastes our gifts. Anxiety at its core is a distrust of ourselves, that we are enough to handle the world around us, and a distrust of others, that they would forgive us if we ever messed up, and I think even sometimes a distrust of God, that God cares for us in the little things as well as the big. Anxiety isolates us, cuts us off from hope, peace, from joy.
I find it telling that one of the most repeated phrases in the Bible is “be not afraid.” Throughout the Christmas story, whenever the angels appear, the first thing they say is “don’t be afraid.” God knows our fear, our anxiety, it can keep us turned inward, keep us from hearing God’s good news, keep us from accepting God’s peace. So over and over and over again God says “don’t be afraid.” God didn’t fill us with brains and hearts and fiery spirits just to see us chained down all the time.
But hoo boy is it easier said than done. “Don’t worry” is about as effective as “don’t be mad.”
It’s hard to stop that anxiety ball from rolling, and when we can’t, we can end up feeling ashamed of it, ashamed that we can’t just stop our thoughts. Ashamed that we can’t just trust that everything will be okay. It can even, I think, feel like a failure of faith, when letting go and letting God feels not just impossible but downright irresponsible.
Most of us have things that make us anxious throughout the year—work projects, family relationships, money troubles, health issues—but all that can get magnified at Christmastime. And so as we head into the final stretch, I think it’s worthwhile to think about some anxiety-reducers.
Now, I want to say this as clearly as I can: if the anxiety you feel is outsized for the struggles in your life, if it feels inescapable and overwhelming, if it’s getting in the way of you being the amazing child of God that you are, please consider seeking counseling and medical guidance. Taking care of your brain health is just as important as heart health or bone health or muscle health, and it really is the best gift you can give yourself and the people you love and who love you. There’s no more reason to try to muddle through life with a bunch of neurons misfiring in your brain than there is for me to try and get through life without glasses. And, if you are already working through anxiety with the help of a counselor, good for you. Good for you for taking care of yourself.
But in addition to that, or if your anxiety is just the natural result of particular struggles or deadlines facing you down, you’re going to want some day to day coping strategies. And here, my friends, is where our faith can do wonders! Here is where knowing that Jesus comes to us even when the whole world is falling apart really matters. Here is when remembering that we are never, never, never alone makes all the difference.
One of the ancient spiritual practices of the Christian church is known as a breath prayer. Breath prayers are perfect for centering ourselves in Christ anytime, anywhere, in any condition. The beauty of breath prayers is their simplicity. You simply choose a phrase that connects you to God and align it with your breathing—one half on the intake, one half on the out—to center yourself. One of the most popular is from Psalm 46: Be still and know that I am God. So you say the first half as you breathe in God’s presence—Be still and know—and the second half as you breathe out God’s peace—that I am God. Repeat, and keep breathing. You’d be shocked how much that part helps—the breathing part.
I have a couple phrases I’ve used over the years, but the one that helps me most actually comes from a praise lyric: Less of me, Jesus, more of you. Less of me, Jesus, more of you. When I’m all wrapped up, in my own fears and worries and concerns, it helps me center myself in Christ, Christ’s love and peace and courage.
I actually knew someone once who used a phrase from today’s scripture: Keep watch! Stay alert! I remember asking her if that didn’t defeat the purpose of a breath prayer, since those sorts of phrases tend to make me more anxious, not less. But she said it helped her, because when she got anxious she sort of got stuck in her own head and wanted to run away from the world. For her, keep watch, stay alert was a call out of her own head and into the world God made. It helped her disengage from all the maybes and what-ifs and be present to what was actually happening. She said when she could manage it, being alert helped her see God’s fingerprints all over her life, and that gave her courage to handle the things that made her so anxious in the first place.
Friends, there is stuff to be legitimately anxious about in the world. I won’t deny that. But Christmas isn’t one of them. Christ’s peace and presence are yours whether or not your house is clean, whether or not your gifts are wrapped, whether or not your family are perfect angels or a giant pain in the neck.
Christmas is no deadline. It’s a lifeline. It’s Christ coming to us, to this weary world, to our weary hearts, over and over and over again, just to say “I’m here.” I’m with you. Emmanuel. God with us.
Though the stars may fall and the heavens may shake, Jesus is with us.