How lucky am I, to get to preach on Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings two weeks in a row! Last week we read Matthew 25 which is Matthew’s version of what Jesus said before he prepared for the Passover meal with his friends. Today we hear Mark’s version of what Jesus said before he prepared for Passover. Actually in both gospels, before the Passover, Jesus first has dinner in Bethany, where he is anointed with expensive oil by an unnamed woman. It is interesting that the writers of Mark and Matthew agree on the anointing at Bethany, the subsequent visit of Judas to the religious leaders to betray Jesus and then the Passover meal. The parables and stories Jesus tells ahead of all these events are not the same – though they are similarly sinister in tone.
This ominous text from Mark might lead us to believe that when Christmas is finally here we will be greeted by some scary dude that tears open the heavens, throws stars from the sky and sneaks up on you in your sleep. Instead, the Prince of Peace is a “only” a baby, like any other baby – except this one lies in a feed trough, not in a safety tested crib.
But I am getting ahead of the story.
Welcome to Advent, the pre-season, when we prepare ourselves for Jesus coming into the world. We prepare ourselves by remembering how we live out our faith: with hope, peace, joy, and love. Today we focus on hope.
Our overall advent theme this year is Being Present – which is a fun little play on words in a season that has become all about presents. The layers of what it means to be present remind me of a scene from Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary. (Surely you read the Ramona books as a child or have read it to someone at some point in your life. If not, get started.)
Ramona is like some other children – and plenty of adults; she often takes things literally. On her first day of kindergarten, Ramona is entranced by her beautiful, young teacher Miss Binney. Miss Binney welcomes Ramona, and shows her to her seat saying, “Ramona, please sit here for the present.”
And so Ramona sits – quietly, dutifully. When the other children are called to the teacher’s desk or move about the classroom, Ramona stays put. When her classmates ask her why she won’t get out of her chair, Ramona says she is waiting for her present. She begins to imagine that she is Miss Binney’s favorite student since no one else seems to have been promised a present. Eventually, the other students are insulted and upset that none of them have gotten presents or even been promised one.
By the end of the first day of kindergarten, Ramona is impatient and a little worried. Finally, Miss Binney approaches and asks Ramona why she didn’t participate in class. Ramona says she is waiting for her present as instructed. Baffled, Miss Binney says, “I don’t understand. What present?” Ramona explains, “You told me to sit here for the present.” Miss Binney smiles, gently, and says, “Oh, I see. I meant – sit here for now. I am sorry for the misunderstanding.”
Being present, as our advent theme names, is almost as hard as “sitting here for the present.” We wait, we watch, we try to stay alert and awake as the passage from Mark instructs. Indeed, these are all ways to be present. And maybe like Ramona we get a little bit too literal when we read these apocalyptic texts, whether in Matthew or Mark (or Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation…) It probably doesn’t happen to you but sometimes when I read these texts my mind gets all muddled and I can’t make any sense of it. I get caught up in the images of the dark sun, stars falling from the sky, the promised one coming on clouds in great glory.
In short, I experience some anxiety when I read this text. When we experience anxiety, nothing feels stable or steady. We feel out of control and overwhelmed. We can begin thinking about what we should have done in the past, or maybe what we ought to do in the future. When we are anxious our minds and hearts race; we think about all the things that we can’t control.
This is when being present is a gift. This is when a deep breath and reconnecting with our body, right here, and right now, is the gift we need. (Take a deep breath.)
Here we are, in the present. The only place we can live is the present. (Life is not yet like the award winning movie Everything, Everywhere, All at once.) We can plan for the future. We can remember the past – but our body is here, right now. (breathe)
If you are comfortable, close your eyes. Take a long, slow, breath, a breath so deep that your belly sticks out and expands. Breathe to fill up your whole body with breath and then expand a bit more. Let your breath out slowly. If you are able, continue this kind of deep breathing; it helps us be present. It is a way to sense the presence of your own body and even become attuned to the presence of other living things around us, whether human or animal or plant. Take another deep breath and notice that you are here, right now. Feel your bottom on the pew or chair. Feel your lungs and abdomen expand as you breathe. Be present.
When we breathe deep, we are connecting to the spirit. One of the biblical names for Spirit is Ruach. Ruach is Hebrew for wind, spirit, breath. Another more familiar name for God is the I am, YHWH, which is practically a breath in itself when spoken. It is such a holy name that it is not even spoken in Judaism. (breathe) Breathing deep can connect us to the Holy, can help us be present to the Holy Mystery. Breathing deep can help us be present to ourselves – and it can help us be present to other people. (breathe)
Now that we are present, let’s go back to the passage from Mark. Let’s remember that this gospel is being written for people that live under occupation. They are scared. They are angry. They may be anxious. The sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will fall from the sky. As we are present, (and calm) let’s be curious. Are the sun, moon and stars anxious, like the people? Are these omens, signs of something terrible to come? Or is the gospel writer naming things the people know with their bodies – sun, moon, stars, clouds, fig trees, roosters, travel, keeping watch. Could these every day experiences be a reassuring sign, a gift of hope that God is still present with them? (breathe)
Most of us here and on zoom do not know first hand what it means to live under occupation, though some of us may live with danger in our neighborhoods or homes. That doesn’t mean this gospel passage has nothing for us. Many of us, from particular generations, have been conditioned to take the biblical text personally, like we have been told to take Jesus – as our personal Lord and savior. I wonder if, in this case, it would be more helpful to take the text less personally, with less anxiety, and just be present with it.
If we can be present with this text, written almost 2000 years ago to people under occupation, and the threat of violence, I wonder if it could be a pathway to learn how to be present today with those who live in danger. If we can be present to this text without making it about us, perhaps we can learn to be present with those who live in danger and occupation today. This takes practice. (breath)
It takes practice to be present and listen. When we are present to the text and those whose experiences it describes, we can begin to feel their ache and grief and anger. This is a gift, to be present to others in their pain. (breathe) Sometimes it is the only gift we can give, that of being present, truly present. When we are truly present with someone else in their pain, we can breathe Ruach with them. (breathe)
We can be present to witness their grief and breathe Ruach with them. (breathe)
We can be calm and present to witness their anger – and breathe Ruach with them. (breathe)
And if we remain present, we may eventually also witness hope. (breathe)
Mark writes: Know that the Promised One is near, right at the door… my words will not pass away…
It is hard to stay present. My mind begins leaping to action, to fixing things. Is presence and breathing deep really enough? Is it enough just to be hopeful? Presence and moving to hope are a relief after anxiety but then what? It make me think about James 2, where the writer says What good is it, my brothers and sisters and siblings, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Surely that faith cannot save, can it? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Is it similar with hope? Is hope without action no hope at all? (breathe) When we are truly present to one who is hurting, grieving or angry, afraid, depressed or anxious, we will find out that maybe presence is enough – for now. Being together, in the presence of Ruach, in the presence of the Holy Mystery of I AM, is enough – for now. Right here, in the present.
Ramona waits for the present. She is alert with hope. And she is disappointed because she reads the signs wrong. She is literal in her understanding and believes there will be a present, one present, coming to her. It is a huge disappointment to find out that there is no present.
But we can learn from Ramona; in fact, there are plenty of gifts coming our way when we are aware. Know that the Promised One is near. Instead of sitting here for the present, we can be present, here and now, breathing deeply of presence and hope. Let’s sit here for the present; breathe here, for the present. (breathe)