I remember waking up on the morning of Saturday, March 6, 2010 and realizing that something was not quite right. I was supposed to give a presentation that day at a local conference but something told me – I wasn’t going to be going anywhere.
I wasn’t sick or ill.
I was, however, nine months pregnant at the time and due in 8 days – and something told me that I needed to prepare myself for what was to come.
And so we began to pack a bag. We began to ready ourselves. We watched and we waited. We were attentive to the timing. And 34 hours later – after a long night – we went to the hospital – and 5 hours later – gave birth to our first son.
And as painful as those 39 hours of labor were – those contractions were also a gift. They were an inescapable reminder to get ready, to be prepared, for this very major event of bringing new life in the world.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, has this concept of Grace – it’s woven into so much of his theology. He believed our entire lives were wrapped up in this unmerited favor and love from God. From the moment we draw our first breath until our time on earth is done. Covered by grace.
Wesley understood that there was this pervasive state that we were all in. In a sense, he describes it as a kind of sleep.
Unaware of the presence and the power and the love of God.
Unaware of our own connectedness to our creator and to each other.
For Wesley, this state has left us as atheists in the world.
It has left us disconnected to our purpose – to one another – and because of our utter lack of awareness - it has left us deeply entangled with the systems of injustice and oppression in the world.
For Wesley, the state was so pervasive that there was no way we could come out of it – except by God’s grace.
And so, a big part of what God’s grace does – is wake us up – it begins to help us see and hear and understand – to see the presence of God’s love in the world – to see it in ourselves and to see it in each other.
A Waking Up - to see the world as God sees it and to see ourselves as we were called to be.
People made in the image of God – with beauty and goodness and importance – and yet, at the same time – it is a waking up to how very far we have to go in order to live into that truth about ourselves. To become clear how we have been living As if we were not made in the image of God – as if our neighbor was not made in the image of God – So far from who were called to be.
The grace that lifts up the beauty and goodness of creation also helps us to see how far we have to go to live as we were called to live.
Just as those contractions were painful, the grace that wakes us up – it isn’t always a warm and fuzzy feeling. It can be uncomfortable -
It draws our attention to the important thing that is right before us – telling us
That We need to take notice
We need to see through a new set of lenses
So that we can get ready
So that we can respond –
and find a new way to live.
So that we can build the kingdom –
So that amidst the violence and the disconnection.
new life and resurrection can come –
It is grace, my friends, to be woken up.
The first communities that began to build around the movement of following Jesus – they were small.
They were the minority of the minority.
They were nobodies.
They had no political power or clout with the empire.
And as Jews, they were living during a time of incredible political and social upheaval.
a time of unspeakable suffering and tragedy and violence and oppression.
The Gospel of Mark was written during possibly one of the most traumatic times in Biblical history.
And so a good section of that Gospel letter was written in a genre we refer to as “apocalyptic”.
Multiple Jewish writers at the time were writing apocalyptic texts as well.
It was a genre found in historical literature for nearly 350 years both before and after the time of Christ.
Apocalyptic writers looked towards the end of things and to the destiny of the world in general. As the nation continued to be subjected to foreign domination, it despaired of ever attaining political supremacy, and the conclusion was drawn that God would eventually intervene, destroy Israel’s enemies, and set up His kingdom on earth.[i]
And in our Scripture today – we hear those things. WE see those images.
The sun will be dark. The stars will be falling. The Son of Man – will be coming on the clouds.
The world as they know it would end – and a new reign would begin.
It was a dark and difficult time. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t shy away from the deep seeded struggle that was life in Palestine in those days.
And yet – Mark’s gospel and this Scripture itself is filled with hope –
Because at the same time, Mark is talking about the persecution and the struggle, he is also reminding them that
By the GRACE of God – through Jesus Christ
They have been woken up.
When Jesus walked on the earth -
The healing and the hope he brought were to the marginalized. To the people who were on the fringes. Forgotten. Oppressed. Crushed.
But - The beautiful stories of healing were also stories of agitation.
To a people who had begun to lose hope in God’s presence in the world. Jesus’ constant agitation of the politically and socially oppressive regime of the Roman Empire – woke people up.
Jesus was a holy agitator. Waking people up to the Kingdom of God – how God had always designed the world to be. And in so doing, he exposed the gross systems of injustice that were standing in the way.
And then – in his very life and teaching – in his very death and resurrection – Jesus gave the people the ultimate symbol of hope. That faithfulness to God’s kingdom – would always lead to resurrection. That God would work amongst the suffering and the struggle. And the pain and the oppression.
And God would bring resurrection.
Over the systems of evil
Over the empire’s vehicle for execution – meant to suppress an uprising.
Resurrection would come.
And so the people of God – through the life and death of Jesus Christ.
They were woken up.
They begin to imagine a world that was different. A world that looked like God’s kingdom and a people who were called to live with faithfulness to build that world.
These are the people who began to write the Gospels. To speak to their communities about their experience of being WOKEN UP.
To tell the story of what God was doing even in the midst of chaos and violence.
And these images of a new future – where Jesus would be coming and establishing the reigns.
It was a call to the people – a call of hope – that the persecution they were enduring was seen by God. That the children dying in their streets weren’t dying in vain. That the crushing oppression of their people was not overlooked by God. That God had not abandoned and forsaken them.
Mark talks about the fig tree as a sign of summer. Just as the struggles and suffering were signs that The movement toward God coming and intervening. It was in place.
And so the thing that people were to do was to be watching and to be waiting – to keep the faith. To keep the hope.
In their places of greatest despair
It was a call to remember that by GRACE – they had been woken up.
And now that things were so hard – so overwhelmingly chaotic and violent and seemingly unsensical. That it was now – that they must STAY AWAKE.
Because – soon – God was coming. And the kingdom was still being built.
For many of us – these apocalyptic texts are strange. They are hard to understand. They are hard to relate to.
I mean, after all, some of us say - we don’t live in a world of this kind of violence and persecution, where it seems that the end of the world is imminent. As if every day could be our last. We aren’t watching and waiting for Jesus to come down on a cloud in the sky and save us from the disaster that we are living in.
And that may be true for you.
But this week, I am not sure such a thing would also be true for the African-Americna young men like Michael Brown, living in Ferguson, Mo.
I’m not sure it was true for John Crawford, the young black man who was shot dead in a Wal-Mart while holding a toy gun in Beavercreek, OH – would
And in the wake of grand juries choosing NOT to indict the people who killed their sons, I’m not sure the families of these young men and the countless others like them – would say that it’s true for them.
I’m not sure that The families of the millions incarcerated in our prisons today would say that it’s true for them either.
Especially in our African-American neighborhoods where prison admission are 26 times the level they were in 1983.
We have gone from incarcerating 350,000 Americans to 2.3 million in 30 yrs, even as violent crime rates are at an all time low.
And people do not understand this. They do not understand why the war on drugs – and the incredibly harsh drug sentences – are sending 1 in 9 of our young black men to prison, while only 1 in 106 white men are incarcerated.
Even though study after study after study reveals that recreational drug use among whites and black is indistinguishable.
There are entirely too many people living in our country today that know exactly the kind of chaotic world that this text was speaking to.
And not only do they need to hear a word of hope in the face of systemic injustice, violence, and deaths.
They need to be connected to a larger community of people – who by grace – have been awakened. Who are not asleep – and unaware. But who are standing awake – offering love and community – and a story of hope woven with action.
Now – like many of you – I was watching the news and reading my newsfeed this week as the news of the Grand Jury came out on Monday.
I watched as people responded with great emotion -
It is Tempting to make this an US v. Them –
To take sides in such a debate. To blame those committing crimes or to blame the law enforcement agents or the failed criminal justice systems. To set up a system where we are pitting white against black.
But the problem with Grace – is that it really doesn’t do that.
Because Grace digs a bit deeper. It wakes us up to some of the underlying and root causes – it begins not with the reality of our deep brokenness – but it BEGINS – instead with our extraordinary possibility.
The way in which God intended us to live in the world – the reality that whether live it out or not – we are created in the image of the living God. All of us – black, white, young old, poor, rich, we are created in the image of the living God. The Michael Browns and the John Crawfords and the Darren Wilsons and the members of the grand jury.
Grace wakes us up – and invites us not to pit one another against each other – but to listen to hear to imagine – another way forward.
A way forward that is rooted in the spirit and the Gospel.
Part of the radical thing that Mark is doing with this Gospel – from the margins of the Empire is calling an oppressed group of people – to be a beacon of light – a faithful people who would build something new – by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And so as we begin this Advent Season,
I’m thankful for the apocalyptic writers. Who speak from the margins – who demand that we wake up and listen – and who point us toward the way of GRACE.
And I am thankful for the voices of on the margins in 2014 – who will not be silent. And who are demanding that we have a real and honest conversation about the racism that continues to plague our county.
And I am thankful for the grace of Jesus Christ – who throughout the centuries – calls out to each of us – teaching us a new way forward.
It is grace to be woken up.
And it is grace to stay awake – more awake every day – through the chaotic and the confusing and uncertain times – and to wrestle with what it looks like to be faithful.
To listen together, to find the way forward – not of violence or indifference – not in forgetting who we all are – people made in the image of God –
A way forward of justice for ALL people.
The waking up may be painful – but if we can bear it – if we can listen and stay awake.
It WILL lead us to new life.
To a new way forward.
It is GRACE to be woken up.
And so, as we journey to Bethlehem during this Advent Season
– how will God wake us up?
How is God waking you up?
[i] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. “Apocalyptic literature.”