If we think of angels as being God’s social media, then the hashtag for their main thread would be #DoNotBeAfraid. These are angels’ opening words as they are encountered by human beings. Their messages give us courage in times of fear. These threads — #MoreHope, #MorePeace, #MoreJoy, #MoreLove — are the themes of Advent.
I first read these verses when I first read the Gospels through when I was 15 years old. These verses follow a set of verses in which troubling times are foretold and within those verses are a direction in the text: the reader should understand this. This direction to me, the reader, really grabbed my attention. I must understand this. I must pay particular attention to this.
But as I tried to pay attention to these troubling words and tried to understand them, one thing that stood out for me was a verse in today’s passage: I assure you that this generation shall not pass away until all these things happen.
I could not – in my 15-year-old mind – make sense of it. The stars did not fall out of the sky and the rest of it did not happen before all of that generation passed away. I talked to my pastor. He directed me to biblical commentaries. They told me that this is actually a reference to the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, by the Romans following an insurrection of the Jews in the 60’s AD. That was about the time Mark’s gospel was being written and there was an assumption that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem really did presage the end of time.
Later, when I studied this passage in seminary I was taught that this form of writing, called apocalyptic (which we find also in the book of Ezekiel and in the Book of Revelation), was an affirmation that God’s relationship to humanity and the world, was not simply within history by shaping history, but God could be expected to enter in a dramatic way that simply overturns the whole stage of history and brings God’s will and way into being apart from human activity internal to the historical narrative. Like making a move in a chess game not with a single piece, but by sweeping the board off the table.
The hallmarks of apocalyptic writing are dramatic, supernatural, cosmic events of the sky and the clouds and the very foundation of the earth. The judgment of God is delivered in these large signs that overturn the way things are in a dramatic and unmistakable manner.
Now, when I first read this apocalyptic section of Mark’s gospel, frankly it scared me. It was in 1967, a tumultuous and scary time. A time when we actively worried about nuclear war. A time when civil unrest was on the rise, and political institutions seemed in many ways incapable of solving the problems that confronted the nation and the world.
The notion that God I should be alert because God was going to melt the world in nuclear fire did not seem all that far-fetched.
If our thread for the day is #MoreHope, it would seem that this would be the last gospel passage that would encourage us in this direction.
Which brings me to something else I learned in seminary. Sometimes preachers think about sermons as either pastoral or prophetic. Pastoral sermons convey messages of comfort, assurance, consolation, and affirmation. They are filled with sentiments of God’s love and mercy. Pastoral sermons deliver words of blessing and grace and peace. Pastoral sermons articulate God’s seriousness about restoration.
Prophetic sermons, on the other hand, deliver words of accusation and warning. They are filled with sentiments of correction and warnings that there must be change in order to avoid judgment. Prophetic sermons convey messages of stern rebuke, threat, scolding, reprimand, or censure. Prophetic sermons articulate God’s seriousness about justice.
You understand the difference.
My preaching teacher, however, said that this dichotomy between pastoral and prophetic preaching was too simplistic. He pointed out that whether or not a sermon was pastoral or prophetic depended upon a point of view.
A prophetic, critical message delivered to a perpetrator of injustice is a pastoral message of comfort to one who is oppressed by that injustice. So, a prophetic, critical message delivered in our day that we must put an end to racism and police violence against people of color is a pastoral message of solidarity to those who live in danger of being murdered by law enforcement.
A prophetic, critical message delivered in our day that a tax plan that takes from the poor to further subsidize the rich and undermines social programs that our necessary for a fairer society is unjust is a pastoral message of solidarity with those whose lives will be further jeopardized by that unjust tax plan.
A prophetic, critical message delivered in our day that undercutting protections of the environment and civil liberties will jeopardize our well-being and our democracy is a pastoral message in solidarity with the good of the world.
You see the point. When evil and injustice is prophetically called into question, we are thereby offering words of hope, assurance, affirmation and consolation to those who suffer from evil and injustice.
So now to look specifically at the passage before us this morning to hear its perhaps hidden word of hope.
Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
Who are these chosen?
To answer this question, let’s take a step back.
This apocalyptic vision imagines a corrupt and unjust world. It imagines a world in the grip of Roman military power that maintains order by threat and violence. That was the world of that time. This apocalyptic vision assumes an economic order in which any surplus is dragged off to the wealthy and powerful so that most of the people are impoverished and hungry.
From those on the bottom of society, who scarcely have food or clothing or shelter and who certainly have no semblance of security, the threat that this order, this way of life, might pass away is not a threat. It’s a reprieve.
So I imagine it this way – and remember this teaching here is an act of imagination – these angels are gathering up all those who will be gathered. They are the chosen. If you hang on, if you grasp tightly, if you clutch the way things are to keep it, to maintain it to keep your mitts on it, you will go down with the ship.
This order of injustice, this order of cruelty, this order of oppression will come to an end. It may come to an end at the end of time as in this apocalyptic image in our Bible reading this morning, or it may diminish as more and more of us let go of our grabbiness to get ahead and stay secure no matter what it means for the fate of others or for the planet.
The angels gather those who are not clinging to the ways of this world. The angels gather those who can let go of whatever ties them to injustice and unfairness, whoever can let go of their trust in their own efforts and let go of their own resentments and prejudice.
As I acknowledged last year when we were considering the archangels in the dome over the altar, there are likely those here this morning who may be skeptical about angels. I myself have not always been comfortable with talk of angels. I confess that I do not find myself fluent in the language of angels. Perhaps the most resonant part of my academic training having to do with angels was the scoffing about folks debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. There was not a whole lot of room for angels in the materialist worldview in which I came of age.
However, as I have begun to immerse myself in thinking and feeling about angels, I am being drawn more deeply into a consciousness of the particularities of God’s presence everywhere. Angel-talk allows for an articulation of divine activity and holy company that is helping me to more deeply feel God close at hand.
There are those deep prayers and mystics with sensitive hearts, open to the Spirit, who speak of thin places: that is holy places in which what often seems to be a boundary between the physical and the spiritual becomes very thin and one can scarcely help but feel the awesome nearness of God.
To recognize that the presence of God is close to us in the force field of angels permeating our existence, is to find an assurance that love suffuses everything.
Angels bear the presence of God in all things, connecting all of reality to divine love. All things being invited at all times and in all ways to participate in divine love.
Angels, in this way of speaking are always trying to get us to pay attention, to be alert to the nearness of God, the nearness of goodness, the nearness of beauty, the nearness of mercy.
We can be tempted to immerse ourselves and pay attention to what we might call the ways of this world – the ways that are at odds with God’s mercy, justice, goodness, and beauty. In today’s Bible reading Jesus is telling us that these ways are becoming undone, are being melted away, are coming to an end.
Consequently, we are, instead, to be alert to God’s way of justice, mercy, love, and beauty unfolding around us so that we will release that old way that is coming to an end as we instead embrace God.
Angels are always trying direct our attention to hope in God. Hope, in this sense, is the full expectation that God’s goodness, mercy, and justice will prevail, will overcome. If we trust in that goodness, mercy, and justice are to be the final, eternal realities, we will examine the extent to which we are holding or clinging to evil, or vindictiveness or injustice.
We spent weeks talking about the wisdom of heaven. Wisdom is letting go of our expectations and surrender to reality. And let us be convinced, let us have faith that reality is in the hands of God who is bending that reality ever closer to the fullness of goodness, mercy, justice, and love.
To have hope is to live in that confidence. That hope, that confidence, is alert and expecting the wonders and goodness of God to be fulfilled.
The angels are all around – whispering, shouting, singing: God’s justice will overcome oppression God’s love is near, God’s mercy is abundant, and God’s new reality is emerging everywhere. The old order is melting away. Be ready. Stay awake. Stay alert.
In hope, you are already a part of it. In hope, you are already a part of it.