Our texts for today are full of chaos and trouble. There are times of anguish, conflicts with cosmic enemies, destruction, war, earthquakes, famine, and pain. These are texts that point us ahead toward the future unraveling of creation – the end of all things.
These seem like kind of jarring themes for us to be focusing on now. Right now, the rest of the world is gearing up for the bright season of Christmas – with candy canes and silver lanes already aglow! In contrast, the end of the Christian liturgical year – which actually ends next Sunday – is a bit darker and a lot more apocalyptic. As the days get shorter, we are preparing ourselves to begin a new year with the season of Advent. We are still waiting in the darkness for a light to shine.
Our human tendency is to want to skip over all this darkness to get to the light and the joy. A number of people have told me since I started here how much they dislike the season of Advent! But if we’re honest with ourselves, I think that the darkness and the chaos and the trouble resonate with us a lot more than we want it to.
This is a time of year for feasting and celebration and fun, but the holidays can also bring with them a lot of stress. All the extra travel, extra meals, extra expenses can really put a strain on your resources. Many people feel the pressure of expectations to make the holidays as perfect and as memorable and as Instagrammable as they can possibly be. And all that’s assuming that your family is actually getting along with each other! Many of us here know the pain of deep divisions in the family. You know the tension of bringing together family members who are in conflict, even fighting with each other around the table. And, worse yet, you know the grief of not being able to get everyone to agree to come together under one roof. And for many of us, the holidays can be a painful reminder of our loved ones who have died, as we see their empty places at the family table. As joyful as our festive celebrations are, they can actually have the effect of making us even more aware of the grief and the stress that we carry. Those bright holiday lights have a strange way of throwing our shadows into sharp relief.
Our gospel reading for today was originally written in the midst of some pretty troubled times. Our evangelist, Mark, was writing to a Christian community wrestling with how to live out their faith while living in oppression under the Roman Empire. Mark wrote Jesus’ prophetic words about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem – which we read today – right around the time his people were actually watching it happen. Most scholars believe that Mark’s gospel was written around 70AD, right around the time that the temple was destroyed. It’s hard to convey just how devastating this loss was to the Jewish and Christian community. The temple had been the very heart of their religious life, the central symbol of their faith. The temple was the place you went for all major rites and sacrifices. And more than anything else, the center of the temple, the Holy of Holies, was believed to be the actual dwelling place of God. It was a terrible loss. And these were people who already knew about pain and famine and tribulation. Up until the destruction of the temple, they had suffered under the reign of Nero, a Roman Emperor who was famously not a fan of Christians.
With all this destruction and pain and darkness, it seems almost comically impossible that the Christian faith – or Christians –actually survived. The community faced unimaginable setbacks, including persecution and torture and death. They were small in numbers and deeply unpopular with the Roman government. They experienced all the things that Jesus warned them would happen. In all reality, they were basically a fringe movement in a minority religious group that by all rights should have died out quickly or been abandoned by its followers. I mean, it really makes you wonder: what kept them going? In the midst of such trouble and chaos, how did they stay strong?
I think our psalm for today gives some insight into this question. Psalm 16 stands as a kind of hopeful counterbalance to our gospel text from Mark. The psalmist writes,
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the LORD always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
This psalm was actually already fresh in my mind; it was one of the psalms read at a Benedictine oblation ceremony I attended just this past weekend in Lincoln. One of the sisters from the Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton gave a message and spoke about this psalm. She used the image of an anchor to talk about the hope embodied in this psalm. The anchor is an ancient symbol of Christian hope. It may be kind of hard for us to imagine, as landlocked as we are, but tossed about on a stormy sea, clinging to the rigging of a ship for dear life, with no stable place to stand, an anchor provides a solid connection, a line of safety, so that we shall not be moved.
The author of Psalm 16 anchored himself in the Lord in the midst of times of trouble and found safety. This is how early church communities survived and grew: they realized that God had existed before there even was a temple and that God continued to exist even after the temple had been destroyed. God was their rock and their lifeline. They too anchored themselves in the Lord.
Centuries and centuries later, we are also called to live this hope: to anchor ourselves in the Lord. God is a source of comfort and strength and life even when things seem most impossible. When we feel the stress and pressure of others’ expectations, Jesus calls us away to a quiet place to rest in him. When our lives are full of conflict and pain, Jesus invites us into the way of peacemaking and sends his Spirit to help heal our broken bonds. When we struggle with loneliness and grief, Jesus reminds us that we are members of his body, beloved children of God, and that we are never truly alone.
Christ is our anchor. He is our sure foundation in times of trouble. He is our lifeline in the midst of whatever life throws at us.
God never promises us smooth sailing or gentle seas, or that difficult things will not come. In fact, most of the time – like in our gospel reading – God promises the exact opposite. Jesus says plainly that there will be destruction and wars and famine and natural disasters. But in the midst of all this, he promises to be with us. He promises that God will never abandon us, but will hold us steady, no matter the storm. And all of these things are just the birthpangs, Jesus tells us. They are actually signs that God’s kingdom – God’s glorious re-creation – is being birthed into existence, that good things are coming.
Christ is our anchor and our light. We can trust in him to hold us steady even in the midst of chaos and trouble. He will show us the path of life, whether it leads through joy and celebration or through darkness and grief. So, as the writer of Hebrews urges us, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the one who has promised is faithful.” God is with us, and we shall not be moved.