Let us pray:
By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Revised Common Lectionary Year B brings us back to the Gospels of Mark and John. John captures something of a mystical reverence with its reflective metaphorical interpretations of the life and times of Jesus – while the Gospel of Mark is more narrative, immediate and earthy. Hand-in-hand they bring us stories that form our faith, reminding us to wait on the Lord and listen for the messages laid down for us in generations past.
We come to Advent each year to relive…something. A story frozen in time from long ago? A rote memory? Moments of beauty from our childhood when Christmas was a mystery, anticipation of joy to come was at its highest, and eyes sparkled with hopes unspoken, dreams yet to be realized, and a childlike faith that all things are possible? Today’s passage from Mark is near the end of that Gospel and sets the tone for some challenging reflections over the next three weeks leading up to our commemoration of Christ’s birth.
First Advent Theme: Waiting to Relive the Story
Every year we talk about the birth of Christ, and the miracles that unfold with his coming. Let it be our prayer this year that something in us will be born yet again. Remembering these stories we take part in an ancient tradition of deep inner beauty giving us a glimpse of God’s beauty leading us in turn to life in God.
God who waits with us in anticipation; God who holds us like children tired from the journey; God around whom we can throw our trusting arms, God who births within us the glowing embers of love, kindled anew every year. Yes we wait for this coming, this blooming of love, this Christmas Spirit all year. Waiting to relive the story this year, what new message will fill your heart? How will your heart touch others with love?
Second Theme: Second Coming
Why do we talk about the “second coming of Christ” during Advent, anyway? Wouldn’t it make more to talk about getting ready for Christmas than getting ready for some as-of-yet unknown (and perhaps even unknowable) arrival of Christ as King and Judge over the whole earth? Commentator Christopher Hutson, reflecting on today’s apocalyptic passage, gives us this synopsis:
“First, Mark 13 anticipates multiple futures. Second, it reflects a common apocalyptic scenario about how God works. Third, the apocalyptic visions that present this scenario are recycled for new contexts; as such, they are comments on present circumstances more than predictions of future events. All this means that, fourth, we must understand how our context today may be similar to ancient contexts, so we may discern how to be faithful people of God in our time.”
First, multiple futures. Jesus announces the Temple will be destroyed. Was that true prophecy or post 70 CE commentary on a pre-70 CE through 70 CE time period? I don’t know for sure. 1. Historically, verse 26 sounds like a resurrection pronouncement: “the Son of Man coming in clouds.” 2. For those who were reading Mark around 70 CE, it could be commentary on the Jewish revolt against Rome and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and their Temple. An astute political observer might hear in his speech as a warning to leave Jerusalem because Jewish militant uprising and Roman militant retaliation was in the wind. Think of his prediction in verse 2 that the Temple would be destroyed. The question “when” (verse 4) is most likely answered with a first warning to flee in verse 14, then secondly when Jesus laments any women who are pregnant or nursing “in those days” in verse 17. All of these would point to fulfillment of a prophetic word with verse 30: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
Of course, these “end times” for life as they knew it in Jerusalem don’t qualify for “end times” for our context.
Interestingly, if you read through the entire section in light of Hebrew scriptures in the book of Daniel, you would notice that this speech attributed to Jesus is,
“a basic apocalyptic scenario lifted from Daniel and applied to new situations. The basic message…is this: rebellion against the reign of God is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. Things will get worse before they get better. But hang on just a little longer, because just when you are sure you cannot endure, God will intervene to turn the world right side up.”
Now place your finger in your Bible for a moment while we speculate.
What would a modern-day prophet of apocalypse see gazing out across the American landscape? Are we witnessing the fall of Western Civilization with the rise of right-wing extremism? Are current political parties clutching their power so hard that they can no longer be trusted with the political process? Environmental policies reverting to pre-1990 levels, tax-breaks for the already wealthy, a widening gap for the poor, a middle class that shrinks to either side, and a fear of the Other that causes environmentally unsound walls to be built sounds like a recipe for revolution.
Standing in solidarity against short-sighted narcissistic tendencies for pipelines we don’t need will stand in the way of certain power-grasping parties. Is there an ongoing subtle retaliation taking place since they are currently in power and the ones who finally began to have a voice in the last 20 years are again being silenced and/or pushed out?
Returning to our text, Jesus says, “his elect” will be gathered, “from the ends of the earth” (verse 27), but “about that day or hour no one knows” (verse 32). Include verse 37, “What I say to you I say to all,” and the sense of multiple audiences – even multiple times and eras seems to become more plausible. It might also help to realize that the book of Daniel is also recycled material reinterpreted for a different context.
“The book of Daniel exploits an analogy between the Babylonian oppression of Jews in the sixth century [before Christ] and the Seleucid oppression of Jews in the second century [before Christ]. So also Mark exploits analogies between the Seleucid oppression and the Roman oppression of the Jews in the first century [after Christ].”
Third Theme: Beware, Keep Alert
Let’s return to our task at Advent. We enter this season reminding ourselves that our main task is to keep awake and be alert. Applying apocalyptic lenses to contemporary theological questions of how God enters into our lives today, it is good to beware, keep alert.
“The powers that be will lull us to sleep by reassuring us that they have our best interests at heart as they pursue their worldly agendas. They play to our fears, our prejudices, our self-interests, so we do not notice their demonic behaviors. Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake. The one who endures to the end will be saved.”
May all glory be unto the One who is coming, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
 Christopher R. Hutson, “Theological Context, Mark 13:24-37” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0
Question for Reflection
The weeks leading to Christmas are often filled with much activity. Along with work, school, and church responsibilities, there are special holiday festivities to which we will attend. Staying “awake,” as Mark 13:24–37 stresses, may not be the problem—in fact, we may feel there are not enough hours in the day! Yet, this reading from Mark counsels us to be awake to, to pay attention to, what is most needful for our well-being and the well-being of the world: God’s presence, God’s appearing among us. Here at the beginning of Advent, how will you “keep alert” for God in the midst of so many responsibilities and distractions?
Household Prayer: Morning
Thank you, God, for the gift of life today. I give thanks that your face shines upon me, for you are my salvation. Lead me like a shepherd through this day. Strengthen me for whatever lies ahead. Grant me the spiritual gifts of peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness, for I want to show your love, in word and deed, to others. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
Though you have told us to keep awake, O God, you have also blessed us with rest and sleep. Grant me such rest in the hours ahead that I awaken with eager longing for a new day, ready for you to be revealed in mundane moments and ordinary encounters.
By your grace prepare me, whether awake or asleep, to greet you: in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. All times are in your hands, and I, too, am in your hands, faithful God. In Jesus’ name, I rest and pray. Amen.