Monday, December 1, 2008
Today, of course is the First Sunday of Advent. It is the first Sunday of the liturgical year. It is the beginning of the year we spend listening to the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels that have come down to us. It was written most likely during the Jewish Revolt and scholars usually fix the date about the year 65. It is before the total destruction of Jerusalem in 70, but it was while Judea was under siege.
The reading we hear from the Gospel today is called the “little apocalypse”. Much of the passage is reminiscent of the seventh chapter of Daniel. It was part of the common parlance of the day. People were talking about the times as being the time when the Messiah would return. Mark reminds the followers of Jesus that though there are wars and horrible things happening not to look for Jesus’ return in them. For about 150 years the language of faith had much of this apocalyptic flavor about it. People used to see such things as wars, earthquakes, plagues, etc as signs of the end times. The prophecy of Israel—those books that made it into the canon of scripture and those like Enoch or the Book of Jubilees that did not, described a time when God would bring destruction on the earth and judge the nations. Then God would send his messiah to reign forevermore.
In this passage Mark uses this kind of language to remind the followers of Jesus not to get distracted. The Messiah had already come. Don’t go about listening to the false prophets, Mark says. Do not join up with these various factions that were fighting for Israelite freedom and get embroiled in the fights, he says. “The truly frightening stuff described in Mark 13 is, for Mark's readers, not a prediction to frighten future generations, but words of comfort for a generation that used this vivid language, the language of nightmares mixed with literal retellings of the kinds of betrayal and threats facing community members, to describe what they'd already seen brothers and sisters in Christ going through.”
The people of Mark’s day had heard the stories of how Jesus had been crucified. They had heard the stories of how those who had followed Jesus had been stoned and put out of the community. They had heard how Jesus taught people how to be free—like women and slaves. He had freed people from debilitating disabilities and demons. He had disturbed the status quo giving the people a type of hope that they had never experienced. That was what was important, not signs of war or pestilence. Mark was telling his community not to look for signs of the Messiah in the wars and fear. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The words of love, freedom, and hope that Jesus had taught were the signs of Christ’s presence, not the portents of doom and gloom.
Nine and ten years ago we began to hear people talking about the end of the world. There were those who predicted a total crash of the computer systems and the plunge of the whole banking system into chaos. When the year 2000 finally rolled in, the whole thing was a flop, no catastrophe happened. We still have numerous novels, movies and TV programs out there that tell us of the end times. There are denominations that are preaching a catastrophic coming of Christ. But personally I don’t give that kind of interpretation to those passages.
The kind of coming of Christ that I know does not come from the clouds. It comes from remembering the tenderness with which God has always welcomed me. The torment of my soul may have opened me to surrender to Christ’s message. But it has always been the welcoming of God that has brought me closer to him.
The coming of Christ does have to with judgment—it has to do with when we recognize that sinfulness in ourselves and that with Christ’s love we can make the changes in our lives necessary to know the freedom of faith. For those of us who have known that complete turn-around in life that Christ can bring, the event was tumultuous. It changed us completely. For those of us who have always known the presence of Christ in our lives, it has been a constant welcome—that sense of homecoming that nudges us back into the family of God when we have strayed.
Advent is a time to reorient our lives in anticipation of Christ’s reality in our existance. Advent has a tinge of the penitential in our purple hangings, but more importantly Advent is a time of hope. It is a time when life can be adjusted to put away fear and trust in the one who comes to us as a child.
I have often said that Advent should incite in Christians the same kind of anticipation of Jesus that the sound of the can opener has for my cats. We need to be able to hear the sounds of Advent and be chopping at the bit for Christ’s return to our hearts. But all too often we allow the season of Advent to be overcome with holiday panic.
The “Be alert” or “Keep watch” of this passage is not so much about being afraid. It is a reminder about what is important. We as Christians are to look for the hope in life. We are to look for the presence of Christ in our midst. All too easily we are caught up with the fear of our age—fears about stock markets, about oil prices, about whether our children or our grandchildren are going to grow up ….or whatever. We so often allow ourselves to be taken over by fears that say that we should be in control. But in reality, we are not. Advent is the time when we as Church remind ourselves that it is Christ who is in charge. We are to keep vigilant and point to God’s reign.
Today we begin a new Church year. We begin too our journey to Bethlehem. We begin again that familiarity with a God who would come to us as a child. We begin again a way of life that claims God as the center and not ourselves. Let us begin our new Church year with a freshness not born of Black Friday sales. Let us begin our new year with anticipation not burdened with the aftermath of the Thanksgiving excess. Let us begin our new Church year centered in a kind of vigilance that is rooted in God’s love that calls us to be awake, to anticipate, to hope in the newness that God offers to us in each passing day. AMEN