Advent 1B—Mark 13:24-37
November 26-27, 2011
Here we are in the first week of the season of Advent, the beginning of the church year…who knows what the word “advent” literally means? Advent comes from a Latin word, adventus, which means “coming.” Christ is coming. We look forward to Christmas as we await the coming of Christ into the world.
But there’s a deeper meaning there as well. You may be wondering why, if we’re supposed to be looking ahead toward a baby’s birth, we’ve been given this Gospel reading that talks about things like suffering and the Son of Man coming on the clouds and the passing away of heaven and earth. This is apocalyptic stuff—it sounds scary, literally earth-shattering. What in the world does this have to do with getting ready for babies and Bethlehem and farm animals and kids dressed up in bathrobes singing “The First Noel?” Well, that Latin word, Adventus, is also the Latin translation of a Greek word, parousia. Parousia is the ten-dollar word theologians use to describe the coming of Christ at the end of time. So here, during advent, we are called to wait, to prepare, to get ready not only for Christmas, not only for the coming of Christ in humility as a baby, but also to prepare for the coming of Christ in glory as king.
There’s an almost 25 year-old song by REM called “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine),” which has been one of my 7 year-old son's favorite songs to sing along to ever since he was about 3. There’s not much to the song itself—the verses are just a bunch of stream-of-consciousness images all sort of strung together, and the chorus consists of the lead singer singing “It’s the end of the world as we know it, it’s the end of the world as we know it, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” But boy is it catchy. And there’s a message there for us as well, a message that speaks to advent and to what we hear in our Gospel reading.
The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it.
I’m not talking just about the end of time, though it certainly does include that. And I’m also not just talking about the original Christmas story either, though that certainly was the case as well. I’m talking about now. Today. In your life. In my life. In our collective lives and callings and mission together as the church in the world. Jesus Christ comes to us, and when he does, it means the end of the world as we know it. It means making all things new. And when things are made new, that means the end of what was old.
Consider baptism. As Christians, we describe our baptism as the washing away of the old Adam and the old Eve, and the beginning of a new life. Paul describes baptism as death—dying to ourselves and being raised with Christ. We’re different. We’re no longer on our own, but are children of God, brought into God’s family. Our baptism doesn’t mean the end of the world…we still are called to live in the world, but it means the end of the world as we know it. We live in the world but are not of the world. We become participants in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world.
Our gospel reading today is another good example. It comes near the end of Mark’s gospel, right before the events of the last supper and Jesus’ arrest. It’s a shame that people like Harold Camping, with his doomsday predictions (which were wrong not once, but twice this year, by the way) and the writers of the still-popular Left Behind series of books, have taken passages like this one and twisted them to fit their vision of a violent last days scenario. Our reading begins in the middle of a speech by Jesus to his disciples. We hear him say, “In those days, after that suffering…” If you’re like me, you may have asked, hold on, in what days? After what suffering? Take a look with me at the first half of Mark 13. Jesus and his disciples are by the Temple, which for Jews of the time not only was the center of worship, but was actually where God resided, in the very middle, a room called The Holy of Holies, where a curtain shielded the priest who entered once a year from the pure holiness of God. The disciples have what one of my favorite professors, Karoline Lewis, calls a “Little Red Riding Hood” moment: “Teacher! What big stones and what big buildings the temple has!” And from there, Jesus begins teaching about how the temple will be desecrated and destroyed, which historians know actually ended up happening at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D.
One of the major questions the writer of Mark tackles throughout the entire gospel account is the question of “Where is God?” For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the answer was easy. God was in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem. But what about after the destruction of the temple? Where was God then? Mark tells us that when Jesus was baptized, the heavens were “torn open,” and when Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in the temple, the one that protected the priest from God, was “torn in two.” Our reading from Isaiah today begins with asking God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Mark proclaims that’s exactly what God did. In baptism and on the cross, God tore open the heavens and came down. In Christ, God became incarnate, took on human flesh, and came to us and for us. We experience that today in our own baptism, through the bread and wine of Holy Communion, through God’s call to us as individuals and God’s mission for us as the church. The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it.
And that’s what Jesus is telling us in our gospel reading. There’s an insight into this text that I wish I could claim as my own, but I owe to professor and theologian David Lose. He points out that Jesus gives four specific examples when he’s saying we don’t know when the master will come. It could be in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. And the writer of Mark, interestingly enough, divides the story of Jesus’ death into four sections:
1) Last Supper, beginning, "When it was evening, he came with the twelve..." (14:17).
2) Jesus' prayer and betrayal: "And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy" (14:40). Why so tired? Because it was the middle of the night.
3) Jesus' trial and Peter's denial: "But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, 'I do not know this man you are talking about.' At that moment the cock crowed for the second time" (14:71-72a).
4) Trial before Pilate: "As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate" (15:1).
Very interesting, as one way to read Jesus’ warning is to hear him declaring that his return -- when the heavens shake and the sun is darkened -- is precisely the moment when he is nailed to the cross and we see God's love poured out for us and all the world. The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it.
As for the actual end of the world? Jesus’ message was quite clear, especially as many Jews assumed that the destruction of the temple just had to be a sign of it. About that day or hour nobody knows, so quit trying to read the signs, quit trying to tell the future, quit trying to trap God into a corner and dictate the way things must be. It’s all a waste of time and energy. Yet he says in verses 35 and 37 to keep awake. If it’s not for trying to read the signs of the end, what is it for? Like servants who aren’t sure when the master’s coming home, or to put it in terms I can understand, like a husband with a honey-do list who’s not sure exactly when his wife will be home from running errands, we are called to an active waiting. Advent isn’t about sitting around letting the world go to hell in a handbasket because Jesus is eventually going to come and rescue us from all of this anyway. In the end, it’s about stewardship.
The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it. Gone are our claims that our time is our own, that our possessions are our own, that our money, our families, our work, our energy, our very lives are our own. That’s what the world would try to tell us. That’s the way of the old Adam and the old Eve. The new world, our new lives ushered in through the cross, make every day an advent. Every day we hear the call to love our neighbor, to serve those in need, to use the gifts we have been given and entrusted with for the hungry the naked, the thirsty, those in prison—all of the least of these that we heard about in last week’s gospel. Every day the heavens are ripped open and Christ turns our lives upside-down with the restless, unstoppable love of God. How do we respond? Do we respond in fear, hoard what we have been given and turn in on ourselves? Or do we respond in trust, use what we have been given for those around us and turn outward, just as Christ on the cross looks outward and gives of himself for the sake of all?
The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel fine.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church