As Advent begins, we focus on hope. And with the beginning of a new liturgical year, we turn from Matthew’s Gospel to Mark’s:
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” –Mark 13:24-37 NRSV
In the midst of 24-hour Christmas music playing on radio stations and the nonstop urgings to buy stuff (Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, etc.) comes this odd and rather disturbing scripture passage. Like that familiar children’s jingle: “One of these things is not like the other.” This is precisely why the Advent and Christmas-shopping seasons are not at all the same thing!
Let me be clear: I’m not knocking our often sentimental observance of “Christmastime,” filled with Santa and jingle bells and gift-giving along with Wise Men and shepherds and a manger, while looking forward (well, for the most part) to lots of family time and feasting. Maybe it’s a good thing that the four Sundays of Advent insert themselves into all that, reminding us that the birth of Jesus cannot be separated from his suffering, death, resurrection, and promise to come again. We celebrate that somehow the “heavens opened” at his birth, at his baptism, and at his painful death on a cross. This theological idea that God is with us finds very different expressions in each of those three events: warm and fuzzy beauty, awe-inspiring spectacle, and frightening crisis. Who among us hasn’t experienced all three in different circumstances?
Scholars tell us that this portion of Mark’s Gospel, known as his “Little Apocalypse,” should be understood as the Gospel writer’s counsel to those early Jewish Christians struggling to understand how to deal with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 of the first century. That dwelling place of God would cease to exist, so God must be somewhere else.
Twenty centuries later we’re still struggling with the questions of “Where is God?” and “How could God allow a world so filled with pain, misery, greed, and hate?” God’s “location” is no longer inside a building but, more likely, among the marginalized in a world gone crazy. One response would be to wring our hands, feeling hopeless and lost and alone. True, the problems of our world appear overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean we should shrink from beginning with the small stuff and, directed by the Spirit, remain faithful.
It never hurts to pause every now and then to turn to listen to ancient prophets share ultimate truths:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—-as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—-to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. –Isaiah 64:1-9 NRSV
This Hebrew prophet, whom many scholars have named Third Isaiah, was well-acquainted with an exiled and marginalized people. Their hope for better and more peaceful, fulfilling days post-exile had been dashed. This prophet called on God to remember that “we are all your people.”
It’s not an easy thing to be “God’s people” today. But that’s who we are.
My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.