The Coming of the Son of Man
[Jesus said] “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.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
“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.
The Necessity for Watchfulness
“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.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts,
be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Can’t we just have a normal Advent? After all, COVID-19 interrupted a lot of family plans for Thanksgiving, and it looks like Christmas shopping, travel and gathering may be complicated, as well.
So, no, it looks like Advent will be anything but normal. Except for our Advent readings as we begin a new Chruch year. I think our readings are just about right for these crazy times, calling us to a different way of preparing for the arrival of the Messiah. The lessons this week don’t fall into the warm and fuzzy category, rather they are designed to shake us out of our complacency, seasonal nostalgia, and consumption.
Are you ready? Not for Thanksgiving, not for Black Friday, Local Saturday, or Cyber Monday shopping, not for decking the halls, or bowl games and play-offs–no I’m asking about Advent. You know, that season that kicks off every liturgical church year by setting a tone of attentiveness and preparation?
Here’s what I both like and find discomforting about Advent.
- I like that the season extends open arms and invites us to truly be present and alive and aware.
- I like that Advent is about readying my life, my heart, and my home anew for Christ’s presence.
- I like that Advent beckons us into renewed and refreshed relationship with our Lord and Savior.
- I like lighting candles, stubbornly holding off on the Christmas carols, and at the top of my voice singing Advent hymns like “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah” and “Blessed be the God of Israel.”
Yet these very same things that I like about Advent I also find discomforting.
- It’s so much easier to rush through the days pretending that there will always be more time.
- It’s so much easier to put off today what can just as well be done tomorrow.
- It’s so much more realistic to be overbooked, overstretched, and overextended rather than awake, aware, and alert to every precious moment of this life.
And there it is in Mark’s Gospel reading for Advent I—”Keep awake.”
Some scholars say Jesus was discussing the end of the age and the coming of the Day of the Lord. Others suggest that he was giving a coded anti-imperial encouragement to his followers. I tend to see Jesus as being pastoral, helping his people through difficult times that he knew they would face.
As always, it’s important to start with context. What started the conversation into which our lectionary reading drops us? At the beginning of Mark 13, the disciples were remarking at the large stones that made up the temple complex. Jesus told them that all the impressive stones would be toppled over. Then, after walking up the next hill, a smaller group of disciples asked specifically about when the stone buildings of the temple complex would be destroyed and how they would know it was about to happen.
Jesus answered their questions as well as he could. He warned them to watch out for false messiahs and to be ready for betrayal in their midst. Borrowing language from the book of Daniel, Jesus seemed to foretell of the Roman general, Titus, entering the Holy of Holies in the temple and offering a pig sacrifice there. But Jesus’ main concern was for the people, not for the stones or the sacredness of the space.
He warned them to flee and fretted about how difficult the brutal Roman suppression of dissent would be for pregnant women and those nursing infants. Jesus again warned of false messiahs before ending his comments about the first Jewish War with Rome.
And now, finally, we arrive at this week’s reading. People of goodwill may disagree, but I think Jesus continues the theme he’s been discussing—persecution by the heavy hand of Rome.
I don’t actually know anyone who is getting a good night’s sleep. Do you? Between the pandemic and it’s chaos and the economic, social, political, and religious turmoil, the people I know want more strategies for getting asleep and staying asleep! Keep Awake—not so much of problem.
Every one of our readings for Advent I invite us into the heightened alert that Advent means. They pull us out of the spiritual complacency into which we might have been lulled over the last year. I don’t know about you, but a little “lulling” looks pretty good right now.
But, as Mark’s words roamed around looking for the right place to land inside me in this very different year, I started to think about the different kinds of “awake.”
There’s a difference between “keep awake” because everything is out of your control, you can’t fix most of what happening, and it’s getting downright scary—and “keep awake” because God never ceases to be at work, the Spirit is doing a new thing, and you don’t want to miss any of it! Keep awake. Is it a symptom of fear and distress? Or is it the anticipation of what is already on its way to us from God?
- Keep Awake. God is at work.
- Keep awake. God’s hands are on your life.
- Keep awake. What is true about what goes on between you and God will remain true from the beginning until the end.
In these advent days when there is much to worry about and fear becomes the toothpicks propping our eyes open all night, these verses remind us that we are in story much larger than we might be thinking right now. These readings take their best shot at the tyrannies that washed us up in Advent 1 of 2020 and the things that keep us up at night are swept away with the affirmation of God faithfully creating something out of whatever facts we cannot change.
What will happen next? Within us? Within our community of faith? Within our community? This is the time when God does God’s best work. Keep awake! It’s Advent with God!
The best news during uncertain and, frankly, scary times is that Jesus doesn’t abandon us. God is not caught unaware of the choas and unrest. God’s people have faced war, famine, persecution and illness before. As we enter the Advent season, and celebrate Jesus’ incarnation among us, let us remember his promise: to be “near, at the very gates” during all times of trouble.
As we enter the season of Advent and a new church year, our Gospel readings encourage us to look forward. We look forward to the time when Jesus will come again. Jesus tells his disciples in today’s reading that heaven and earth may pass away, but God’s word will not pass away. Generations come and go. Kingdoms and empires have come and gone since Jesus’ words. But the promise of God is eternal.
The promise of God, sealed in our baptism and spoken over us, is that we are God’s beloved children. And nothing can take that away. The season of Advent reminds us that Jesus is coming.
We look back in memory to the time when Jesus came as a little boy to Bethlehem. At the same time, we look forward with trust and hope to the time when Jesus will come again. That is the promise that can bring us hope– no matter how long it takes and no matter how many generations come and go, God’s promise that Jesus will come to bring true justice and true peace to the world will never be broken.