The Holy Gospel according to Mark.
Glory to you, O Lord.
[Jesus said:] “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.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer
Advent—that wondrous season of longing, penitence, and expectation—is upon us.
The Advent candles and the blue altar linens and vestments are pulled from their closets. This season is one of introspection and fasting, all in the service of entering into an embodied telling of the birth of Jesus.
In the coming weeks, the Advent readings will walk us through the story of John the Baptizer and continue on to the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary. But before the heavenly hosts show up, before the shepherds find the baby in the manger, tonight’s/today’s Gospel point us to the apocalyptic.
Traditionally, Advent is a period when the church puts on its bi-focal lenses: reenacting the great yearning and expectation for the Messiah articulated in the Hebrew Scriptures while simultaneously looking to the second coming of Jesus.
2000 years is a long time to stay awake so I can understand how the church has dozed off now and then. It is true for you and me as well. We have times when wide awake to God, to others, to ourselves, we live each day as if it were the last; while there are other times we sleep walk through the daily routines lulled into complacency by the checklist of one thing after another. Living each day as if it were the last is to be profoundly grateful for each moment, giving thanks for each breath, each beat of the heart, fully aware of the gift that is our life. And that means we are more open, more generous, more careful with all our relationships, but especially the relationship with the One who will come on the clouds with great power and glory.
Not because we are afraid of what will happen, even if we should take a nap, but because being awake to Jesus gives meaning to all our living. I’m hoping that means despite the description of sun darkened, stars falling, heavens shaking the second coming will be more like waking to a dream than being lost in a nightmare.
You may read the Gospel for this weekend and wonder if I’ve pasted the right lessons into the space above. You may have been prepared for angels appearing to Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph. You might have already decorated your tree and started listening to Christmas music; you may be hoping for a glimpse of Christmas in Advent.
Instead, again, you get this apocalyptic text from Mark, about tribulation, and a darkened sun and moon and stars falling from the sky. And, Isaiah’s not much better; we’re not to the comforting texts yet.
But the end of this chunk of Mark is important. It pleads with us several times to watch. We’re not very good at watching. We’re not very good at waiting. These statements are true throughout the year, but they’re especially true during the liturgical season of Advent. The pace of our socializing goes into full-throttle frenzy, and we give ourselves over to trying to create a perfect holiday. Then we spend the month of January nursing a cold (or succumbing to more serious illness) and the rest of the year paying our credit card bills.
Seen in this light, the Gospel chunk of Mark makes sense. The way we celebrate Advent is indicative of the way we spend the rest of the year, and in this way, the apocalyptic tone makes sense. So many of us are making a ruin of our lives. What can we do so that our lives do not end up in ashes?
The Gospel tells us to keep watch, and we might return to some ancient spiritual disciplines to help us with that. We think of Lent as the time of year for spiritual discipline, but Advent might be an even more important time, since our culture gives us more pressure in the season of Advent than Lent.
Return to the old practices. Light an Advent wreath each evening. Or buy yourself an Advent calendar. Those of us without children often let these traditions slide. Maybe we could take them up again.
We could return to some even more ancient practices. Add some devotional time to your day. There are many books set up specifically for Advent or you could resolve to read more of the Bible. Add some prayer time.
Instead of adding something to your life, you could subtract.
- Consider a fast of some sort. Give up sugar for Advent instead of Lent.
- Set your devices aside and give up time on the internet.
- Have a meatless day of the week to encourage you to remember that you have other ways to nourish your body and your soul.
You might decide to give some of your time and/or money to charity. Or you might decide to help those charities in January, when the fervor of charitable activities at year’s end dies down, and those organizations really need you.
Whatever you do, choose a discipline that will help you keep watch. When we train ourselves to be alert, we’ll be amazed at how much evidence of Divine Love surrounds us every day.
Advent is designed to remind us of why Christ came. The lessons and hymns during Advent were carefully created to help avoid rushing through December to Christmas Day without taking the time to ponder why we needed God to intervene in our lives and what we must do to be ready.
The text from Isaiah, which begins with those frightful words, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” was written in the midst of Israel’s exile in Babylon and the early days of their return to the devastated and destroyed promised land. As they look at the destruction around them, the Children of Israel are truly believe that they brought this on themselves. They think that their behavior, as individuals and as a nation, led to their destruction. And they are sorry. They remember the good things God did for them in the past, they remember how God led them and provided for them.
As verse 4 says, “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.” They remember the bad they have done which they think led to their current predicament and they remember the good that God did for them in the past. And they repent. They are deeply sorrowful for what they have done – not sorrow as a feeling, as a sentiment, as an emotion – but sorrow as an action, sorrow as a positive move in a new direction, sorrow as repentance, sorrow as the act of turning from going their own way and turning to go in the way of God. And in verse 8, the prophet asks God to not only to forgive the people, but also to restore, renew, remake them. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
Advent is a time when we look at ourselves and at our world and recognize that we need God. It is also a time for deep and serious reflection upon the way in which we live our lives, the ways in which our actions are either supportive of God’s will and way in the world, or are hindrances to it. It is a time for repentance in the sense of reorientation, of redirecting our lives to be more in line with the way God would have us go.
Advent is a time to wait for God to come. But this is not a hopeless and helpless waiting, alternating wishful-ness with moments of despair. No, Advent waiting is, in the words of Jesus in the Gospel lesson, a matter of being “alert,” and “awake,” watching not the sky, but the world, paying attention to the times and places where opportunities for mission and ministry present themselves. Advent is a time to open ourselves up to the possibility that the God of all our tomorrows has a new and exciting future in store for us. Rather than looking forward with fear, let us look to the future with faith and hope, spending our days doing the work the master gave us (Mark 13:34), always on the lookout for opportunities to love and serve God’s beloved people.
Our lives can be upended in an instant:
- In the lands where Jesus lived, loved, healed, and taught, war is now leaving children without parents and parents without homes.
- In Sunday worship service we pray for all sorts of people in with varying illnesses and deaths that have them downtrodden.
Political ads offer very little in the way of plans and programs to deal with such disruption. They excel only at warning us how horrible life will be if the other candidate prevails. How our lives will be “upended” if we allow “them” to be in control.
In most instances, we turn to the Church and to our Messiah, hoping they will shield us from the changes which might upend our lives. But, what if Jesus is the one who is bringing the change? What if the path on which we presently tread is a one which needs to come to an end? How do we interact with a God who insists that all things be made new?
When Martin Luther washed his face each morning he saw this as a reminder that in baptism we have promised to see each day as a new beginning and a new start. Change didn’t happen once, 2000 years ago. It wasn’t something that occurred on the day of our baptism and never again. As we wash our face, we emerge with the awareness that on this day God is calling us to something different from our previous days.
As we begin the Advent season, we speak of how different the world will be when God’s Messiah is among us. The songs and lessons of Advent are petitions to God to “make all things new.” Isaiah will be read in many church services this weekend. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
So let’s re-orient ourselves this Advent to see why Jesus was coming among us, and be thankful every day that we get another chance to show that “why” to others.