Don’t look back, don’t look ahead, look around: A Sermon for Advent 1A, 2020

Advent 1       

November 29, 2020

Here we are, beginning the season of Advent, observing it in ways none of us has ever done before, looking ahead to a Christmas season that will be equally unsettling in the compromises we will have to make because of the pandemic’s continued presence among us. Our joy and excitement are tempered by fear, exhaustion, and the ongoing sense of isolation—from our church, our friends and loved ones, from the rituals that have offered us such great comfort and to which we look forward each year at this time.

It’s enough to make us want to cry with the prophet, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and make the mountains shake!” We want deliverance from all of this; we look for solutions—vaccines, political leadership, magic bullets, that will remove all of our hardship and anxiety, and return things to normal.

In our present circumstances, the themes of Advent, as expressed in today’s gospel reading may provide less comfort and consolation, than increase our anxiety and exhaustion. In our struggles, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the situations in which the gospels were written; in this case, Mark in particular.

The first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, and the cycle of our readings switches. This year, we will be reading from the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree was the first of the gospels to be written. And it was written in difficult circumstances indeed. Around the year 70, so about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The gospel reflects the challenges those 40 years presented. During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly announced the coming of God’s reign, and proclaimed that he would soon return in majesty to usher in that reign of justice and peace. But 40 years had passed and Jesus’ followers saw no signs of that coming. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this delay constituted something of a crisis of faith for the early Christian community.

Another factor was emerging as the gospel was written. In 66 ce, Jewish revolutionaries had taken up arms against the Roman occupation. Early successes had led to Rome’s vicious crackdown. We don’t know whether Mark was written immediately before, or in the immediate aftermath of Rome’s re-conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple, but we know that this turn of events created crisis both for the emergent Christian community and for Judaism. 

The destruction of the temple was catastrophic for Judaism of the day. I used to say to my students that we couldn’t imagine what it meant emotionally, psychologically, and religiously to the Jews of the day. But now, I think we may have some sense of the significance of that cataclysmic event. Having been prevented from public worship, from gathering in this familiar place regularly, we have been forced to reimagine, reinvent our worship and our common life. And we have had to do that in the midst of our frustration and anger that we are not able to gather, that the old rituals and spaces are unavailable. We have spent a great deal of our time and energy in lament, mourning, and anger; looking back to the past, rather than forward into the uncertain future.

It’s in this context, to this moment, that Mark is writing his gospel. In this context, in this moment, we are beginning once again to observe Advent. Mark speaks to us, now, in our context, in this moment. We may be looking back to the past, to Advents and Christmases of years past, wishing we could easily recreate them without worry or concern for our safety. We might even, as so many are doing, observe them this year as we have in the past, throwing caution to the wind and endangering ourselves, our loved ones, our community. Our we might put everything on hiatus, put our lives and our celebrations on hold for a safer time. We can see all of those responses hinted at in the gospel reading. 

But there’s something else.

At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:

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, (Mk13:35)

Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.

What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.

But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans. 

But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God. 

For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified. 

We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. We live in a time when many of our fellow Christians, many of our denominational institutions are more concerned about individual rights than the wellbeing of the wider community, the flourishing of all people. And in their demand for rights and power, they cause suffering and pain, they threaten the lives and health of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate. 

But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty. Remembering that Jesus died on the cross teaches us to seek his presence in the midst of suffering, weakness, and vulnerability.

For us in this season, let us not look back, nor look forward. Let us look around, keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence. Let us be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days. May we share the good news of Christ’s coming, of his presence, and may we help others recognize and know his presence in the midst of their anxiety, fear, and longing.

Advent and the Gospel of Mark: A Sermon for Advent 1, Year B

I’ve been fascinated by the power of the season of Advent ever since I first encountered it 30 or 40 years ago. I grew up in a branch of Christianity that didn’t pay close attention to the liturgical year, at least not back then. We had Good Friday and Easter, of course, and Christmas but that was pretty much it. Our preparation for Christmas was the same as other Americans’ preparation for Christmas, buying trees and decorating them, Christmas cookies and other tasty items, shopping for presents and the like.

It wasn’t until I was in college, and especially later, as a seminary student and lay person in my mid twenties, that I first experienced the lectionary readings and hymns that are used in these four weeks leading up to Christmas. Coming at them as an adult, and as student of theology, the tone of the season had a powerful effect on me. It still does.

It’s not just that Advent is at least to some degree a penitential season. Here at Grace, we use the same liturgical color, violet that we use during Lent. But more than that, it’s the emphasis in the lectionary and hymnal. The focus is not just on the coming of Christ at Christmas, it has another focus on Christ’s Second Coming.

That’s clear from our readings. The portion of Isaiah that was read is a plea for God’s intervention in history. While it was written by an author who hoped that intervention would come soon, in his own lifetime, Christians have interpreted it and many similar passages from the Hebrew Bible as descriptions or predictions of the Second Coming.

The gospel reading from Mark is from the so-called “Little Apocalypse” chapter 13 of that gospel, which occurs during Jesus’ teaching in the temple in the last week of his life. In that way it connects with the readings we’ve been having from the Gospele of Matthew over the last months which come from Matthew’s treatment of the same material and same period of Jesus’ ministry.

It might be helpful to remind you of some of the important themes of Mark’s gospel as we begin this year of the lectionary cycle. While there continues to be scholarly debate about the relationship among the gospels, for over a century, the consensus has been that Mark was the first gospel to be written, around 70 CE. Mark is by far the shortest of the gospels and it’s unique in that it starts in media res, in the middle of the story, with Jesus’ baptism. There’s nothing about his birth or origins (although his mother, brothers and sisters do make an appearance) and it ends with the empty tomb. Originally, there were no stories of the Risen Christ’s appearance to the disciples. Those were added later. That doesn’t mean that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection—clearly he did. Rather, he wanted to tell a story with different emphases. As an aside, the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, knew the Gospel of Mark and used it, in addition to other sources, in telling their version of Jesus.

Mark is written with an extreme sense of urgency. One of the most repeated words in the gospel is “immediately.” Everything seems rushed. He typically doesn’t take a lot of time to describe the settings or background. When the same story appears in all three synoptics, Mark’s version is almost always the briefest. I will have a great deal more to say about Mark’s perspective in the coming year. I encourage you, as I do each year, to take the opportunity to read the gospel in its entirety several times over the course of the year. It’s something I do as it helps me remember the overall story arc, as well helps to orient me when I get bogged down in the week-to-week lectionary.

We see Mark’s (oh, and by the way, the names of the gospels are traditional, very ancient from the 2nd century, but we actually don’t know who wrote them or where they wrote them) overarching perspective even here in this “Little Apocalypse.” We call it an apocalypse because it reflects that type of literature and world view, describing God’s intervention in history. Apocalyptic is dualistic—it presupposes a cosmic struggle between good and evil. It is pessimistic about the present and immediate future. Things are really bad and they are going to get even worse before they get better. And it assumes that the world as we know it is about to end.

Now what’s interesting about Mark’s version of apocalyptic is that while many of these elements are prominent, signs of the second coming, for example, other aspects of apocalyptic are notably absent—the final judgment isn’t mentioned, and the overall message seems not to be that the Second Coming is imminent, but that it as been delayed, no one knows when it might come, so it’s important to stay awake, be alert, watch.

In that respect, Mark’s message is consistent with what we read from Matthew over the last few weeks. But there’s something else that I find quite intriguing. At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:

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, (Mk13:35)

Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.

What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.

But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans.

But I think Jesus’ admonition in Mark is sage advice for us this Advent. Keep Watch! Be Alert! I talked briefly last Sunday about looking for signs of Christ’s coming among us. I think that’s part of Mark’s message here.

But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God.

For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified.

We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate.

But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty.

For us in this season, let us keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence, be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for Signs of Christ’s Coming in Ferguson and Madison: A sermon for Advent 1, Year B

Almost a year ago, The Rev. Alex Gee, jr. wrote an op-ed piece in the Madison State Journal in which he described his experience as an African American male in Madison, and called on our community to address head-on the issues of racism, inequality, and injustice in our midst. Since then, there have been a series of meetings, a great deal of press coverage, and new energy in the African American community to speak out on the issues that divide us. Continue reading