A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Advent 1 ~ Mark 13:24-37
Allow me to begin by summing up this reading: “The world can be dark, but it doesn’t have to be and won’t always be. Wake up (or keep awake) and be ready to experience light at any time, ‘cause you never know when you’ll notice it.”
Mark’s ‘Little Apocalypse’ (as it’s called) may seem an odd reading to kick off the Christmas season with, and it would be if this was the Christmas season – but it isn’t! This is Advent, not Christmas. Advent is about preparing, and waiting for Christmas. It’s four weeks of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ while the world out there wants to sing ‘Joy to the World’. (Well, actually they want to sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, but the point’s the same.)
Advent is meant to prepare us for all that great Christmas ‘light’ imagery. Advent means an anticipated arrival or coming. Christmas literally means ‘the festival of Christ’ when we celebrate what we were waiting for. And then we get our Epiphany, the liturgical church season after Christmas. An Epiphany is a revelatory manifestation – a sudden awareness of the depth of what that arrival that we were waiting for, and have now experienced, means for us.
You could say that Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are about waiting for light, celebrating the light, and realizing the nature of the light. We make them stretch out over the course of several weeks but the reality is that this pattern can happen anytime.
That’s kind of the point.
We notice darkness, receive light, and have an ‘aha’ moment that helps us understand the whole thing. This is the spiritual journey – we just ritualize it and play it out every December and January. We’ll do it this year with a sermon series that follows an arc of meaning too.
It goes: awake, adapt, attune, and acquiesce.
So why not just skip to Christmas now?
Why do we need Advent?
And why use a text about such hardship and dismay?
We need Advent to keep us grounded in the story – to remind us of the reason we cling so strongly to the idea of Christmas light. Advent paints a graphic picture of what we’re lacking, and underlines our need for relief, respite, restart, reset, renewal, rebirth. We’re simply taking the time to name the darkness that God speaks light into, and today’s reading does that colourfully.
I’d like to pause here for a minute and talk about language. Darkness and light are fantastic images – until they’re not. When we start to associate darkness only with evil, and extend that imagery to people, calling everything that’s dark ‘bad’, possibly associating persons with dark skin as ‘bad’ – then suddenly our language is sinfully problematic.
I just want to state clearly here that images and metaphors of ‘light and dark’ as ‘good and evil’ should never, ever be extended to people. Ever. In spirituality darkness can also be transformational, so it’s not like dark always equals bad. The biblical images are fine – the problem is that over centuries we’ve added layers of unintended meaning to them. So, we’ll still use the language – because Jesus did – but we’ll do so being very mindful of what the images do and do NOT mean.
I’d also like to say something about biblical interpretation. This passage is one of those readings that demonstrates in a really clear way why different lenses for interpreting scripture matter so much. If you look at it with a more literal or take-it-as-it-is kind of lens I think you’ll get a very distorted picture of what it’s meant to convey.
Let me say it straight out: Jesus never said this. Mark’s gospel was written right around the year 70 – the same time that the Temple in the centre of Jerusalem was destroyed. This was a cataclysmic event for people with Jewish roots. The Temple was the absolute focal point of their faith and religion. Its destruction shook Judaism to its core. In fact, it has never been the same since. You could not imagine a ‘darker’ time.
This passage in Mark is definitely not just a case of Jesus being prescient and foreshadowing an event in the future. It’s a passage by the Christian community for the Christian community written in the shadow of the most devastating religious event imaginable. Putting it on Jesus’ lips simply amplifies the weight of it.
The reason this more symbolic or metaphoric reading matters is because a literal reading of it confines its meaning to Jesus being a fortune teller. He’d be telling his disciples to watch out for his impending return in righteous judgment and it becomes a passage only about him.
A more metaphoric interpretation opens its meaning to symbolically still carrying the meaning about Jesus but more directly carrying a message to every one of us.
It uses a massively calamitous current event to deliver a spiritual message. Unshackled from a literal meaning about Jesus’ second coming (the narrow interpretation) it becomes a powerful wake up call to us, here and now, almost 2000 years later – people who are also enduring a massively calamitous current event that has ‘taken our temple away’. It says:
“The world can be troubling and ruinous, but it doesn’t have to be and won’t always be. Wake up (or keep awake) and be ready to experience presence, love, light at any time, ‘cause you never know when you’ll notice it.”
And all of a sudden it’s a text that shifts from being a fear-mongering-guilt-tripping-turn-or-burn warning to a text that gushes with hope.
It’s not “you better fall in line or else” – it’s “light/love/presence is available if you can wake up to it and claim it”.
Another aspect of a reworked interpretation of this passage would be about what Christ’s coming means. It’s not about Jesus literally swooping down from the heavens to usher in a new mode of existence – it’s more about the Christ presence, the Holy Spirit, the divine – being encountered and experienced in full and deep ways.
That is truly a new mode of existence!
If we’re ‘asleep’ – preoccupied, overworked, stressed out, scattered in a million directions, anaesthetized by drugs, or TV, or consumerism – then we’ll miss God’s incredible, mind-blowing displays of beauty, and joy, and presence.
The miracle and wonder of God is that every single moment, every breath, every heartbeat, is pregnant with God’s presence – just waiting for us to discover and embrace it, and birth it anew through us.
But if you’re feeling smothered by the weariness of the world and are asleep you’ll miss out.
Process theologian Bruce Epperly says it this way: “If no one knows the moment of Christ’s coming, then every moment is a call to transformation. Every moment, whether at the dinner table, working on your laptop, answering e-mail, or praying at a church meeting, is a moment of encountering divine possibility. No need to look into the future, for God is fully present in the here and now. Possibilities for transformation are ever-present for those who seek to be awake to the divine. Any moment can be transforming and transfiguring.”
So let’s go back. We began with an apocalyptic reading that seemed to be threatening and unpleasant and ended up with a reading that overflows with hope. Which version sounds more like Jesus to you?
I’d go with the hope!
Look, there’s no denying that there’s hardship in the world and in all of our lives. We all experience it – sometimes for a moment, sometimes for a season, sometimes it feels like forever – like this pandemic season is lasting forever. Maybe it is hopeful to think that Jesus might swoop in on a fiery chariot and save us from the hard times, but it’s just not very plausible. It would take a miracle of biblical proportions.
On the other hand, if we interpret this passage as calling us to awaken to God’s presence which constantly infuses every moment of time in myriad forms all around us then it becomes not only profoundly hopeful but also profoundly possible.
It’s not magic, it’s mystic.
It’s not miraculous, it’s in the ordinary – which is made extraordinary – which makes every moment into a miracle!
If you’re feeling down what’s more comforting to you? – What’s more likely to give you a glimmer of hope? – A warning to keep awake because Christ may return at any moment, or an encouragement to awaken to the spiritual truth that the Christ presence is already here, surrounding you, jumping up and down like a puppy trying to get your attention?
Maybe this Advent what we should be praying for and be in anticipation of is that more and more followers of the Way of Jesus will awaken to these kinds of interpretations of scripture, and free themselves from the shackles of literalism, and discover anew God’s awesome and life-transforming Christmas Presence.
Each week in Advent I have us sing one Christmas carol.
Let’s take a look at the one we’re about to sing in a couple of minutes. It begins:
It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold,
‘Peace on the earth, good will to all, from heaven’s all-gracious King!’
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
That part we know well and the message is pretty clear. Now listen to the second verse:
Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled;
and still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;
We’ve switched from past tense to present tense.
Now it’s not about baby Jesus in the manger anymore – it’s about our day to day life.
And the promise here is that these angels – messengers of God, bearers of God’s presence – continue to be among us, singing their heavenly music to our weary world.
Above its (that’s the weary world’s) sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.
So the presence of God is continually here and is even ‘louder’ than all the noise that distracts us here on our “sad and lowly plains.”
Now listen to the third verse. You may have never really thought about it before, but see if it doesn’t pop for you now:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
Sounds like a pretty vivid picture of the ‘darkness’.
and warring humankind hears not the love song which they (the angels) bring.
O hush the noise, and cease your strife, to hear the angels sing.
The song’s there but we can’t hear it – we’ve closed our ears.
The light/love/presence is there but we don’t notice – we’ve closed our eyes, we’re asleep.
nd then the challenge comes – just like the one that’s placed on Jesus’ lips in today’s reading:
O hush the noise, and cease your strife, to hear the angels sing.
Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come. Awaken and enjoy!
And then the last verse that hopes and dreams of a time when we actually have awoken and are revelling in the presence of God:
For, lo! the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold,
when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling, (what a great image: flinging peace!)
and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.
What a beautiful, rich, profound carol.
And the whole world send back (sing back) the song which now the angels sing.
Yes, that’s the awakening – that’s what Advent anticipates in hope – that we may know and realize God’s Presence.
And this awakening is the beginning of our spiritual deepening – awaken, adapt (make the changes you need to make), attune (constantly strive to stay tuned-in to God’s presence), acquiesce (allow God’s Spirit to move in and through you) – and you’ll be ready to birth something awesome into the world at Christmas – singing back the song which now the angels sing.
But first we prepare in anticipation…