Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Let’s start with the most basic of questions as we kick off Advent this year: Do we really believe that Jesus is coming back?
The wait as been long, over 2000 years and counting. Additionally, talk of trumpet blasts, clouds, angels and stars falling from the sky sounds far-fetched. Year after year I observe, if not the fig tree, the leaves coming and going on the trees indigenous to my backyard. And, I confess, I do not do so and think: Maybe this is the season Christ comes back, victorious and ready to set things right. Yet, year after year, the Bible smacks me in the forehead with these apocalyptic tales at Advent, texts from the book I affirmed is “the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to me.”
How, then, does a contemporary preacher and teacher approach apocalyptic Scripture passages with integrity? First, name the strange. Like much of the biblical canon, the readings from Isaiah and Mark this week resound with the unfamiliar. Few among us travel in circles where talk of the End Times comes up with regularity. Although, in our current context it may come up more than has been so in the past. (As in: A Democrat has a chance of winning in Alabama. Sign of the End Times? Some victims of sexual harassment are being believed. Sign of the End Times? Total eclipse of the sun, hurricanes and earthquakes. Signs of the End Times?) Further, more than 2000 years have past since Jesus told his followers to keep alert, awake and on the look out for his return. That’s a long time to be vigilant. Drowsiness and eschatological doubtfulness comes with such a long lapse in Messianic visitations. Besides, Jesus gives us a mixed message on this front. He says: The signs of my return are visible if you are looking for them (ergo, the fig tree metaphor), BUT no one, not even I, know when the Son of Man will return. So, which is it? We will be able to know, or we can’t possibly know?
Even more to the point: So, what? IF we take Jesus ts his word that he will in fact return, what difference does that make for our current living? That’s the rub every Advent. We dutifully sing Advent hymns while Christmas music resounds outside our sanctuaries. Mighty gates lift up their heads (?!) and watchmen tell of the night, but everyone else shouts of sales, holiday decorations and gift giving. So why are we looking not just for the birth of baby Jesus, but the return of the risen and victorious Christ? Why can’t we simply enjoy the Christmas parties and pretty lights?
In short, because we need not just Emmanuel, God with us, but the Son of Man, God for the world. We need grace and judgment, mercy and accountability, forgiveness and repentance, love and justice. We need to be claimed and transformed. Without a proclamation, strange and out of cultural touch as it no doubt is, of the promised parousia, Advent slips easily into sentimentality and cheap grace. On the flip side, an emphasis only on the parousia leaves us sitting alone on the judgment seat. We need both God with us and God assuredly on the side of the oppressed and vulnerable. The incarnation and the promised parousia. One Savior who is our Lord from birth to death. Alpha and Omega. Past, present and future. The Judge seated on the right hand of God and the One who takes our place on the cross.
Anticipating both the birth of baby Jesus and the return of the risen Christ calls us to live as Paul admonishes in 1 Corinthians 16:13, “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous and strong.” Recognizing the tension between trusting that the Lord is on the way, but not knowing when he will make his appearance makes for lives of daily faithfulness marked not by fear and anxiety, but by hope and expectation that the Lord is near. That’s the “so what” of these clouds and trumpets and fallings stars and fig trees about to sprout. We know whose we are. We know whose future is sure. We know who the potter is and that we are the clay. We know that the world is about to turn and the direction in which it will surely go. We know we are to turn in that direction too, if we are to be found on the side of the One who comes to set the captives free and are to bring good news to the poor. That’s the “so what” of these End Times texts.
John Donahue, in “Harper’s Bible Commentary” writes that these “synoptic apocalypse” texts give Christians the “proper posture toward the end of time” and that posture is “vigilance and fidelity (active waiting), not idle speculation.” I like that succinct assessment. Vigilance and fidelity. On the lookout for the current presence and coming judgment of Jesus Christ while all the while living in ways that show our faithfulness to him and our commitment to his commandments. If we can start having this “proper posture” in Advent, perhaps we might be able to sustain it throughout the year.
Advent urges me to consider – not just as a thought experiment, but as a real-life exercise – if today is the day that the Son of Man returns, clouds, power and glory, trumpets, angels, of however he so chooses, what will he find me doing? Will my thoughts, words and deeds be reflective of his character? Mission? Instructions? Commandments? If not – and let’s be honest, we are all going to fall short and that’s where I am counting on grace – what do I need to do differently? And am I willing to at least attempt to do it? Not out of fear, but out of a desire to worship, follow and please the One who saved me and all of creation.
Keep alert. Keep awake. Don’t become complacent or cynical. Don’t walk through life drowsy or numb to the present and coming Kingdom. The world is about to turn, and we need to be ready to pivot with it, already facing the direction we know God will go, toward love and justice, mercy and accountability, forgiveness and repentance, judgment and grace, hesed and vindication for the oppressed: salvation.
- Do you think about the parousia? If you do, what impact does it have on your understanding of Jesus?
- Would it matter if you knew the day and hour of Jesus’ return? Why does Jesus take the time to offer the signs of his return if we really can’t know the day and hour? Consider the context of the early Christians and then consider our own context.
- Is the thought of the coming of the Son of Man comforting or scary? Should it be comforting or frightening? Why?
- What is the role of creation in announcing the parousia? How do we, rightly or wrongly, theologically interpret natural disasters? Solar eclipses, etc.?
- Note in both the Isaiah text and the one appointed for Mark this week that there is both a cosmic and down-to-earth element in each. Tearing open the heavens, potter and clay, darkened sun and a fig tree. What do you make of this? Can you think of other examples of this?
- Look up the phrase “Day of the Lord” in a biblical dictionary. What do you discover? How and where is this used in the Bible?
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