First Sunday of Advent — December 3, 2023

"This Advent, the political and social chaos of Jesus’ day resonates a little too well." Teri McDowell Ott reflects on Mark 13:24-37.

Mark 13:24-37
Year B

We often treat Christmas as an end, as if all the little doors on the Advent calendar lead to the birth of Christ and the opening of presents on Christmas morning. After the living room is trashed, full of ripped wrapping paper, and Santa’s cookies have mysteriously disappeared, we’ve successfully “done” Christmas. But Christmas is a new hope, not an end. Advent, from the Latin adventus, means “coming.” The church’s season of preparation is not just for the birth of Jesus at Christmas but for Christ’s second coming.

Jesus’ speech in Mark 13, known as Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” highlights the destruction of the Temple, social chaos, “wars and rumors of war” (v. 7) as the “beginning of the birth pangs” (v.8) — the signs of the apocalypse. Mark was written during a time of Christian persecution by the Roman Empire, but these words still echo today. Our world is erupting in devastating wars while we witness the horrifying killing of innocents. This Advent, the political and social chaos of Jesus’ day resonates a little too well.

This Advent, the political and social chaos of Jesus’ day resonates a little too well.

When we are overwhelmed by the suffering of our world, what can we learn from apocalyptic texts that turn us to the future? How can these texts illuminate the ways we can and should move through our current context? How can these texts prepare and inspire us for a new beginning come Christmas?

Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” is meant to encourage the faithful to endure, because, as the old spiritual says, “soon and very soon, we are going to see the King” (Glory to God, 384). Mark anticipates Jesus will return within his lifetime, encouraging us to “keep awake” (v.37), recognize the ways God is already here, and keep hopeful eyes on the horizon for the redemption God promises to bring.

The climax of Jesus’ apocalyptic speech in verses 26-27 describes God’s final gathering of his people. Jesus reassures those suffering that God is ultimately in control; their hardships will not last forever. The vision of God’s people gathered “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (v.27) is a source of strength. There is no greater suffering than that endured alone.

There is no greater suffering than that endured alone.

Communities build strength and solidarity. During the Civil Rights Movement, Black Americans gathered in churches to fortify themselves with the inspiration needed in their struggle for freedom.

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a few thousand people in Memphis, describing how, during their campaign in Alabama, hundreds of people gathered day after day in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church before moving out to face the dogs and fire hoses police unleashed upon them. King preached: “And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing ‘Over my head I see freedom in the air.’”

King was assassinated the next day. But his faith in God’s promises continues to inspire the struggle for justice and freedom. King’s last public words to his gathered people were: “[God’s] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land … I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’”

This season, we celebrate Jesus’ first Advent, with an eye towards his second, and the way God is actively at work redeeming and renewing our world.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, ideas, images surface as you read apocalyptic texts?
  2. Why do you think the lectionary schedules this apocalyptic text for the first Sunday of Advent? How does this text set you up to observe this sacred season?
  3. What do God’s promises of redemption mean to you? Where do you see evidence of God’s promises today?

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