November 27, 2011
“The Man Comes Around” – Johnny Cash (click here to hear song)
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of “Advent”, it is the four weeks leading up to Christmas, where the Church engages in spiritual preparation to celebrate the birth of Christ. It also marks the beginning of a new liturgical year, which in this case, happens to be the Year of Mark. So as if it weren’t enough that we are being bombarded with pre-Christmas sales in the middle of preparing for Thanksgiving, we have to get used to a New Year simultaneously. What a whirlwind.
And speaking of whirlwinds, there is quite a bit of whirling wind going on in the Gospel passage for this week. It’s a slightly odd reading for the beginning of Advent: Mark, Chapter 13, also known as “the Little Apocalypse”.
The passage starts out with Jesus saying, “But 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” (Mark 13:24-25)
The suffering that Jesus speaks of is in the previous passage, where Jesus tells his followers that the Jerusalem temple will be destroyed, and leading up to that time there will be earthquakes, wars and the persecution of believers: “As for
yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them” (Mark 13:9). It is important to note that at the time that the Gospel of Mark was actually written (70-80 CE), the Jerusalem temple – the center of Jewish faith and national identity – had, in fact, already been destroyed by the Romans, so Mark’s readers were more than likely reeling from this loss (as well as the persecutions that accompanied it) and trying to make sense out of it.
Jesus goes on to say, “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” (vv.26-27). So we have a promise that – after people have survived the mind-blowing destruction of the Temple and the great persecutions afterward – the Son of Man will come for them. Apocalyptic literature is often born in times of great crisis and suffering, because people need a way to make sense of the whirlwind of history that has just blown through their lives, and the encouragement to persevere through it. Consequently, the passage tells us more about the past than about the future End Times: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (vv.32).
In addition to reassurance of the coming of the Son of Man, the readers of the Gospel are admonished to stay awake until that time: “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”” (vv.35-37). The Gospel author repeats “Keep awake” twice – which means “Pay attention! This is very important!” Staying awake in the middle of catastrophe is hard. When people are traumatized, one frequent reaction is to tune out, to go into denial – or even worse, to go into a chemically-induced mental sleep. For modern audiences, the message is: Don’t tune out or zone out. Don’t go Hitting the #%*!-it Button. Stay in touch with the life around you, even if it hurts like hell. Jesus calls us to be fully awake, even in crisis, because we can only touch God’s chesed (unconditional, Covenant-backed love) when we are awake. You can’t get the Spirit when you’re hitting the spirits.
So how is all this alarming imagery relevant to us if the most alarming thing we’re facing are the crowds on Black Friday (which was, of course, extended into Thanksgiving Thursday this year)? Well, even if we personally are not in a traumatic place and time, we can be certain that there are people around the world who are. Theologian Walter Brueggeman says “… apocalyptic expectation does break out here and there in ways that cannot be stopped – among those who are powerless, who expect nothing more from the present world, and who for that reason look beyond the present world to the God who they trust …” (Reverberations of Faith, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, pp.8). In the first week of Advent, the voice of apocalypse rouses us out of our carb-and-turkey induced stupor to wake up and look around. Where is the world ending? Where is there suffering? Who needs our help? When we put ourselves in the shoes of those whose world has ended, we can understand their radical hopes and fears, and possibly wake up to the ways in which our world is ending as well. Only when we acknowledge what is dying can we make room for the new birth of Christ coming into our lives.
(PS: A special thanks to seminary friend Kirsten H. whose inspiration was critical for this particular post … )