December 3, 2017
Here we are at the beginning of the Church year. It would make sense, wouldn’t it, if we began with readings about Jesus’ birth, or just before his birth. But the tradition of Advent, of preparing for Jesus’ coming, is to understand the context into which he was born. There are several elements of the context to consider.
First, the Gospel reading comes from Mark 13, just 3 chapters before the end of the book. The text is from a longer speech Jesus gives to the disciples, possibly just Peter, James, John, and Andrew, the inner group of four. It occurs right before the Passover, Jesus’ arrest, etc. These are some of Jesus’ last words to the disciples before his death.
Second, this style of writing is apocalyptic, related to the end times. Apocalyptic writings are popular when living is hard. It is a way to deal with the stress of constant anxiety and trauma. Apocalyptic writings in our scriptures include Revelation and Daniel. Both take the challenges of living at the time and envision a future in which God wins.
In our times, some science fiction might fit into the apocalyptic genre, as well: consider the Rebel Alliance fighters who seek to destroy the Death Star in Star Wars. The Left Behind books might also fit.
Third, Mark’s gospel was written between 65 and 75, some 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the year 66, the Jews began a revolt against Rome, a move that was doomed to fail. The Roman soldiers were even more cruel and violent than they had been before the revolt. In the year 70, the temple was destroyed, and the sacrificial style of worship they had known for centuries ended forever. Their world had come crashing down. It must have felt like it like the end of the world is at hand, like the apocalypse was coming at that moment.
Fourth, we must think about the reason Mark wrote this story of Jesus. To know Mark’s intent, we look to the first verse: Mark 1:1. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This verse is expressed throughout the gospel.
In today’s writing, the Son of Man (which also means the Son of God) will come in clouds with power and glory. This image connects Jesus with the one who will come on the Day of the Lord prophesied in Amos and Joel and Isaiah. According to the prophets, the Day of the Lord will be either God’s conquest of all God’s enemies, or God’s punishment of all those who sin against God.
On that day, Jesus says, the Son of God will come; but, even he does not know when that will happen. Because only God knows when it will happen, we are to keep awake, keep alert for his return.
… By the year 100, or even sooner, believers began to realize Jesus was not coming immediately. So, they looked more to John’s gospel, which says that Jesus has already returned through the sending of the Holy Spirit. Today, most of us give little attention to the prediction that Jesus will come with clouds and power, any day now.
Advent is a good time to renew our watchfulness for Jesus’ coming to be among us. It’s almost impossible to miss the signs that Christmas is coming. But most of the signs today point to Santa, not Jesus. Stores, public spaces like parks and street lights, all bear witness to the coming of someone.
A friend recently criticized the Hallmark holiday movies Mike and I love to watch. It’s hard to find Jesus in any of them, my friend says. And he’s right. Even in our favorite old stories like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, it can be hard to find Jesus. But, when we intentionally look for Jesus in the story, we can always find him. There is always someone who teaches kindness and love and forgiveness. There is always one person – or more – who helps the others find joy.
In our daily lives, it is also hard to find Jesus. We are consumed by working, and shopping, and doctor visits, and paying the bills, and caring for those who are young, or those who are less able than they used to be. We often don’t even look for Jesus.
How can we find Jesus in the messiness of our lives? Only by intentionally looking for him. He is here, and there, and in many places. He is in the giggle of a granddaughter, the quick hug of a grandson. He is in the smile of a grandma, with a pat on the hand that says, “I’m glad you are here.”
Jesus is in the thought you put into the right gift for someone who is hard to buy for. He is in the extra food you buy to give to the poor, and the coat you take from your closet to give to the homeless.
Jesus is in the laughter among friends gathered around a table for coffee and cookies, and in the thoughtful questions and comments during a Bible study. He is in the hug you give a friend when someone dear has died.
Yes, Jesus comes to us as a baby, as a teacher, a healer, and a forgiver. He comes to us as a crucified Savior. And he comes to us, not with clouds and glory, but in many ways every single day, if we look for him.
… Our world is not very different from the world of Jesus and the disciples, and the world of the first believers. There are always wars and rumors of wars. There are always days of darkness and deep suffering. We will always wish and hope for better days and more joyful ways of living.
Jesus, the Son of God promised so long ago, comes to us in the midst of the messiness of our daily lives, in the fearfulness of world affairs, in the terror of those who seek to do violence. This is the good news Mark wants us to know. Let’s spend this Advent looking for Jesus in as many places as we can think of.
Please pray with me: Lord, remind us to seek you in all that we do. Help us notice your presence, and give you the glory you deserve. Fill us with joy as we wait for the celebration of your birth, once again, in Bethlehem and in our hearts. Amen