Lectionary: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Last Sunday evening I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with our children and youth at their weekly Zoom meeting. One of our youth asked a great question which led to a short discussion about how to understand the apocalyptic language in our gospel readings last Sunday and today.
As we enter this season of Advent, which inaugurates a new liturgical year for us, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic and rising revelations of racism. It is a time of tribulation for us, much like our forebears in the faith knew, so it helps to find the hope in the apocalyptic vision.
Apocalyptic language is a literary form found in several places in our Scripture, but especially in the Book of Daniel and the Revelation to John. Historically, apocalyptic literature arises out of times of trouble and the vision it offers is one of ultimate salvation by God.
Apocalyptic writings are rich with symbolism and dualistic language such as light and dark, good and evil, and groups on the right and on the left. It even has code language meant to tell the story of the tribulation being suffered while protecting the writer and the community from retaliation by their oppressors.
The gift of apocalyptic literature is that it affirms the real suffering being experienced while holding that suffering as momentary - birth pangs that will eventually lead to a new life in a new age, one in which God has set things right.
What trips us up is that apocalyptic literature cannot be read literally. It isn’t history or doctrine. It’s a very dramatic expression of the vision of God’s ultimate plan of salvation, a plan our small human minds can’t begin to comprehend. Attempting to read apocalyptic language literally is like trying to read Dr. Seuss literally. It’s impossible, but more importantly, it misses the point being made, and since Jesus made several really bold points in today’s gospel using apocalyptic language, it’s worth taking a look at them.
Our story begins with, “after that suffering.” In the preceding verses in this chapter from Mark, the disciples are watching the construction of the temple in Jerusalem and marveling at how magnificent and strong a building it is. As he usually does, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach and he describes a terrifying time of the destruction of the temple, war and violence, false prophets and famines.
Shaken from their reverie to fright, the disciples ask when will all of this happen? Jesus’ answer is in today’s gospel reading. “After that suffering” Jesus says, you will see what looks like the restoration of the chaos God had brought to order in the story of creation in Genesis: the sun and the moon will go dark and the stars will fall from the firmament Then, quoting from the apocalyptic book of Daniel, Jesus tells them they will see the “‘Son of Man’ coming in clouds with great power and glory.” This is the first very bold point Jesus is making.
Jesus, who often refers to himself as the Son of Man, is identifying himself with the Son of Man from Daniel who came to inaugurate a new age for God. Jesus goes on to say that this Son of Man will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from the farthest reaches of heaven and earth. This is a bold identification of himself as divine, as God.
But the boldest claim is probably at the end of that paragraph. Connecting his listeners to the prophet Isaiah who said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa 40:8) Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Most of us are so relieved by the message that we miss the fact that Jesus is identifying himself here as God in an unambiguous way.
Another huge point so often overlooked is Jesus’ statement that when we see these things taking place, we will know that God is near - “at the very gates,“ he said. Every time we see these things, not just once, but in every age, we must remember that we know it means God is near. So when we hear ourselves asking “where is God in all of our suffering?” our faith reminds us to give thanks because we know it means that God is near, at our very gates.
Sadly, what many people end up focusing on is when the end of the world will happen. Well, try as we might, we can’t pin God down to a moment, a day, or even a millennium because Jesus’ second coming is happening now and will continue until it is completed. Then we will see and perceive the Son of Man in all of his power and great glory - the fullness of God who is all in all.
Our faith reminds us that Jesus said, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:17), and that he would not leave us orphaned (Jn 14:18).To do that, Jesus breathed his Spirit into humanity uniting himself to us forevermore.
This is the unexpected new thing God did in Jesus: inaugurating a new age where the divine Spirit of Christ dwells in the mortal bodies of each of us, and in all of us as the body of Christ. This is the hope Advent calls us to remember and ponder and now is the time for us to re-awaken to this new thing already happening in us and through us. The spirit of Christ has been given to us as a gift from God.
Are we awake to the astonishing nature of that gift? Are we sharing it as Christ bid us to do?
The light that has been given to us shines on the darkness in our own hearts as well as into the world. We are mistaken if we believe that being temples of Christ’s spirit rids us of our own inner darkness. It doesn’t. It illuminates it for us so that we can see it and choose to let go of whatever hinders God’s plan for us, for our parish, or for the corner of God’s garden we serve.
This is how we practice the season of Advent. If we choose to now, we can enter this season with hope… the expectation that we can trust the light of Christ that is in us to illumine the path of new life God is revealing to us right now. As we proclaimed at the lighting of the candle for this first Sunday in Advent, “Christ is coming. Christ is always coming… always entering a troubled world, a wounded heart.”
Let us pray. Give us grace, Eternal God, to prepare ourselves to answer your invitation to new life. We pledge to use this season of Advent to prepare ourselves and to listen, certain that you are with us, leading us into new life. By your redeeming love, transform us and make us ready to be sent forth as bearers of your light, temples of your Holy Spirit, and sharers of your holiness. Amen.