Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Good morning, and Happy New Year! Today, the first Sunday of Advent, marks the beginning of the new Christian year.
As a kid, this time in the days of December had a very different feel. It didn’t feel as much like a beginning as a race to a finish. Do you remember how much you loved this time of year as a kid? The period right after thanksgiving, all through the month of December? It was and is a time full of wonderful things – lots of parties, bright, colorful lights, great entertainment specials on TV, all the trimmings of Christmas. There’s a lot to anticipate. As a kid, I knew what was coming presents, good food, and two weeks off of school!
Now, my parents love Christmas—most years they put up our Christmas tree on Thanksgiving weekend, and didn’t take it down until well into January. In fact, one year my mother kept the tree up all year, redecorating it for each successive season—Valentine’s Day, Easter, July 4th, back to school, Halloween – I’m sure there’s a whole sermon in that, but I don’t think that’s for today…
I loved looking at our family tree, because it reminded me of the good times past, and kept me in delightful anticipation of the coming delights. I remember especially one year when we had lots of company for Christmas, and as I had given up my bed to some aunt and uncle, a cousin and I slept in the living room on Christmas Eve—right by the tree! I could barely sleep; that tree, just inches away from me, was the symbol of the fun that was only hours away! (Not to mention all those presents…) And yet, I desperately wanted sleep, because I wanted to be alert and energetic when Christmas morning came! As I remember it now, it was a delicious agony!
Mark’s gospel was probably written just prior to the fall of Jerusalem—somewhere around 60-70 C.E. In the Revised Common Lectionary, our three-year cycle of readings, this begins Year B, which has a focus on Gospel of Mark. Year A, just finished, focused on Matthew; Year C focuses on Luke. Because The Gospel of Mark is so much shorter than Matthew and Luke, we will have a bit of John scattered through this year as well. Most scholarship says that this gospel is also the source material for the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
What seems most important to the writer is the identity of Jesus; and so, the gospel of Mark is written in the form of a biography—but not the kind of biography we are familiar with. Rather, it is a biography in the Greco-Roman form. “In antiquity a biography related the significance of a famous person’s career, rarely focusing on his childhood but often including reference to how he died (for how a person dies was regarded as a measure of his character).”[i]
Not surprisingly, the book has a theological framework. We don’t know who this writer was; scholars believe the “according to Mark” part was added sometime after the gospel was written. The writer seems to be someone who knew the Hebrew scriptures very well, and who was also very familiar with Judaism and Jewish practice. It seems important to this writer to link Jesus to the hope of the Jews for a Messiah—to be sure we understand that there is no question that Jesus is in fact this long-awaited king. The gospel begins with Isaiah—we will read the opening of Mark next week, so stay tuned for more about the Isaiah-Mark connection.
But it does seem odd that this New Year, this Advent begins not with the opening of Mark’s gospel—but instead begins with a reading from chapter 13. And that beginning focuses on the end times. This is certainly odd—or is it?
One commentator, Martin Copenhaver, says that, clearly, “Those who assigned the lectionary texts for Advent seem to have been following the advice of epic movie director Cecil B. De Mille, [who said]: ‘Start with an earthquake, then build to a climax’”[ii]
Perhaps beginning with the second coming of Christ helps us relate to the frame of mind of those who waited for the birth of a Messiah. As they didn’t know when the Messiah would be born, so we don’t know when he will return again. But even as we draw that parallel, we must realize that it is not quite the same: As we anticipate Christmas, recalling the coming of God to earth, we know the end of the story. We know whom we are waiting for and we know the exact date he will arrive. We have advent calendars, and advent wreaths to help us count down. By contrast, those awaiting his birth had no way to know when it would happen.
But when we turn our attention to anticipating the return of Christ to earth, we find ourselves waiting in the same way those who lived before Jesus waited—not knowing the day or the hour when he will come.
One commentator says that this is an active state of waiting, as opposed to a passive one. If we are waiting for a bus, he says, that’s passive—but if we are waiting on a corner for a parade to go by, and we can hear the bands approaching, that is active waiting—we are on tiptoe, full of anticipation.
I wonder though, when it comes to the second coming, if we are actually filled with that kind of expectation. I daresay that we have forgotten the promise that Jesus will come again. We don’t live in that kind of anticipation today. This kind of waiting is a very Christian kind of anticipation that is often referred to as the “already/not yet.” We know who this Jesus is, we understand the importance of his coming to the world. We have been the recipients of God’s grace in his life, death, and resurrection. But we are not yet one with God, as we have been promised.
Mr. Copenhaver puts it this way: “Already Jesus had established the means through which we are drawn into relationship with God, but not yet do we live in complete communion with God. Already the realm of God is evident, but not yet is that realm fully established.”[iii]
And therefore we must “keep awake,” as the gospel tells us today. I think this metaphor of being awake really draws the distinction between passive waiting and active waiting. If we are passive, it becomes easy to fall asleep; nothing engages our minds, our spirits. If we are actively waiting, our minds are buzzing, we are alert—we are awake.
What would it mean for us to “keep awake”—to be in that active state of waiting and watching? What challenge does that put before you?
I would like to suggest that this means living our lives intentionally as the blessed and claimed children of God—claiming that birthright. We are called to active discipleship in this passage. And we should take on that identity not because our salvation depends on it (I’m not sure that’s even true)—but rather because the gifts ahead are too precious to miss!
We are called to live into the good gift that God has given us—the gift of Jesus as our guide, our model, our teacher, our companion. And we live our lives as disciples not just in gratitude for God’s incarnation long ago across the sea, but especially because that God is with us still, and because we are promised that we will have an even closer relationship to God in the end times. We are called to keep awake not because of a fear that we might not be ready—but rather because Christ’s coming again is too good to miss!
This Advent, I challenge you to find the way to recapture that anticipation of Christmas that you had as a kid—and also to anticipate that God will come into your life in a richer way than ever before. We can expect that there is much more to come in our relationship to God. And I, for one, want to be sure that I don’t miss any of it!
And so, “what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.” Amen.
[i] Green, Joel B., “The Gospel according to Mark,” The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels, Stephen C. Barton, editor. 2006. p. 143.
[ii] Copenhaver, Martin B., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 21
[iii] Ibid, p. 25.