Revd Sonia Neville
First Sunday of Advent—30 November 2014
Mark 13-24-37, 1 Corinthians 1.1-19, Psalm 80
In the last few weeks, we heard Jesus recounting parable after parable. And with each parable a crescendo of advice for watchfulness and preparedness has brought us to the first day of Advent. The emphasis in today's Gospel reading seems to be on balancing chronological uncertainty with an absolute assurance that the end will ultimately come and we shall see the Lord.
Our Gospel reading today calls upon our attention to focus on three scenarios: The first is found in verses 24-27and it draws us into an inevitable apocalyptic pre-preamble one which we would not like to witness. Yet, we are not strangers to natural and human-made cataclysms and the destruction, suffering and death that ensue as a result. The second scenario is found in verses 28-31; through the illustration of the fig tree; Jesus provides us with a 'timely and timeless' insight into horticulture. He instructs his hearers to observe the blossoming transition of the tender branches of the fig tree putting forth leaves. It seems to me that this example is concerned with understanding and not missing the intricate details of life, including that of our ecosystems. Finally, in the third and last scenario in verses 32-37, we encounter the illustration of a man going on a journey. Yet his workers are left with the uncertainty of any timeframe for his inevitable return. Friends, time frames are good. And the downside of a time frame is that humanity knows too well how to manipulate it. Maybe for this and other unknown reasons God has reserved the right to be timeless. In summary the three scenarios warn us where we are most likely to fail, in our ability to be watchful and prepared for the coming of the Lord. And come he will, according to Mark in a glorious way that all followers of Jesus should anticipate.
Do you find it an oddity that in the season of Advent, when there appears to be 'certainty' and 'predictability' in the preparation for the season's festivities, that we Christians begin with words about an 'unpredictable' and 'unexpected' time? Isn't this odd? Each of the rituals in which we involve ourselves during this time seems to have elements of chronological expectation of arrival and departure and where things begin and end. And what can we say about the predictable and deafening consumerist trumpet these days beginning as early as October. I am afraid that Mark is not into the season of comforts; his words are the antithesis of certainty and predictability.
Our reading opens up with a cosmic plot of elements unleashing darkness and falling stars. Such an apocalyptic scene rivals the highest imaginations in Hollywood's cataclysmic themes. Heaven and earth are facing an unprecedented disturbance as God gathers the elect 'from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the end of heavens'. There is no doubt that the cosmic indicators are prophetic and unmistakably apocalyptic, but are these cosmic aberrations true harbingers of the return of the Son of Man? If we step back two verses in Mark 13:21-23, caution is sounded. Jesus warns the elect that false messiahs cannot be trusted and the signs they point at should not be believed. So does a solar or even a lunar eclipse offer a definitive signal of the end-times and the return of Christ? What we learn is that Jesus' words in this text are a harbinger of things to come. And yet some of those cataclysmic events have already taken place on multiple occasions across history. In fact, if we were standing with Mark we would have associated this cosmic suffering narrative in relation to the destruction of the Temple and the whole of Jerusalem in 70CE. We also know that ever since the first century and throughout history, many Christians interpreted these signs as contemporary to them. Moreover, many died hoping for the coming of Christ in their lifetimes.
Friends, with the benefit of hindsight and well informed exegetical work we know that the Scriptures do not offer chronological certainty about the return of our Lord. He said it himself, 'but of that day, hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone' (Mark 13:32). The one and only certainty we have is that the return of Christ cannot be held back but its time cannot be predicted or hurried, not matter our wishful thinking or what cosmic signs are in front of us.
In my past profession as a trainer in business for clinical and therapeutic disciplines, I had the opportunity to train professionals who by academic training preferred to operate with a 'degree' of 'certainty'. And rightly so, their objectivity was tested by the rigour of the scientific method. And yet in my classroom, they had to learn that one cannot predict 'exactly' volatile market trends, the fierce and fast competition and the vast array of new generation pharmaceutical molecules engineered in every laboratory. To enable them to break their need for certainty and predictability, I came up with a phrase that I repeated in all training sessions, it is as follows: "We must learn to live with the certainty of uncertainty and seek comfort in the discomfort of it." Mind you, this phrase was not only for my trainees, for it became handy for me too in times of transition. And the certainty of the transition processes of life is what we have as a constant. Moreover, the evolutionary nature of life forces us to operate in the uncertainty and unpredictability of this transition.
I believe that the core point in all this cacophony of voices and descriptions is that the coming of our Lord cannot be ignored. We have learnt in the last few weeks that to ignore it will be at our own peril. And this is an important point to take home today, we are in transition every second of our lives, we live on a planet which rotates and revolves in an unpredictable universe. And then, we believe in one God in whom there is no time and who operates in unlimited space. Yet in this uncertain and unpredictable sphere where things can get terribly uncomfortable and sometimes even weaken us, we are reminded not to lose sight of the big picture. Moreover, in our reading of 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verses 1-9, the Apostle Paul informs us that we have been enriched and strengthened in Christ, in speech and knowledge of every kind. We are told that we are not lacking in any spiritual gifts as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are promised that Christ will strengthen us to the end, so that you and I may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are reminded that God is faithful and that we are called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. This is what I mean when I say that in the uncertainty of this life that God created, we are given endless certainty. And when we are struggling in the discomfort of living, remember to take comfort in that you are alive in Christ, which is no ordinary living. This has to be the kind of faith that informs our daily lives.
But does anyone actually think that way? Does anyone go through every day, wondering at morning, noon, and night if now is the time that someone long gone might return? It is not unusual for us Christians maybe not consciously but subconsciously to lose sight of Christ's return from the forefront of our minds. And I will not dare challenge any of us here to stand and tell us how many times last week the return of Christ has crossed his or her mind. Nevertheless, Mark challenges us to do the opposite: since the timing is unknown, we should think about it all the time! But how about if we thought about the Parousia or the coming of Christ and did nothing else that points that we live by the courage of that conviction? What a waste of time, and it would not work.
Christian theology affirms and gives us the certainty of the presence of Christ through Word and Sacrament, in the fellowship of other believers, and so forth (Matt. 18:20; 28:20). The rest of Mark conveys an understanding of what it looks like to live in the certainty of uncertainty and yet not to miss on the readiness of expectation. We are certain that Christ is not with us as he once was, and he is not with us as he will be. And it is because of this period of waiting and it's potential associated spiritual numbing that many times we bypass that Jesus is present but in disguised forms.
We are called to exercise 'active waiting', which is the antithesis of 'passive waiting' as we expect God to make all things new. So how do we actively wait for the return of our Master? While the Master is away do we observe what is happening to the welfare of people? How do we care for the needy, the ill and the downtrodden? How is the hungry being fed? How are the homeless being housed? How are the unemployed being supported? In this season of Advent, let us be hopeful but also watchful and ready to act.
When the Master is away, have you observed what is happening to the education of the people? Without knowledge people will perish. Do we stand up for the welfare and education in our country and that of others in the world? In this season of Advent, let us be hopeful but also watchful and ready to act.
It is almost as if we are encouraged to adopt a 'healthy' impatience for the fulfilment of hope. We are to love and serve as we have been loved and served by Christ. We are called to experience Jesus Christ with certainty, in the spirit and in the concrete realities of life. We are to see no longer through a dark glass, but to see through the eyes of Jesus who loves every living thing. We are to call upon his presence even in the absences we experience in life's circumstances, and finally in the words of Psalm 80, we too can ride on the wings of this prayer: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. May the light of Advent open our hearts to God's love as we prepare lo welcome Christ into our lives and homes.