FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Apocalyptic literature, such as we find in Sunday’s gospel, is hard for us mainline protestants to digest. We are progressive in our outlook. We expect the kingdom of heaven to come incrementally. Shaped as we are by 19th Century rationalism, we view our present state of civilization as the vanguard of a slow but steady march from barbarism to liberal democracy and beyond. We can point to enough instances of progress to make this view of reality somewhat plausible. We have outlawed the overt practice of slavery. We have created an international network of alliances, agreements and institutions which, though they cannot altogether prevent war from breaking out, limit the scale of warfare and provide mechanisms for resolving military conflicts that might otherwise drag on indefinitely. Freedom, equality and prosperity are reachable for more people today than at any other time in recorded history. All of this suggests that we are progressing toward a better day.
The gospel, however, challenges our faith in progress. The evangelist reminds us of truths we would prefer to ignore, namely, that the increased prosperity of some has come at the expense of many more who remain mired in poverty; that slavery has been abolished in name only and is very much alive for victims of human trafficking and millions laboring in harsh conditions for wages that cannot sustain them. The treaties and institutions that have maintained peace and stability in many parts of the world are experienced as oppressive and unjust to many who had no voice in their creation nor any role in governing them. Moreover, these institutions are beginning to collapse under the weight of a new nationalism spreading across the globe. Racist ideologies and patriotism grounded in “blood and soil,” once thought relegated to the dust bin of history, are on the rise. The hard-fought gains for people of color, sexual minorities and women in this country that we hoped were permanent are in danger of being lost. Our faith in progress is being shaken-and that might be a good thing because faith in anything less than Jesus is idolatry.
The evangelist warns us against the notion that we can obtain intelligence into the when and how of God’s coming reign. S/he assures us that the day of the Lord will come, but that the timing and method of its coming are beyond our comprehension. The evangelist is clear on one thing, however. The kingdom will not come through gradual, incremental, peaceful evolution. It will come through revolution, violence and bloodshed. The institutions to which we look for peace, stability and progress must be dismantled in the birthing of the new creation. To those of us who have traditionally looked to the institutions of the old order for security, peace and progress, that is a frightening word. Yet for the many who find these very structures oppressive, violent and unjust, the apocalyptic message of Mark is remarkably good news.
During the Advent season we are reminded that we can only wait for new creation. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who would like simply to patch up the old creation. It is hard to be told that a “kinder, gentler empire” will not do. The evangelist is telling us that the new world cannot dawn without the death of the old. This means that a lot of what we hoped was permanent, a lot of what we believed was good, a lot of what we worked so hard to achieve will be dissolved before we arrive at God’s gentle reign of peace.
That isn’t to say that what we do in the meantime doesn’t matter. Precisely because we know the world ends in God’s reign of justice and peace, it matters all the more how we spend whatever time we have left. We must practice justice and peace now so that the world may know its destiny is God’s kingdom and so that we might be formed into the kind of people capable of living faithfully in that kingdom when it finally is revealed. Making the world a better place is not a vain effort. To the contrary, that is why human beings were created. It is critical, however, to recognize that nothing we accomplish, however good and important, is eternal. No gain that we make is irreversible. Neither our lives nor our accomplishments are immune from the “change and decay in all around I see.” We can hope, pray and even expect that our works of justice, compassion and mercy witness to the kind of world God is making. But we dare not confuse our efforts with God’s own redemptive work. By all means strive to make progress; but trust only in God.
Here’s a poem by Jones Very on that very point.
The New World
THE NIGHT that has no star lit up by God,
The day that round men shines who still are blind,
The earth their grave-turned feet for ages trod,
And sea swept over by His mighty wind,
All these have passed away, the melting dream
That flitted o’er the sleeper’s half-shut eye,
When touched by morning’s golden-darting beam;
And he beholds around the earth and sky
That ever real stands, the rolling shores
And heaving billows of the boundless main,
That show, though time is past, no trace of years.
And earth restored he sees as his again,
The earth that fades not and the heavens that stand,
Their strong foundations laid by God’s right hand.
Source: American Religious Poems, Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, editors; pub. by Library of America, Inc. p. 96. This poem is in the public domain. Jones Very (1813–1880) Though a minor figure in the American poetic pantheon, Very’s work was highly regarded by such prominent figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott. He studied at Harvard Divinity School until he succumbed to religious delusions that lead to his expulsion. His style bears the mark of his devotion to William Shakespeare whose sonnets he often emulated. You can find out more about Jones Very and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles, inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine, arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight by their belief in a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
The prayer of lament that constitutes our lesson is, according to Professor Claus Westermann, one of “the most powerful psalms of communal lamentation in the Bible.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 392. The prophet does not take lightly the disillusionment of his/her people. Speaking in the voice of the community, s/he cries out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” vs. 1. Like the rest of the people, the prophet longs for God’s intervention. The prophet reminds God (as though God needed reminding!) that there was a time when God did act decisively on Israel’s behalf. The prophet alludes to the saving acts of God in the past. Though lacking in specificity, the prophet’s references to “terrible things that we looked not for” might well include the Exodus, the Conquest of Canaan, the triumphs of Samuel and David. Vss. 3-4. God acted then, so why not now?
Of course, the prophet knows and the people no doubt suspect that the reason for God’s silence is tied to their own lack of covenant faithfulness. Yet the people cannot help but feel that God’s anger is out of proportion to their offenses. In verse 5, the prophet cries out, “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned…” The order here is most curious. It almost seems as though the people attribute their sin to God’s anger. How can one believe in and trust a God whose wrath is so unsparing? No wonder that “no one calls upon [God’s] name, that bestirs himself to take hold of [God].” Vs. 7. It is God “who has delivered [Israel] into the hands of [her] iniquities.” Vs. 7.
Our reading ends with a plea for God not to be so exceedingly angry. Vs. 9 “Thou art our Father,” the prophet declares. “We are the clay, and thou our potter; we are the work of thy hand.” Vs. 8. In verses 11-12 (not in our reading) the prophet calls God’s attention to the holy city of Jerusalem and the once great temple of Solomon, now in ruins. The poem concludes with a haunting question: “Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?” vs. 12.
This prayer strikes a resonant note for an age that seems far removed from miracles and unequivocal words and acts of God. For a good many modern folk, the stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection are just that, stories. At best, they are metaphors for experiences that fit neatly within the narrow confines of our secular frame of reference. For the most part, though, they are archaic myths that we have long outgrown. Those of us who still believe long for the God of the Bible to “rend the heavens and come down” so that we might be assured that the line to mystery, revelation and renewal has not gone dead. Are we shouting frantically into a broken connection? Is there no longer any listening ear on the other end?
I would encourage you to read chapter 65 of Isaiah in addition to our lesson. There you will find God’s response. God, it seems, is equally frustrated by the lack of communication. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me,” God replies. “I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” Isaiah 65:1. Though God might not be responding with the fireworks Israel is seeking, God is responding nonetheless. So perhaps the problem is not with God’s silence, but with our lack of perception. Perhaps we cannot hear the word of the Lord because we have bought into the limited and limiting vision of empiricism. Perhaps the silence of God can be attributed to our lack of capacity to imagine, contemplate and be open to mystery. Maybe God is even now rending the heavens and coming down and we have only to open our eyes and look up to see the Advent of our God.
This is a psalm of lament. Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C.E. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.
As we saw in last week’s lesson from Ezekiel, the term “shepherd” is commonly associated with kings and rulers. “Enthroned upon the cherubim” (vs. 1) is an allusion to the presence of God symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant which had images of two of these heavenly beings on its cover. Exodus 25:17-22. Though the Ark had likely been captured or destroyed by this time and, in any event, would not have been in the possession of the Northern Kingdom, this term for God’s majesty lived on.
Like the psalm from Isaiah, this psalm also implores God to act and asks “how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?” vs. 4. This is a common refrain throughout the psalms of lament. See, e.g., Psalm 13:1-2; Psalm 74:10; and Psalm 79:5. It seems as though God has abandoned his people to suffering and to the mockery of their enemies. As we see time and time again, Israel had no qualms about letting God know when she felt God was not holding up his end of the covenant. Yet as angry, disappointed and disillusioned as Israel sometimes was with her God, she never ceased speaking to God. As hard as it was for Israel to believe in God’s promises, it was harder simply to dismiss them. Israel knew that her ancestors lived for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt crying out for salvation before God sent Moses to deliver them. Israel knew that nearly all of those ancestors died on the long trek through the wilderness without seeing the Promised Land. Israel knew that in the past her ancestors had had to wait for God’s salvation. Why should things be any different now? With this knowledge and experience in her memory Israel cries out in the refrain found throughout this psalm, “Restore us, O God, let they face shine, that we may be saved!” vss. 3; 7 and 19.
In a culture that rewards speed, efficiency and instant satisfaction, the virtues of patience and persistence have little place. Praying to a God who acts in his own good time and for whom a thousand years is but a day has little appeal in the world of Burger King where you can have it your way right now. The Psalms remind us, however, that there is value in waiting. It is not just wasted time. Waiting gives us time to consider and contemplate that for which we pray. Those who practice prayer patiently and consistently know that one’s desires are transformed in the process. In the discipline of persistent and constant prayer, longings and desires are purified. We often discover in the process that what we thought we wanted, longed for and desired is not what we truly needed. By the time we recognize God’s answer to our prayer, our prayer has changed-and so have we. Waiting is perhaps the most important dimension of prayer.
As always, I urge you to read Psalm 80 in its entirety.
You might want to refresh your recollection concerning Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
Our reading for Sunday is a snippet from Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth. Paul alludes herein to the matters to be dealt with in the body of his letter, namely, “knowledge,” “eloquence,” “spiritual gifts,” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of particular importance for the dawning of this Advent season is the promise of Christ to “sustain” us to the end. Vs. 8. Endurance is and always has been a key New Testament virtue. As I have said before, I do not believe there ever was a “crisis” in the early church prompted by the “delay of the second coming” (sometimes called “the Parousia”). I am convinced that the church understood from the witness of Jesus himself that the kingdom of God had come with power and glory in the cross and resurrection-but that in a sinful world the kingdom necessarily takes the shape of the cross. Though longed for, the consummation of the kingdom was not expected momentarily and the fact that it did not so occur did not occasion any “crisis of faith.” The God and Father of Jesus Christ was the God who sojourned with the patriarchs through their many years as foreigners in the Promised Land; the God who waited four hundred years before answering the cries of his enslaved people in Israel; the God who sat for seventy years in exile with his people and who sent his Son in the fullness of time. Patient longing has been part of the discipleship package from the start. It was not invented by the church to save its disillusioned members from their dashed hopes.
That means, of course, that disciples of Jesus must reconcile themselves to not knowing what time it is. The end (in the sense of Jesus becoming all in all) might come tomorrow. Yet again, it might not come for several more millennia. For all we know, tomorrow’s seminaries might include courses in space travel for pastoral leaders called to churches established at human colonies in far off star systems. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we do not know how long it will take for us to arrive at our destination, what the road ahead will look like or how we will know when we have arrived. Only patient, hopeful and confident trust in our Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, can sustain us on this journey.
The language employed by Jesus in our reading is similar to prophetic judgment and apocalyptic speech employed in the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, it is “more than metaphorical, less than literal.” Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 2 (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by A&C Black, Limited) p. 319. The imagery suggests cosmic dissolution. The coming of the Son of Man in glory means the end of the world as we know it.
That said, I believe Mark is doing something unique with this section of his gospel. Jesus has said before that “this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” Vs. 30. See also Mark 9:1. So the question is, what “things” is Jesus talking about? Note well that Jesus tells his disciples no less than three times to “watch.” Vss. 33-37. As we will see, they famously fail to stay awake and watch three times. Mark 14:32-42. At Jesus’ crucifixion, “there was darkness over the whole land until the 9th hour.” Mark 15:33. Jesus is acknowledged (albeit mockingly) as Messiah while hanging on the cross and confessed as Son of God at his death. Mark 15:21-39. Jesus, identified in the first chapter of Mark as “Messiah” and “Son of God” (Mark 1:1), is so glorified in his crucifixion-a strange sort of glory. Do these words of Jesus from our gospel lesson pertain to some cosmic event in the distant future? Or do they refer to Jesus’ impending crucifixion? Is the cross for Mark the end of the world?
I suspect that this is a matter of both/and rather than strictly either/or. What happened with Jesus did indeed initiate the dissolution of the cosmos. Evidence of dissolution is everywhere. Nonetheless, if the sky is falling it can only mean that God is replacing it with a new heaven and a new earth. The end of the world is therefore the revealing of God’s kingdom, which now is hidden under the form of the cross. The end of the world is plainly visible for all who are watching for it. I concur therefore with Professor Cranfield who has this to say:
“If we realize that the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-and Ascension, on the one hand, and the Parousia, on the other, belong essentially together and are in a real sense one Event, one divine Act, being held apart only by the mercy of God who desires to give men opportunity for faith and repentance, then we can see that in a very real sense the latter is always imminent now that the former has happened. It was, and still is, true to say that the Parousia is at hand-and indeed this, so far from being an embarrassing mistake on the part either of Jesus or of the early Church, is an essential part of the Church’s faith. Ever since the Incarnation men have been living in the last days.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 408.
Though Cranfield employs concepts that are far outside the theological outlook of Mark’s gospel, I believe that his conclusion is nonetheless sound. For Mark, the new age was inaugurated by Jesus in the midst of the old. The cosmic events surrounding the crucifixion are of one piece with the final convulsion in which the old age withers before the advent of the new.
This is a timely word for all who experience dissolution, whether it be the dissolution of the America they once knew, the dissolution of a marriage, the dissolution of a mind into dementia or the dissolution of a church. Jesus does not soft peddle the reality of death in all its aspects. The creation is subject to death and the convulsions of its death throes are everywhere. But these same convulsions, for those who are attentive, are birth pangs of something new. That is the good news in this lesson.