Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday 30 November 2014 - 1st Sunday of Advent

Theme(s): The Coming of Christ / The Second Coming of Jesus Christ / Return of Jesus / Facing crises

Sentence: Jesus will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:8).


Almighty God,
give us grace to cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
so that when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.


Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37


Just like that we have switched from the Year of Matthew (A) to the Year of Mark (B)!

Advent is the season of 'coming' or 'coming to(wards)'. Who is coming? When is Jesus coming? And, naturally, gulp, Christmas is coming and cards/presents/food/drink needs purchasing. It is difficult in Advent to focus on Jesus coming to us and on time coming towards its end and the new heaven and new earth coming soon to us.

Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah yearns for God to act, to intervene in the world, as in former days. Yet he acknowledges that God has been angry with Israel (5b) and with good cause (6-7). His plea is that God might treat them like potter's clay (8): that clay, when not conforming to what the potter wants, is able to be reshaped. It gets a second chance at becoming a pot!

Please God, Isaiah says, 'Do not be exceedingly angry' (9). I am not quite sure why the reading ends with this verse - the next few verses fits well with one of the themes in today's gospel reading.

Note verse 6: the prophet notes that relative to the utterly, absolutely pure holiness of God 'all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth' (6b). Do we too easily think we live in ways God approves because, well, we think we are okay by our lights?

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

If Mark 13:24-37 looks ahead to terrifying crises afflicting Christians, then this psalm may be read as a prayer to God to save us from the crisis and the terror.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

This reading is an 'advent' reading because after Paul's opening greeting (1-3) and complimentary prayer of thanks with a bit of teaching about spiritual gifts (4-7) he looks ahead to 'the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ' (7).

Currently Jesus Christ is obscured - seated at the right hand of God in heaven but invisible here on earth (save in the lives of his followers). Thus Paul looks ahead - as he often does in his letters - to the future revealing or making visible of Jesus Christ to the world. Ahead of us lies 'the day of our Lord Jesus Christ' (9).

To be ready for that great day we need to be going about the business of our Lord: it is a time of waiting but also a time in which we need every 'spiritual gift' which enables us to do God's will (7).

In this time of waiting yet exercising the spiritual gifts God has given us we should not be anxious. God is at work: 'He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ' (9).

The use of 'blameless' is an implicit reminder that the coming of Jesus Christ on that day will be for the purpose of judging the world.

Mark 13:24-37

This is a really tough passage of Scripture to comment on so let's start with the easy comments to make.

When Jesus says, "Keep awake" (37), he concludes a part of the passage with a consistent, comprehensible message. That message is that a day is coming when he will return but the hour of the return, indeed the day itself is known only to God the Father. Thus being ready for that hour, at all times, is important. That is the message of verses 32-37. In the season of Advent, when we recall the first coming of Jesus Christ and look ahead to his second coming, we do well to hear and heed this message.

What is much harder to comment on are verses 24-31. In these verses, almost but not quite contradicting verse 32 'about that day or hour no one knows', Jesus encourages his followers to look around them and see signs which point to the imminence of the day and hour.

In verses 24-27 Jesus draws on Old Testament texts to make a prophecy about the future coming of the Son of Man. In doing so he reinterprets Daniel 7:13 which concerns one like a son of man who represents the elect of God and comes towards God: here 'the Son of Man' (i.e. Jesus) will come towards earth to gather in the elect. But when will this happen?

In verse 28 Jesus says to learn a lesson from the fig tree: the way it puts forth its leaves is a sign that summer is near. Thus, he goes on to say, "So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates" (29).

'These things' are the matters Jesus has been forecasting in verses 5-23: there will be false teachers (5-6), wars and rumours of wars (7-8), earthquakes and famines (8), persecution (9-13), the setting up of the 'desolating sacrilege' in the Temple (14), terrible suffering (19) and false messiahs and prophets (21-22).

But here lie several difficulties.

1. Only one of these matters is specific (the setting up of the 'desolating sacrilege'). The rest are recurring features of human or natural behaviour through the ages.

2. The specific matter will relate to the coming of the Romans to destroy Jerusalem in 70 AD. Is this what Jesus has in mind? Is it only what Jesus has in mind? Note that most if not all of Mark 13 could relate to this event because the beginning of the chapter concerns a prophecy of Jesus about the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) which did occur in 70 AD. It does make sense of 'he is near, at the very gates' (29) - if we think of 'he' as the Roman general leading the forces against Jerusalem and equate 'the gates' with the gates of Jerusalem.

3. But if Mark 13 only relates to one future historical event then talk of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory is difficult to interpret in relation to this event because in 70 AD the elect of God were not gathered in 'from the end of the earth to the ends of heaven' (27).

4. Then there is the matter of the enigmatic claim in v. 30 that 'this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.' If Mark 13 refers to events in 70 AD then there are no problems: some people alive hearing Jesus say these things in the year 30 AD (+/- one or two years) would have been alive in 70 AD. But if 'all these things' refers further ahead, to the return of the Son of Man to gather in the elect, an event which still has not taken place, then 'this generation will not pass away' requires some interpretational fancy footwork. Could genea mean 'race' so that Jesus is saying that the Jews will not pass away before he returns? Despite serious attempts to exterminate the Jews such as the Holocaust, the Jews remain with us. Could 'this generation' have a timeless reference, e.g. the phrase refers to the church as the continuing followers of Jesus who hear and re-hear these words?

5. Is Mark 13 a prophecy on two levels? On one level some words look ahead to the events of 70 AD and on another level other words look ahead to the end of history. But if this is so, then the words are woven in with one another. Rather than being enigmatic, from this perspective the prophecy seems to involve obscurity: at various points it is obscure which level the words are working on.

If we then acknowledge the difficulties in the passage, what are we to make of it?

We should not allow the difficulties to block our reception of the clarities within the passage. Acknowledging that Jesus is speaking in a manner which recalls to us other modes of apocalyptic communication, i.e. disclosures of God's plan for the present and the future in colourful, dramatic, metaphorical and thus often obscure language (think Daniel, Revelation), then we can hold the difficulties in tension with points of clarity rather than worry ourselves to death over their resolution.

The clarities are:

1. Jesus' followers face at least one, if not many crises prior to his return. In these crises extraordinary pressures, including devastating suffering are likely to be experienced. We see such crises for believers unfolding in the world today, especially in the Middle East and in Africa.

2. We are asked to 'endure to the end' whatever we face for the sake of Christ (13).

3. We should 'be alert' (23, 33) and 'keep awake' (35, 37) at all times, that is, be ready for the return of Christ. In application that means, Today, am I faithful to Jesus? Today, have I confessed and repented of all sin? Today, am I going about my master's business? (34-36)

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