27 November 2011/Advent 1B - Isaiah 64:1-9/1 Corinthians 1:3-9/Mark 13:24-37
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter's at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Keep Awake: Turn Back
It has been observed that we sleepwalk through much of life. The ritual and busyness of the familiar, the routine, carries us forward like an ever flowing stream. School started in August. Halloween and Thanksgiving have come and gone. The ritual observances of Christmas have begun with the consumer driven madness of Black Friday, now become Black Thursday and Small Business Saturday!
Each of these "end-times" has a procedural set of expectations, rituals, traditions which we can predictably sleepwalk our way through year after year after year - business as usual.
Then in the midst of our ritual march toward Christmas intrudes this odd bit of scripture from Mark - Mark, who has no birth story of Jesus and for that matter no resurrection appearance either. It is called the Little Apocalypse. Jewish Apocalyptic literature plays a key role in hard times. Scenes like this one are meant to buck up a people weary of having the goodness of God's creation disrupted by the vagaries of occupation, exile, social and economic chaos and disintegration, militaristic solutions and the like.
Throughout the history of Israel, the need for apocalyptic was a regular occurrence. At the time of Jesus the country was under the military occupation of Rome, and the rigid demands of the aristocratic religious leadership of the Temple. Not long after Jesus the people attempted two unsuccessful revolts. By the time Mark's gospel had taken shape in the form we have it now, the Temple had already been destroyed by Rome's scorched earth response to the first revolt.
Jewish Apocalyptic was meant to encourage the faithful who now suffer the evils of the present age, and to offer assurance that a moment of judgment and reckoning will soon arrive. Those listening to Mark for the first time are encouraged to maintain hope despite the seeming delay of the Son of Man, but be assured that come he will, and not only will he bring deliverance, but he will also be the One to whom an account must be given. So stay awake, keep alert, be vigilant and watchful in how you pattern your life. Which for Jesus means a life of repentance. Repentance is to be a way of life, not a one-time event.
Jesus' call for repentance is consistent with a biblical tradition's demand for change - change that arises from compassion, not contempt. The words used in the Bible for repentance mean to "turn around." The assumption is that something important and precious has been left behind and needs to be reclaimed. This Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, what some have termed The Great Economy, since God's vision for God's people has always concerned itself with the economy. "It's the economy, stupid," very well can be understood as a biblical imperative. So that repentance is an invitation to deconstruct what is wrong about our way of life and reconstruct a life characterized by the kind of justice and dignity God calls for repeatedly throughout the long history of the biblical narrative.
It is all too easy to see that the world which God created and declared as "good," even "very good," is now running off the rails - and that when this happens, people, who were created in God's image, suffer many indignities and depredations. As the gap between the haves and the have nots continues to grow, as the elected representatives tasked to make corrections deadlock even further, and as we seem to be escalating a militaristic stance toward the rest of the world, it seems clear that the call from Mark's Jesus for repentance is just as germane today as it was nearly 2,000 year ago. It is time once again to turn around and recall, remember, what we have left behind of God's vision for mankind.
It will be seen, years from now, that one of the great ironies of our time saw endless kiosks of books in what was called the Left Behind series of so-called modern day Christian apocalyptic which had little or no connection to the kind of apocalyptic vision Jesus spins out in the thirteenth chapter of Mark. Most especially since the series was born of a theology, Millerism,
which has claimed to know when the end of days will come and the Son of Man appear. Since October 22, 1844 until recently the day has been calculated and recalculated, set and re-set. One has to wonder how such devout and faithful people, and they certainly are, ignore our Lord's own words, "But about that day no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
So what has this to do with Advent and Christmas? Advent, adventus, means "coming." Advent is a time to re-set our sights, to turn back once again, to attempt to recover what has truly been left behind - which is not unbelievers as the popular imagination would have it. What has been left behind is our Lord's vision of the Kingdom of God, a vision based on nearly 3,000 years of biblical imagination - a vision based in justice and dignity - a vision that rejects the notion that power is truth, that violence of any kind can bring about righteousness.
Advent has also been characterized as a time of waiting - waiting for our Lord's return to set things right - to justify our attitude of Hope and our assurance that the day is near. But this is no waiting that connotes a sitting around resting on whatever laurels may be left. It is a waiting that is actively engaged in lives of justice and dignity for all people - not some people, not most people, but all people. When this truly breaks in on us it will no longer be business as usual!
Which means that our compassion ought to lead us to moral outrage at the ways in which the consumer driven culture of acquisition, and militaristic culture of violence work against all that God came to us as a baby in a manger to wake us up to the futility of these modes of so-called civilization.
Which means not just staying awake, but waking up! Waking up to our peculiar history, as a church, as a nation, as mankind. Much of what we hail as progress has come at the expense of grinding one people or another into dust.
Waking up out of our sleepwalking state of being is an invitation to turn back and look at our history to uncover the massive efforts of denial that have left us addicted to acquisition and violence. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Look at the signs of the times. See how we repeat over and over again the biblical sins of blindness, deafness and hardness of heart.
Then once we are awake, once we begin to turn back, see if in this waiting time we might actually hear what Mark's Jesus is really saying - what the call to discipleship truly entails. Only then will we be ready for the coming Day of the Lord. Only then will be truly know not only who we are, but whose we are: disciples of the Son of Man and the people of his Kingdom of shalom, justice and dignity for all people. If ever there was a time for Jewish Apocalyptic it is now. Thank God for opening our hearts to its vision this First Sunday of Advent. Amen.