Advent 2023: Make some noise
December 3 | 1st sunday of advent |Year B
Alive, Awake, and Alert
Mark 13:24-27 | Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
What’s the historical context?
The Worst Is Yet To Come
I wonder if some of Jesus’ Galilean crew regretted volubly admiring the beauty of Herod the Great’s temple. I can see Peter quietly sidle up to John after Jesus finished his dour diatribe, “I only complimented the magnificent masonry work and he goes off on how the entire house will be torn down. That spoiled my WHOLE visit to Jerusalem!”
The picture displayed in Mark 13, which precedes today’s lectionary passage, isn’t rosy. Jesus’ response to his disciples gawking at the wonder of the Jerusalem temple triggers a prophetic prediction from Jesus which would even shock our modern day doomsayers and conspiracy theorists⸺cataclysmic signs of the impending disastrous ruin of temple and city through wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famine, and persecution of Jesus’ followers, to name just a few of the not-so-good things yet to come. AND, an abomination of desolation! Academics play scholarly Twister trying to get to a clear understanding of what exactly Jesus meant regarding this “abomination.”
Bottom line? Jesus predicts the demise of the temple system and its city. It will come to ruin in a not-so-good-time and a not-so-good-way.
How Did the First Hearers Take Jesus’ Seemingly Cryptic Code?
The disciples of Jesus may have scratched their heads, dumbfounded by Jesus’ calculus at first, “Huh, what did he mean?” Only time and experience would make Jesus’ horrifying prediction more sensible. Mark’s audience, on the other hand, most probably Gentile converts living in Rome in the late 60s CE and, of course, any of the remaining disciples, would have found Mark 13 quite incisive. General Titus was crushing or had crushed the Jewish revolt and its temple mount when Mark’s words reached the ears of his audience; the Jewish rebellion shot down less swiftly (four years of war, 66-70 CE), but as decisively as a Wagnerian private jet. While the temple precinct flamed, the hearers of Mark’s Gospel would have marveled at Jesus’ prediction. The end is near, so let’s get ready. While it is a mouthful of a statement, I think biblical scholar, Craig Evans, in his Word Biblical Commentary on Mark says it quite well,
Mark’s readers, aware that General Titus had besieged the city of Jerusalem and that therefore Jesus’ doleful prophecy of the doom of the holy city and its famous temple were on the verge of literal fulfillment, would have been awestruck by Jesus’ predictive power and confidence of the ultimate fulfillment of the divine plan. As frightful as the times were, followers of Jesus could take comfort in their master’s words (Evans, 337).
How do we point to Jesus?
Rejection and Return
In the lead up to our text today, Jesus’ prediction of the fall of temple and city, at its core, is an indictment on his fellow countrymen and their religious leaders who rejected both him and his message. Sadly, for Jesus’ disciples, the anticipated triumph of Jesus over Rome, in a militaristic fashion, was not in the cards. His messianic reign would take a different turn as they would discover on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. They would be in for a doozy of a wait for his triumphant return (the clock is still ticking), but that return is the focus of his message to them in Mark 13:24-37.
Chaos, Conflict, and Comfort
Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of the days ahead for his disciples. They will be filled with chaos and conflict. Nevertheless, the apocalyptic scene of a darkened sun and moon, falling stars, and tottering heavens (vv. 24-25) that follows the dreadful days of destruction are merely cosmic reverberations caused by his coming in the clouds with great power and glory. Along with his heavenly host he will gather his elect, his set apart and called out ones, from the four winds, east, west, south, and north, from the high points of heaven and earth. Through the chaos and conflict will come the Son of Man, the one who brings salvation, comfort, and victory to his people.
Jesus’ Certainty of His Dominion
There is no guessing involved here. Jesus considered himself the “Son of Man,” not merely a designation for a mortal being, but the Son of Man as described in the prophet Daniel’s night visions,
…and behold with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14)
Advent in Great Power and Glory? The Best is Yet to Come
When all seems lost, Jesus will return again in great power and glory to write the final chapter of the story of history and salvation, but as he indicated to his disciples neither the angels in heaven nor the son, himself, know the day or the hour (v. 32). Only the Father has that intel and because of that, readiness is required.
Three Greek Imperatives & an Analogy
The three Greek imperatives employed to emphasize Jesus’ admonition to readiness express three verbal degrees of readiness. The first, βλέπετε, simply conveys the idea of physical sight. Keep those eyes open, look, see. Use that vision you have to be ready for Jesus’ return. The second, ἀγρυπνεῖτε, drives a little bit further. Keep awake! This verbal idea has to do with sleeplessness. A somewhat ironic charge to a group of men who will abandon Jesus for snoozing when they fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane during one of his darkest hours. Jesus’ message is clear. Don’t be caught sleeping at the time of my return. The third, γρηγορῇ, is a call to vigilance.
Jesus uses the analogy of a master who goes on a journey leaving his servants in charge. One guards the gates of the master’s compound, on watch for the master’s return, but also as a guard over the master’s possessions. Seeing, sober, and searching, that is what Jesus calls his disciples to be as they anticipate his return.
How does this impact us today?
Dreaming Through the Days
Just a tad bit of time has passed since Jesus predicted his return. Generations of believers have come and gone and still no shaking cosmos, falling stars, and cloud descending arrival of the Son of Man. Frankly, it is easy for some of us to stop waiting. Was Jesus really just like the boy who cried wolf? Should we believe him? Plenty of folks have tried to predict his return, to read the signs of the times. Late Christian broadcaster Harold Camping did some calculations using “biblical” math, numbers derived from scripture, to predict that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011. The day went by without even a shout out from Jesus. Camping would have to wait another two years to join the church triumphant to see him.
What haven’t we gotten about, “No one knows?”
Others have simply left the waiting area, tired of the long hours, days, months, years, and decades of waiting for someone who seems never close to coming. Portions of the church have abandoned a triumphant Jesus along with his adventus glorificamus.
Others have jettisoned the Christian project altogether, because of disbelief in the veracity of the message and the messenger.
I get it. Waiting is hard and trusting that the one for whom we wait will be true to his promise is even harder, especially when we are left waiting after hours when everyone has gone home for the day.
But, what is the alternative?
We could decide to simply dream through the days and internalize a moral and ethical version of Jesus’ message that is divorced from any interruption in the cycle of history, untethered from a victorious end-game. Seasons come, seasons go. We dream through them as best we can.
But how satisfying is that, really?
The Grander Vision Should Motivate and Sustain Us
While we can’t really read the signs with accuracy, there is a sense that the apocalyptic spasms that each generation experiences are a global version of indigestion that alerts us that the world has ingested too much hate, too much horror. The fall of Jerusalem and its temple was one sign and many other signs have been experienced on this spinning globe in each subsequent period since Jesus’ pronouncement in Mark 13.
Scholar Hassell Bullock comments on these apocalyptic signs that we see in Daniel and other places of scripture such as Mark 13 as, “…road sign[s] that we see in history, intended to alert us anew to [God’s promise] to return and renew our faith in the future reality of his promise…I view these waves of history like amber alerts along the road.”
Most of us realize there has to be a better way than war, rumors of war, natural disasters, sickness, and death. Revelation 21 provides the most beautiful vision of the triumphant victory and consummation of all things, when all the noise of chaos and conflict is erased,
…I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will dwell with them and be their God; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying will be no more, for the first things have passed away (NRSV, Revelation 21:3-4)
Now, that is a vision that motivates me to keep the eyes of my heart open to Christ’s return. It may be hard some days, but a final chapter like that motivates me to wait with hope today and tomorrow and to try to live a little more into that vision. How about you? How will you and your community wait on Jesus’ return?
“Thy Kingdom Come on Earth as it is in Heaven!”
Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting.
The apostolic church thought more about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ than about death and heaven. The early Christians were looking, not for a cleft in the ground called a grave but for a cleavage in the sky called Glory.
The Dentist Always Knows
Many of us, when we know we are going to the dentist in a few days, suddenly start brushing and flossing our neglected teeth and gums, hoping that we will somehow trick the dentist into thinking that we have been faithfully taking care of them. But the dentist can always spot the mouth that has been neglected. As one dentist said, ‘Be true to your teeth, and they’ll never be false to you.’
There are many examples in life of how we are ultimately held accountable for the choices we make, but sadly, we often ignore these consequences until it is too late. One day we will all stand before God to give an account of our lives. We should live each day in light of that reality.
Grant R. Osborne, Teach the Text Commentary Series: Mark, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014), p. 249.
The Time Between the Time
In a very real sense, the Christian community lives in Advent all the time. It can well be called the Time Between, because the people of God live in the time between the first coming of Christ, incognito in the stable in Bethlehem, and his second coming, in glory, to judge the living and the dead.
In the Time Between, “our lives are hidden with Christ in God; when Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4). Advent contains within itself the crucial balance of the now and the not-yet that our faith requires….The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world is held in dynamic tension as the church lives its life.
- Although the church has historically linked Advent with both the incarnation of God and the return of the Son of Man, many of us, in practice, celebrate it as a build up to the arrival of Christmas. What might Advent look like for us if it became a watchful waiting for the return of Jesus? How might that reform our practices in Advent?
- Mark 13:24-37 uses apocalyptic language that modern ears are unused to hearing. How does Jesus’ description of the cosmic catastrophes that will accompany his return strike you? Are these visions simply employed as dramatic descriptions of his arrival or should we expect a shaking of the heavens replete with falling stars and a veil of darkness?
- Jesus compares these apocalyptic signs of his return with the blooming fig tree whose budding branches indicate that summer is near. He also indicates that no one but God, the Father, knows the day or time of his return. So, what is it? Can we actually really read the signs of the times around us and know God is near when there is apparently no way for any of us to know when Christ will return?
- Jesus calls his followers to keep their eyes open, to stay awake, and to be vigilant in their watch for him. In what ways do we do this? In what ways do we neglect this? What are some Christian practices that we might employ to be prepared for Jesus’ return? What role might intentional action play in keeping watch, i.e. how do we actively participate in seeing God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?
- When it is all said and done, does it really matter to our daily life that Jesus promised to return? With over two millennia of pacing back and forth, looking at the clock, and towards the heavens, has the church given up on his return? Should the church give up on his return? If it did, how might that impact its faith in the here-and-now? Why might it be crucial to our faith to expect Jesus to make good on his promise?
Crowned and Coming
Inspired by 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 146b-55; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
We wonder and marvel at your constancy
You alone are steadfast
Unwavering across the ages
You, remembering, gathering a covenant people
You, remembering, fulfilling your covenant promises
You, patiently tending your family tree
You, remembering us
We remembering you and your greatness
Hallelujah to our Savior and King!
Crowned and Coming
Whose Kingdom knows no end.
Remembering © 2017 Lisa Ann Moss Degrenia, www.revlisad.com
Prayer of Confession
Almighty God, you have surprised us with your presence in unexpected ways. In the expectations of our routine, we have missed the treasure that you place before us. We come to worship you in community often expecting nothing more than the usual. We begin our days, our weeks, assuming all will run as it always has. We do not look for the unexpected, for your active presence in our daily lives and for that we confess our sorrow. Forgive us for not allowing our eyes to catch the unexpected, to glimpse your glory in the ordinary. May this season, we see the presence of your Son by the power of your Spirit in new and transformative ways. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters. And because you are sons and daughters, God has set the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ So through God you are no longer a slave but a son and daughter, and if a son or daughter then an heir.
In Christ, you are forgiven, adopted into God’s family, an heir to the kingdom!
Adapted from Galatians 4:4-7 by Scott Bullock
I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, The King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen
Adapted from 1 Timothy 6:14-16 by Scott Bullock
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 (1850). Oil on canvas, 7 x 12 feet. Private collection.
Roman soldiers surrounding and assaulting the walls of Jerusalem while flames erupt from the city.
More Quotes: Advent 1
More Illustrations: Advent 1
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.