What are you waiting for? Advent Sunday

What are you waiting for?

Mark 13.24-37

It will come to an end, corona virus that is. We are confident a vaccine will be developed, but we just don’t know when. We are waiting. With a pregnancy we can forecast the end point, it is usually 38-42 weeks and ends in joy. Astroscientists tell us that the sun will cool and the earth will die, the end point is so far into the future we cannot forecast when. We are as much in the dark as those disciples were, not knowing when Jesus would return, they were waiting. Advent is a season of waiting, a time to be marked by urgent anticipation, by a longing for the fulfilment of what has been promised.

Mark’s text for Advent Sunday encourages us to look for Jesus to return. There is a time and place for sound biblical teaching on this, but in any case, the author of Mark’s Gospel seems less concerned with curbing extremism than with challenging complacency.

The “second coming” should not be simply a doctrine to which we officially subscribe just because we mention it in the creeds; it should be a defining reality that impacts our faith and lives. Such impact may be more affective and emotional than reasoning and intellectual. So Mark relies on metaphor, imaginative imagery, and paradox.

In fact, the entire thirteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel presents a stream of thought that offers inconsistent messages. One popular proposal suggests that Mark stitched this chapter together from two “apocalyptic tracts” that originally contained competing ideas. We are invited to try this experiment: First, read Mark 13:1-2, 8, 14-22, 24-30. The text flows smoothly, warning Christians to prepare for an imminent disaster. Then to read Mark 13:3-7, 9-13, 21-23, 32-37. Again, the text flows smoothly, but it offers direction of another sort: that believers need to dig in, stay faithful, and prepare for the long haul.

The theory is that Mark had these two strands in his mind and, rather than choose between them, decided to weave them together into the merged text we now possess. In any case as that's only a theory, the text we now have does alternate between these paradoxical messages, as though Jesus (or Mark) cannot make up his mind: is the end at hand, or not? The key verses that strike many readers as a fundamental conclusion are that we need to live as though the end is at hand and we need to dig-in for the long haul because only God knows the eschatological timetable.

In the portion of the reading that serves as our guide, the emphasis seems to be on balancing chronological uncertainty with an absolute assurance that the end will ultimately come, in a glorious way that all followers of Jesus should anticipate. The chronology runs like this

1) Unprecedented suffering; 2) total darkness, the sun, the moon, and even the stars will cease to give any light.; 3) the Son of Man comes with power and glory; 4) angels gather in the chosen ones. The “generation” that experiences all these things is simply the followers of Jesus who continue the movement he began: that movement, the church, will not be extinguished but will endure until all is accomplished.

Thus, hope does not disappoint; salvation does become reality. Mark’s Gospel does not struggle with the question of God’s plan; we get no explanation as to why there is suffering, but we do get a promise: when all is said and done, we will have our happy ending and that it will never end. This triumph of hope, furthermore, will be truly cataclysmic: the world as we know it projects pessimistic outcomes, but that world belongs to God and it can be changed. It will be changed, and changed so radically that people will someday speak of a time when heaven and earth passed away.

Mark clearly wants this to be part of the faith that informs our daily lives.

In today’s church, many Christians seem to think, “Since the time of Jesus' coming cannot be known, we need not think much about it.” Mark draws the opposite conclusion: since the timing is unknown, we should think about it all the time!

Modern Christians often think, “Since the time is unknown, it could be hundred, or thousands, or millions of years from now.” Mark draws a very different conclusion: since the timing is unknown, it could be today! Maybe this evening, or at midnight, or when dawn breaks.

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?

Yes. People who are in love do that. And that may provide the best context for assessing the intended impact of Mark’s little apocalypse. Elsewhere, Mark’s Gospel likens the time of awaiting Jesus’ parousia to the phenomenon of a newlywed waiting for the return of a “bridegroom” who has been inexplicably “taken away”.

There is much to celebrate in this wonderful world, but the days in which we live are described in Mark as a time for fasting as well as feasting, as a time in which we will often be acutely aware of the absence of our Lord and Saviour.

Of course, Christian theology affirms the presence of Christ through Word and Sacrament, in the fellowship of other believers, and so on. But Mark’s point remains: Christ is not with us as he once was, and he is not with us as he will be!

For many, life in this world is actually not very pleasant, especially in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. But even those fortunate enough to have a life filled with joy and blessing should not be satisfied to the point of complacency. There is more! There is better!

The season of Advent invites us to wait impatiently for the consummation of hope, longing to know God as fully as we have been known; to see no longer through a dark pane, but face to face; to love as we have been loved; to experience Jesus Christ as he is, and in so doing, to become like him. The wait will be worth it; it will end in joy.

The Rev’d Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 29/11/2020