Apocalypse now

3 December 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Advent 1B (RCL)

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

Well, it’s Advent 1, Year B, and so we begin the new year with Mark’s urgent apocalypse. It is a bit hard to find good news in Mark’s vision of the near future. Stars will be falling from the skies, the sun and moon will not give their light. The only glimmer of hope here is that the Son of Man will gather his elect from the four winds. And the passage from Isaiah doesn’t help much: God has turned God’s face, and so we sinned. The prophet ends up asking God to reform God’s people, and not to be angry forever.

We usually think of Advent as a season of waiting for Christmas, but these readings shock us into a different kind of waiting — we are waiting for God’s judgment, and as so many of the prophets say, the day of the Lord will not be what we had hoped for. Mark is putting these words on Jesus’ lips just after Jesus has predicted the destruction of the Temple. It is easy to understand why Mark thought the world would soon come to an end. The Temple, which had been the focus and guarantor of Jewish identity for hundreds of years was gone. Now who are we? It seemed that only a shocking intervention by God could restore any sense of sanity to the world.

I don’t suppose our Temples are falling down, but there is a sense of urgency in the world at the moment. Institutions we thought we could trust have been wrenched away into new configurations. Within the last few weeks, we have witnessed a dramatic shift in the way we, as a society, handle sexual misconduct. After the #metoo campaign, we have seen a number of prominent men toppled from their positions (and rightly so), while we have also witnessed politicians bully their way through allegations. In some sense, the cover has come off a long-standing problem (and that is what apocalypse means – to remove the cover). For many of us, the tax plan currently before Congress simply pulls the cover off the greed we knew was there all along. And we have been living through a long-simmering shift in how we think about race. Many of these institutions were corrupt all along and needed to come down, but it still gives us a sense of vertigo.

Isaiah’s cri de couer makes sense — “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Where is God in all this mess, we may ask. Isaiah lays some of the blame at least on God: “You were angry and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed; you have hidden your face from us and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Perhaps we were looking in the wrong places for God. We wanted the mountains to quake, but God comes otherwise.

In Jesus’ little parable, the master of the house going on the journey gives authority to his slave, each for his own work. We are to be watchful for the return of the master. Our baptismal covenant asks us to seek Christ in all persons. The porter is to open the door to Christ whenever we see Christ. Even now, Christ comes, not with displays of power, but in the simple encounter. If we are awake, we will see him all around us.

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