I am a cradle Episcopalian, and was raised in the Church, but I have never seemed to absorb the language of the church.
This was no more obvious than after my first semester at Seminary. It was early December, and I had just finished my last exam. I was ecstatic…it had been, well, a hard fall, our first one in Durham.
I remember seeing a peer as I walked out of the building, I looked over at a classmate, let’s call him Zach and I gave him a huge “Merry Christmas!”
Zach turned to me, and clasped his hands together and said, “I wish you continued preparation and blessed periods of waiting over this Holy Season of Advent…”
Some of us may feel that way about the Gospel reading from, today. This “red-letter” passage, called the Mini Apocalypse from Mark, is usually preached and explicated following a formula that exhorts us, the listeners of the Word to prepare and wait during this season of Advent.
What is the season of Advent?
Advent is derived from the Latin word “ coming” – the Season is marked as a time of expecting the Coming of Christ.
“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes…and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1943
If, like Bonhoeffer, we recognize the “prisons” either literal or figuratively that we find ourselves in at this time then we understand the need for someone to come through that door. Coming through the door to save us, but what does preparation and waiting have to do with having a blessed Advent as my friend Zach said.
The quick route to this answer lies at the beginning and the ending of the text. The beginning of the text – tribulation, “prison” the destruction of the temple in Markan Times, Isisis, Ferguson, MO., issues exposed by The Rolling Stone article, the problems that we face in our homes – troubled marriages, sky rocketing debt, addictions, resentments, fears, the list goes on for us, and it went on for the people of the 1st Century with earthquakes, Christian Persecution, illness, strife and discord.
Tribulation is a constant across the plain of history as is our desire for reconciliation. The problem lies in the huge chasm between the two. Jesus offers us a solution, one that we recite each Sunday that
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
This glorious 2nd coming of Christ, as we sing, “Lo, he comes with Clouds Descending”
This coming knits together the elect from across the world. The beauty and mystery of this tension between the wheel of constant strife and bleakness. This is the rhythm of apocalyptic language – that hope springs from human desperation (Katherine Norris).
We saw a beautiful image of this from a riot in Portland in response to the riots in Ferguson, as you know riots have broken out across the Country. A protester, 12yr old Devonte Hart, held a sign that said “free hugs.” Portland Sergeant Bret Barnum was faced across from him, after a while they began to talk, and Sergeant Barnum asks if he would get one of “those”…Devonte hugged him, and the camera captured this beautiful moment of grace…tears well up in Devonte’s eye.
This is a beautiful and correct image of God’s 2nd coming. A place where swords becomes plowshares, where you were wrong turns into I am sorry, where clenched fists give way to hugs…
And, what and how should we prepare for this glorious 2nd coming, by waiting and preparation. By keep watch. Keep awake. This is the “advent answer.”
But, truth be told, this answer leaves me restless because we live in the now, not the not yet, and I am human and this pie in the sky happy ending seems a bit out of my reach…notwithstanding beautiful images from a riot in Portland…This exhortation to waiting and keep watch leaves be lonely, dark, and despondent. It leaves me concerned that the tribulations of the world, the tribulations of my world are going to overwhelm me. Maybe you feel like this? Like there is just too MUCH.
I had a number of visits with a patient in a hospital a few years ago, and it was about his chronic pain. He was told it would be better. He was tested. He waited. He as 17, he had to quit the team for one semester, he would be back, just wait and prepare for the next one, so he waited and prepared, he never went back. He started college; he had to withdraw, just wait one semester while we run tests the doctors told him. He met a girl, his pain flared, it’s not the right time for love his doctors told him, just wait a little longer. I came across him at 24, seven years after he was first told to wait. He was waiting in the hospital room when I first met him. He was angry and despondent. He had been told to wait and prepare for seven years!
Maybe you have been through something similar, where people just kept nudging you or commanding you to wait, to prepare, and it would be okay.
Now, I want to affirm, what we affirm each week in the Nicene Creed, that Christ will come back and that His coming again will wipe every tear from our eyes, but I find myself identifying with my friend in the hospital…
The Good News is that this is not the only message in this text. These Red Letters are thick with meaning.
Jesus offers two parables embedded in this discourse, one of the fig tree and one about workers. On first glance these two parables point towards keep awake and watching as a means of preparation – on second glance they draw us deeper into the divinity and the humanity of Christ.
The parable of the fig tree. The tree blooms then it will be summer. We know this, right? Cherry Blossoms bloom in the Spring, it snows in winter. We like the dependability of this – IF, THEN. Ancient Greeks referred this as Chronos. Linear Time. Jesus opens with time that is predictable. The seasons. We like this, it takes the mystery and uncertainty away.
The counterweight to Chronos is Kairos. God’s appointed time. God’s time works outside of our understanding. The parable of the workers illumines the uncertainty and unpredictability of this time…It is time outside of our time. Jesus says not even the “Son” will know when the Master of the house will return, so watch out.
What, not even the Son? Is Jesus telling us that he does not know when God will return, when He will return? Yes and no, and this sentence offers a glimpse into the understanding of our passage. First, we understand Christ as union between the divine and human. As part of this union, the properties of the Divine and Human co-exist, but each exists. Jesus’ abilities to preform miracles are a divine property and Jesus’ need to breast feed for substance is a human property. The theologian concept for this is communicatio idiomatum – the communication of properties. Christ has properties that are unique to divine and human self.
These two parables point to the human properties of Christ. Christ, who knows and sees the Chronos, like us, and Christ who does not know, just like you and me, the Kairos as a result of his human properties. God through Christ took on our flesh and in taking on our flesh took on the agony of our waiting and suffering – for us. Christ waited for His Father’s will to be done. The son of man waits in solidarity with us in the darkness of the world – in the very midst of our tribulations and despair.
Back to my friend in the Hospital. We were talking one day about these last chapters from Mark specifically the days leading up to the Crucifixion. My friend began to remark out loud, you mean Christ waited? Christ suffered and agonized about what was next? You mean Christ felt unsure and, as my friend’s eyes welled up with a deep and longing hope, he remarked that, you mean we do not wait alone? You mean Christ is waiting with us? You mean that God is with us.
- Mark 13:24 - 37