First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

TEXT: Mark 13:24-37


But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:32-37)

Quite a gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent! We begin, it seems, at the end. We jump into the story near its conclusion—not Jesus’ story, but the world’s story. We begin at the world’s end. We begin this new church year with a reading describing the end of days.

Today’s reading from chapter 13 of Mark is startling, isn’t it? Suddenly, we are face-to-face with the strange contradiction of Advent.

Through Advent, we wait for Jesus’ arrival—both as a baby in Bethlehem and in a fiery cloud descending from the sky. It’s as if the hope of new birth and the terror of judgment share the same crib, fighting over the blankets. In Advent, we get both stories as if they mean the same thing.

I remember once, years ago, getting an earful from a church member who did not appreciate the judgment emphasis of Advent.

“Advent is like waiting for a baby!” she said. “What’s judgment got to do with being pregnant?”

But you know, it seems to me that judgment has everything to do with waiting for a baby to arrive—not in a condemning sort of way, but in a reflective, “worrying-about-the-world’s-future” sort of way.

If you’ve gone through a pregnancy—either as a mother or as a father—you know what it feels like to wonder about what kind of world this little person is going to be born into. You wonder what kind of life he or she is going to have.

Will he have the opportunity to explore old age? Or will he be cut down by illness or accident or addiction, way too early?

Will she have a chance to use her gifts—to find meaningful work? Or will she find herself trapped in a life controlled by other people’s expectations and agendas?

Will he continue down our path toward overheating the planet, and fighting over water and oil? Or will he be part of a solution to the world’s problems?

Will she have hope for the future? Or will she despair for a world consumed by its own greed and self-interest?

The judgment that meets a child’s birth is not so much a judgment of the past, as a judgment on the future. This judgment does not condemn. This judgment merely asks questions.

However, these are hopeful questions. We may worry about our children, but we hope for the best for them, don’t we? After all, isn’t that what birth is about—having hope for the future? Isn’t that what we’re waiting for, really? Isn’t hope at the heart of Advent?

Today’s gospel reading is only the second half of a much longer discourse by Jesus, where he talks about how the world is going to see terrible suffering. You can read it for yourself, if you like, beginning at verse one of chapter 13.

While Jesus and his disciples are walking out of the Jerusalem temple, one of them says to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.” And Jesus responds by saying that someday it will all be thrown down, not one stone left upon another.

The disciples, naturally enough, ask when this will happen, and that’s when Jesus launches into his lengthy monologue about the end times. And it sounds pretty awful.

He laments for those who are pregnant because he sees terrible pain waiting for both mother and child.

He sees abject powerlessness for fathers who cannot protect their families.

He sees cities crumbling and people dying. He sees false prophets offering false hope—a delusional escape out of the destruction. He sees the end of the world.

And he asks his followers to “keep alert.” Sleep with one eye open.

“But in those days,” Jesus says, “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13:24-27)

That’s quite the scene, isn’t it?

Of course, this is not a newspaper account of the final chapter of the earth’s history. But Jesus is talking about great change: the sun and moon darkened, stars falling—a terrifying thought in an ancient world of dark night skies and no street lamps. All of this is what’s called “apocalyptic imagery,” and the Jewish Bible is chock full of it. Jesus’ disciples would have immediately understood what he was referring to. For example, “the Son of Man coming in clouds” … That’s taken directly from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, where it says: As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven …” (Dan. 7:13a).

All of this stuff is shorthand for signaling the world’s coming transformation. It may sound perplexing to us, but it wouldn’t have made first-century Jews bat an eyelash. What may not be so obvious, however—and it wasn’t obvious to Jesus’ contemporaries, either—is that all this apocalyptic language really is not about an angry God bringing judgment upon a sinful world. That’s not the point.

No. the point is that Jesus comes here. Jesus comes here, bringing not condemnation, but mercy. Nothing is said here about condemnation. The point is that Jesus comes here to bring transformation—healing, justice, peace on earth. And the Son of Man—“one like a human being”—stays here, transforming everything.

Change is coming … and it’s coming to a neighbourhood near you!

And what’s your role? What are you supposed to do? Well, here’s Jesus’ message: You are to keep awake, because change is coming—coming here, coming soon, and you’ve got to be ready to be part of it at the first sign. At the first inkling, you’re going to fling wide the door and get everything prepared for the big changes that are on the way. Why? Because you are going to be part of the transformation that’s around the corner. You are part of God’s change for the world!

When we hear apocalyptic language, when we think about the “end time,” we tend to assume that it’s all about Jesus rescuing us from a broken planet and lifting us up to the heavenly realm. This is an idea that’s been made popular by the “Left Behind” series of books and movies. But we need to look closely at today’s gospel text to see what Jesus is really saying.

Jesus is saying he is coming down, not that we will be lifted up. Jesus isn’t saying that we’ll be rescued from this world, but that we will be agents for change in this world. Jesus isn’t saying that he hates this earthly realm. He is saying that he loves this world so much that he’s going to fix it.

And our job is to watch for him. Our job is to keep alert to what God is doing all around us. And when we do see God—with his sleeves rolled up, and sweat on his brow—we are expected to join in, to become part of the saving work that God is doing all around us. Today, God is recruiting us to work alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ—to become part of his Big Solution for a broken world. On this first of Advent, we are being asked to live God’s future today.

So keep alert. Watch. Be part of the change that God is doing in the world. But always remember that it’s God’s mercy that transforms, and God’s everlasting kindness that brings renewal.

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