Staying Awake Through Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37

“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and … causes water to boil—to make your name known …” (Isaiah 64:1-2a)

“Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come … And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” (Mark 13:33, 37)

Yeah … Christmas is coming! But for the most part, our Advent readings—as served up by the Revised Common Lectionary—will shake all the ornaments off your tree. And maybe some pine needles, too.

The Old Testament and Gospel Lessons for the First of Advent (Year B) are good examples of that. Isaiah flashes lightning, and Jesus echoes with thunder in Mark.

“… in those days, after that tribulation, 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. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:24-26)

Together, these two readings catapult us forward in time; how far forward, we can only guess. As the season begins, we stand precariously at the furthest edge of history.

Each reading is startling—even jarring. Together, they bring us face-to-face with the unsettling contradiction of Advent. Throughout this season, 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.

The terror of judgment. Let’s call it what it really is: fear of the future. I think it has a natural association with birth—or with the anticipation of it.

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

Will he have the opportunity to meet his own grandchildren? Or will he be cut down by illness or accident, way too early?

Will she have a chance to use her gifts—to pursue a fulfilling career? Or will she find herself imprisoned by other people’s expectations and agendas?

Will he continue down our path toward destruction, fighting over water and oil and religion? 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?

Will they have a retirement plan that doesn’t involve a bottle of whiskey and a handgun?

Like I said, the judgment that surrounds a child’s birth is all about fear of the future. This judgment does not condemn, exactly … but it does ask pointed—and sometimes frightening—questions.

Even so—even in the face of troubling questions and worrisome forecasts—most of us are, somehow, able to remain hopeful (at least somewhat).

We may worry about our children, but we hope for the best for them, don’t we? Isn’t that what birth is about—having hope for the future? Isn’t that what we’re waiting for, really?

At its core, Advent is a season of hope.

By the way, the Advent One gospel lesson is merely 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. But  here’s a synopsis …

While Jesus and his disciples are walking out of the Jerusalem temple, one of them says to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus responds by saying that someday it will all be thrown down, with 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 suffering awaiting both mother and child. He sees abject powerlessness for fathers who can neither support their families nor protect them. 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 “be on guard.” Sleep with one eye open.

“In those days … they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And 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 13:24a, 27)

This is what Biblical scholars—and students of literature—refer to as “apocalyptic imagery.” The Hebrew Bible contains a great deal of it. It is language that would have been instantly understood by Jesus’ disciples—or, for that matter, by any Jew within earshot.

For example, that phrase about “the Son of Man coming in clouds” … That’s taken directly from the Book of Daniel, where it says:

“I saw in the 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 and 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)

This language of visions in the night is a kind of shorthand—or a coded message—signalling the world’s imminent transformation. To us, it sounds bizarre—but not to a first-century Jew.

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 isn’t the point. No. The point is that Jesus is coming. Jesus is coming here. And if we rejoice in his first Advent, we certainly should not dread his second Advent.

Look—he hardly needs to bring hellfire with him! There’s already plenty of that here. Wars. Rumors of wars. Earthquakes. Famines. Doomsday weapons. Jihads.

Nothing is said here about condemnation. Jesus comes 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 … soon! The question is: what’s your role? What are you being called to do?

Well, here’s Jesus’ message: You are to keep awake, because a new world is about to arrive. It’s coming here, it’s coming soon, and you’ve got to be ready to be part of it at the first sign. At the first inkling, you need to fling the door wide open 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 just around the corner. You are part of God’s plan for the world!

When we hear apocalyptic language—when we think about the “end times”—we may assume it’s all about Jesus rescuing us from a broken planet and lifting us up to safety in the heavenly realm. This is the idea which spawned that “Left Behind” series of books and movies that were popular not that long ago. But if we listen carefully to Mark’s gospel, we hear Jesus saying something else.

Jesus says he is coming down, not that we will be lifted up. Jesus is not saying that he’s going to pull us out of this world. No. He has promised that we will be with him:

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).

And where will he be?

Right here. He has left us here—and he’s going to keep us here—to be his agents for change in this world. Jesus doesn’t say that he hates this mortal realm. Far from it. He says that he loves this world so much that he is going to fix it.

Will he bring divine justice? Yes. But remember this: in Christ, justice and mercy are reconciled. God’s wrath was satisfied long ago. We don’t need to be fearful. But we do need to keep watch for Jesus. 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, working hard—we are expected to join in, and support the cause.

Today, God is recruiting us to work alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ—to become part of his treatment plan for this world’s critical illness.

Jesus asks us to live God’s future today. So keep alert. Stay awake. Watch. Be part of the change that’s coming to this world. But always remember that it is God’s mercy that transforms—and it is God’s justice that brings renewal.

Throughout this season of Advent, let’s all keep our eyes fixed on the horizon … and our hands busy with acts of compassionate service … as now we watch and wait.

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