The Advent Texts
Have you noticed that lately the scripture lessons have become darker, more mysterious, and full of ominous signs and portents? While the shopping malls glisten with bright lights and good cheer, hapless Christian congregations have been listening to Zephaniah. Two weeks ago the lector read: “The day of the Lord is near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, that day will be a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness….” The listeners sitting in my row were very quiet as the lector finished with the words, “in the fire of God’s passion, the whole earth will be consumed; for a full, a terrible end will be made of all the inhabitants of the earth.” (Zephaniah 1:14-15,18). Everyone took a deep breath and we went on to the considerably happier plight of the foolish bridesmaids, who, after all, were only locked out of the party.
I’ve never understood the enthusiasm of some modern Christians who yearn for the literal end of the world, those folk with the bumper stickers that proclaim: “In case of rapture, this car will be without a driver.” I myself agree with Amos who in another recent lesson raised the sensible question, “Why do you want the day of the Lord? [The Day of the Lord] is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake” (Amos 5:18-19). Why, indeed wait for such a distressing event? I personally like the song line from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun: “I’ve got the sun in the morning and the moon at night and I’m all right.”
New Testament scholar Paul S. Minear, has written that: “the language of cosmic upheavals will remain for many of us a foreign tongue which we will never be able to use with fluency or integrity.” We may not be fluent in apocalyptic language, but the church insists that we cannot discount it either. To the surprise of many modern readers, the Olivet discourse of Mark 13, the Gospel lesson for Advent 1, is loaded with ideas and symbols that are truly apocalyptic in nature, that is, Jesus’ language is suffused with images of the end of time.
The Political Context of the Gospel Lesson
In order to understand these lessons, we must take a quick glance at the grim religious mood that pervaded the world of Jesus. To begin with, Jesus, along with his family, friends and his enemies lived their whole lives under foreign occupation. Jesus himself had been born shortly before the death of King Herod the Great. Herod’s Jewish subjects thought that he earned the title “great” not as much for his ambitious building projects but for the “great” brutality laid even on his own family. It was well known that he murdered his wife Mariamme and some of his own children. The people who lived under his regency regarded Herod with contempt. While there is no historical evidence for the slaughter of the innocents, the excessive cruelty of Herod made the story to be creditable in the church.
Herod remained King because he was a vassal of the Roman Empire. When Herod died it was the Emperor who divided the territory between three of his sons. The government in Galilee, where Jesus was raised, was run by son Herod Antipas who had a thriving network of spies and who was neither a good model of rectitude or of Roman justice. The Jews hated son Archelaus, governor of Judea, so badly that they petitioned to Rome for his removal. Rome responded by taking over the direct governance of Judea, placing Jerusalem under military control, a decision that would have dire consequences for the city in the decades to come.
The Cultural Context
The new authorities immediately ordered a census for taxation purposes. Roman taxation on the provinces was already severe. The census led to an armed rebellion by Judas the Galilean when Jesus was about twelve years old. The socioeconomic realities in Palestine assured that everyday life could be harsh indeed. Among the educated there was a profound pessimism. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has written that “the years of Jesus’ ministry were so tense that his proclamation “The Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15) could not help being both inflammatory and deeply ambiguous”
Cosmic Disaster as a Sign of End Times
In the midst of this unsettled climate, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Jesus privately about a prediction he had made about the inevitable destruction of the Temple. Seated together on the Mount of Olives across from the Temple, Jesus spoke what was, according to Mark, to be the last private teaching of his ministry.
Jesus’ words fairly crackle with the electricity of cosmic disaster. The future, Jesus exclaims, will hold great suffering, “such as has not been from the beginning of the creation” (v.19). There will be: “wars and rumors of wars” (v.7), “the worse kind of betrayal in families,” (vs. 12-13), along with: “earthquakes and famines.” At the end of this time of suffering there will be a total breakup of the cosmic order when the sun and moon will refuse to give light and the stars will fall from their places. (vv.24-25).
Jesus envisioned this darkened universe as the backdrop to the main event when the “Son of Man” would come in clouds with great power and glory to gather his elect from the four winds. Mark’s Jesus expected the end to be very close at hand, for he confided to his inner circle: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place (v.31).” Jesus cautioned, however, that only God, not the angels, nor even the “Son” knows the time table for the end of the age (v.32).
Crisis and Resistence Literature
Would the disciples have found this catastrophic language strange and forbidding? By no means! The words surely grabbed their attention but they would most certainly have felt at home in this world view. The images that Jesus used were drawn from the prophetic and apocalyptic tradition of the disciples’ own sacred scripture. They would have, for example, recognized “the Son of Man” from Daniel 7 and have been comfortable with the poetry from Isaiah 64 that we read this morning.
We should also remember that we are hearing this scripture as it was complied forty years after the actual Olivet teaching. The text reflects not only Jesus’ last discourse but also the situation in the house churches of Mark’s own community. The Jesus of history had been gone for decades. The church had already lived through the madness of Nero and the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. The Markian community was probably watching the horrific destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army.
Jesus’s world view was influenced by the mythic and poetic language of the crisis and resistence literature of his day. New Testament apocalyptic was profoundly political. The supreme villain was the Roman Empire, pictured in the Book of Revelation as a 10 horn/7 headed beast whose power came from the Dragon/Satan (Revelation 13).
The Jesus of Mark’s gospel and the Christians in Mark’s community lived in a religious environment that hoped for salvific rescue on a cosmic scale. Many Jews were so desperate that they had given up hope for a historical Messiah and looked beyond history to a divine intervention. They believed that only a dramatic, climatic battle on “the Day of the Lord” could produce the massive destruction of evil and the ultimate victory of good. They prayed with Isaiah for God to: “tear open the heavens, and “come down.” (Isaiah 64:1).
These cosmic images, which to our ears may sound pessimistic and violent, were signs of hope to first- century folk. They had no doubt about the ultimate victory of God over both earthly tyrants and supernatural forces. These scriptures sustained and strengthened the early church against persecution, and urged them to “stand fast” in Christ—to “keep awake” against the idolatrous culture in which they lived.
The modern Christian must be careful not to make a literal transcription of “end time language” to create predictive history for the 21st century. Let me put it this way: I predict that females will continue to be born with as many ribs as males, not one less. No matter how many expeditions are financed to Mt Ararat, they will never find Noah’s ark. Not to worry, pilots of aircraft and drivers of automobiles will not suddenly be raptured, causing a huge transportation crisis. Prosaic and unimaginative literalism leads to inexact and erroneous interpretation of texts.
A Political Reading
Jesus points to the consummation of history although he is clearly thinking of the present order. Although we should not read these passages as predictive history we might make a connection between the world of Jesus and our own if we ask this question: “Which of the characters in Mark 13 represent me and my church?” Typically we like to view ourselves as the four disciples, trying to understand Jesus’ discourse on last things. Or perhaps we would place ourselves in the closing parable as the doorkeeper, making every effort to stay awake.
If we are honest the only shoes that collectively fit us are Roman. The wealthy church of the United States cannot really claim to be the anxious and world weary contemporaries of Jesus. We are too secure and too powerful. We do not understand what it is like, as they well knew, to live under foreign domination. The marginalized and oppressed writer of Mark 13 wrote in response to some very difficult questions. The universal character of the gospel bids us to ponder the same questions this morning.
Do we, in this time and place, truly believe, that the goodness of God will ultimately reign victorious over evil?
Is the church equipped to remain watchful and vigilant against false prophets, including trivial birthday parties for Jesus and superficial, tacky Santas?
Can we confess that God is working toward a redemptive purpose in and beyond our personal or national interests?
During these weeks before Christmas, we might practice identifying with and praying for those who replicate, in our day, the house churches of Mark, the martyred Apostles, and the innocent citizens of Jerusalem who fled into the sewers as their city was razed by an invading army. Learning to empathize with those who are adversely affected by our wealth and power would be in the spirit of this gospel reading.
Finally, the images and symbols of Mark 13 direct us away from our natural, easy going, rationalistic approach to Christmas. Christmas has become a family holiday and a mercantile bonanza. The church has been so accommodating to the secular culture that we are in grave danger of losing the central point: Counting time in Advent is to prepare ourselves and our families for the ritual reenactment of the coming of the Christian Savior God. The purpose of marking time is well put by the writer of 2 Peter: “We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” (2 Peter 3:13).
Advent points us to the time when Christ, the righteousness of God, will once again be “at home.” The concept of Christmas as a “spiritual homecoming” for God is difficult to express in the vernacular. Just as the early church used powerful symbols to describe religious reality, so we also need to develop imaginative language in order to speak of the “mystery” of Incarnation. When did we stop teaching ourselves how to read poetry in this country? For that matter, when did we stop reading poetry?
The Advent lessons ask us to honor language that transcends ordinary human reality, and to trust the archetypal stories of the season as expressions of mystery and truth. Remember, promises about the future are not likely to be fulfilled in any way the world ever expects. As my Wesley colleague Larry Stookey once wrote: “Forget the need to set forth the details of the future, the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.” Christ was with us in the first coming. Christ is with us now in the present hope. Christ will be with us in whatever way will be the end to human history.
Waiting for God is not like the tedious inactivity that Samuel Beckett depicted in the play, “Waiting for Godot.” Waiting in Advent is the very active work of being in covenant partnership with Christ and each other for mission to the world. “God is faithful” to the covenant and “will strengthen us to the end” declares the epistle lesson (I Corinthians 1:8a,9a). So….my fellow Christians, during this season, discern the signs—and in the words of Jesus, “I say to you, I say to all, keep awake,” be ever, ever watchful!
Diedra Kriewald, Ph.D. is a United Methodist clergy woman and Professor of Teaching and Formation at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.