~ Isaiah 64:1-9/Mark 13:24-37 ~
I’ve always been fascinated with time-travel stories. The idea that time can be manipulated or warped has been the subject of many a book and movie. Fantasy pop culture movies abound – Back to the Future, Terminator, Peggy Sue Got Married and, of course, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Poignant human-interest love stories like Somewhere in Time, Frequency, The Butterfly Effect, and The Time Traveler’s Wife. Pretty much every science fiction TV series be it Star Trek or Quantum Leap or The Twilight Zone. And the much beloved Madeleine L’Engle novel, A Wrinkle in Time. I’m enough of a time-traveler story nerd that I could go on and on. In fact, I’ve just started watching a Norwegian series called The Beforeigners. The premise is that people from the ancient past, pre-historic and Norse era, suddenly start appearing in present-day Oslo. By the thousands they come overwhelming the culture and city services. Fascinating, I think, Linda, not so much.
Some time-travel stories leap into the future to witness the effects of current cultural forces. Some go backwards, often with the intent of trying to change the course of history. Of course, as any good time-traveler fan can tell you, changing the past means there will be unintended consequences in the future. But all good time-travel stories give us the opportunity to explore the human condition from a fresh perspective. One of the things that makes us uniquely human is our ability to remember the past and imagine the future. That ability enriches our lives. But it can also cripple us. All of us have remembered experiences, sometimes traumatic, that haunt us yet today, affecting our own self-image and our relationships. Likewise, when imagining the future turns into anxious worrying it can stifle us from moving ahead.
Thus, I think it is a given that both the past and the future affect how we live in the ‘now’. Indeed, dwelling in the past or the future can keep us from experiencing the present, the ‘now’, in its fullest. Even if your aren’t a time-traveler enthusiast, we can all probably agree that the past, the future and the present all converge to define who we are, we humans.
Because of the time angle, I like Advent. Growing up I knew nothing of this season. No such thing as a ‘church year’. We just went right to Christmas. But I’ve come to appreciate it, muchly. What I like about Advent is its reminder that we are all on a journey. We are spiritual travelers. And the road we travel has ups and downs, straight paths and curves. There are places on the journey for celebrations, such as Christmas and Easter and there are places on the journey for reflection and preparation, such as Advent and Lent. The church year accounts for this ebb and flow of the spiritual life by including times of reflection followed by times of celebration. Advent and Christmas are such times.
But I have to admit that this journey we call Advent begins with much confusion. There is a weird juxtaposition of past and future that really doesn’t make sense. Somehow, we are expected to put past events and seemingly future events together into an existential “now.” There is even the inexplicable use of biblical texts to talk about the coming birth of Christ that have absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Indeed, it is quite confusing. But in this confusion maybe we can forge an idea to somehow not let all this past and future stuff be the issue but rather have it make sense for us so we can live better in the “now.” Indeed, on this First Sunday of Advent we find ourselves dealing with the time issues of past, present, and now! So, maybe a bit of time-traveling this morning.
We talk about living more in the present, living in the ‘now’, as if that is a good thing. But ‘now’ has not been too enjoyable of late (Of course, already in the past). The pandemic keeps us all at home with seemly no hope of it every letting up (anxiety of the future). There’s the political situation (I thought winning was supposed to feel good), the climate change situation (the forecast for rain is bleak), the killing of black men and women (overt racism keeps showing its ugly face). And did I mention the pandemic?
Baggage from the past, anxieties about the future, difficult happenings in the present: It seems there is nowhere for us to go on the time spectrum to find respite. But I would like to suggest that our texts today, despite their confusion, speak to us here in the ‘now’. Even with their looking back and looking forward themes they really are meant to help us live in the present. We just have to sort through them a bit. And maybe, just maybe, we can find something of the theme of this First Sunday of Advent – hope!
We start with the words from the prophet Isaiah. The people of Israel have returned from exile, but seemed to have slipped into old bad habits, turning away from God. The prophet cries out, wishing that God would just come down and fix everything now. In the ancient view of the world, the heavens were separated from the earth by a dome (the firmament). Isaiah calls upon God to tear open the barrier, the rend the heavens and come down. He pleads for God to come and put things right, for nations to tremble, and for God to forgive the people.
Throughout history, God’s people have spent most of their time waiting. It is an expectant waiting, anticipating God’s new activity to bring justice, deliverance and God’s kingdom on earth. But it is not a waiting that only has the future in view. Neither is it an idle, self-centered waiting, like those who sell everything they have and then sit on the mountain waiting for God to come. Biblical waiting is an active waiting that focuses on being God’s people in the present, both in faithfulness to God and in restorative relationship with others. As the prophet says of God, “You meet those who gladly to right, those who remember you in your ways.” The future hope is there but the focus is on being God’s people now.
Then we turn to Mark’s gospel text. This 13th chapter is one of the most studied and debated passages in the entire Bible. Called the Olivet Discourse it seems to be thoroughly apocalyptic, end of the world stuff. With the sun darkened and stars falling from heaven we’re talking total destruction here. With the Son of Man coming in the clouds we certainly are talking the second coming, aren’t we? And so it is that it has thus been regarded. Jesus surely is talking about a future event even yet for us in which “heaven and earth” will pass away – the end of the world.
So it is that for centuries Christians have been urged to keep alert, stay awake, as Jesus says so we will be ready for that second and final coming of Jesus in the clouds. And yet here it appears on this first Sunday of Advent when we are to begin to look forward to Jesus first coming, not his second coming! To make matters even more confusing, it turns out that this seemingly apocalyptic, end-of-the-world stuff here in the 13th chapter of Mark, isn’t really about the second coming after all. Jesus wasn’t really talking about the destruction of the world some time off even in our future. No; instead Jesus was talking about very proximate events. He was talking about his own death and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the very near future (of course, in our distant past now). For Israel, for the people in Jesus’ hearing, the destruction of the temple would, indeed, seem like the end of the world. Using over-the-top language Jesus predicts a new world, a new kingdom, that will replace the current world represented by the temple. And that dramatic change in the way things are would truly seem like the sky is falling.
So instead of a text about the second coming being used for Jesus’ first coming, we have a text about Jesus’ crucifixion being used. Now, maybe the rationale for the lectionary makers to give us such a text on this first Sunday of Advent begins to make sense. For in looking forward to Jesus’ birth we are not only looking at him being born but what he was born for. And what he was born for involves his penultimate act in live, his death. Indeed, Jesus himself described his time here on this earth as the way of the cross. Advent, then, includes the cross. Advent is a time for his disciples to consider what Jesus’ birth means. It certainly means, amongst other things, that way of the cross.
So here we sit on this first Sunday of Advent bombarded with messages about the past and about the future. Looking forward; looking back. First coming, second coming, birth, death: It can all be rather confusing. But it is only confusing if we remain stuck in chronological time. What is really happening here, though, is that chronological time has become spiritual time. Here we have a text that seems to say, “Be alert, you don’t want to miss his second coming” being used to say, as a message of preparation for Christmas, “Be alert, you don’t want to miss the spiritual coming of Christ in your life as you journey through this season of Advent.” Or, to put it another way, instead of getting hung up on the past or the future, settle in to “now.” Experience the “now” of Advent by participating in this spiritual journey which points to Christmas. In so doing, maybe the burdens of the past and the anxieties of the future won’t be as present with us as we experience the “now” of Advent.
I freely admit it is most difficult to live in the present. I talk about it but I’m terrible at it. I let baggage from my past impinge on my “now.” I let anxieties about the future flood in to my “now.” I am too easily swayed to either be uncomfortable with my “now” or be bored with my “now.” And so it is easy for me to sleepwalk, spiritually speaking, through the events of the day. Jesus calls to us to “stay awake, be alert” for his coming to us.
Mark wrote his gospel in a dark and perilous time, a time of political chaos and war. The powerful were still in power and the poor were still poor. Indeed, one could get very depressed. It appears things haven’t changed much. Hence, Mark reiterates Christ’s message: “Stay awake!” Be on the lookout for Christ’s coming. Don’t be weary, traveler.
Advent is a journey. We are spiritual travelers. So spiritual traveler, as you journey through this Advent season, keep awake lest you miss the coming of the Christ in your life. But also remember that our journey is not aimless. We have a destination. We are traveling towards the star, that glory-beaming star, which brings the promised day of the birth of the Christ child. In that is much hope. Amen.