“But in those days, 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.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“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.”
We talked last week about this particular part of the church year--Advent. Advent is a season of waiting with expectations and hope, as Dan and Torrie read for us this morning. We wait expectantly to meet Jesus, to celebrate the day of the incarnation where God came among us. We “keep awake” to see what God has done through the life of this god-man, as our Mark passage reminds us. We wait with expectations about this miraculous season. This is a season of holy expectations.
You can hear our expectations through the songs we sing, and they are beautiful. Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head. The stars in the sky look down where he lay, the little lord Jesus asleep on the hay. The cattle are lowing the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. Lucky Mary.
We expect this time of year to usher in peace and joy during our Advent season. And these particular religious expectations about Jesus and God’s arrival are mixed in with some less than spiritual expectations. We can hear these expectations when we sing…
"I’m dreaming of a white christmas, with every christmas card I write." Or “there’s a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray. It will be the perfect ending to a perfect day. We’ll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop, at the fireplace where we’ll watch the chestnuts pop.”
We’ve got some pretty idyllic images of what Advent and Christmas are supposed to be.
We can see these expectations come to life in our yard decorations. And this neighborhood loves yard decorations! I got this impression a bit when I first noticed Ormewood Park’s heavy use of yard signs, but I didn’t know it also extends to Halloween and now Christmas. And what do we put in our yards? Stars, Santa, Candy Canes, a peaceful manger scene, swags of tree branches and red bows, deer (reindeer and mere mortal deer--some animated!). We want to make this time of year different, joyful, fun, special, even merry.
We wait during Advent expecting joy and merry-making and peace on earth, even if just for a night.
So why on earth does the lectionary scripture text for today, the scripture in the church calendar, include the apocalyptic narrative from the Gospel of Mark? What I read from Mark a couple minutes ago is not the stuff of manger scenes, Christmas carols, or blow up yard decorations. It is not a holy, silent night.
What I just read from Mark is what Biblical scholars call apocalyptic literature. It is imagery of the cosmos being shaken. The sun going dark. The end of time as we know it. Apocalyptic literature is about the apocalypse--when life as we know it, ends.
We might expect our scripture this time of year to be joyful Christmas Bible stories BUT the church calendar gives us Will Smith’s Independence Day. This isn’t what we expect to read on day one of Advent--there is no baby Jesus or wandering shepherds or bright stars--Instead we read about stars falling from the sky and the sun going dark. Why would we read THIS during advent as we wait for Immanuel, God with us?
I have a few reasons why the people who created our calendar of scripture readings for today would have chosen Mark’s apocalyptic passage. Some of the reasons, as I’ve sat with them this week, seem pretty important for us today, at this time in history, and at this time in our lives.
First, I think those who picked this apocalyptic passage for our reading today knew how apocalyptic literature was actually intended to work in the Biblical narratives: as a moment of pastoral care.
Is that surprising for you?
How many of you think of the end of the world, of massive destruction, of judgement and hell, when you think of the word apocalyptic? There is good reason for this. When we consider the other literature in the Bible that is apocalyptic, such as the book of Daniel or Joel or Ezekiel or Revelation, we hear the terror--
“Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2)
Or the from the book of Revelation: “Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image.” (Revelation 19)
The Bible’s apocalyptic literature is not the stuff of daydreams.
And when we consider the cinema or movie genre that is “apocalyptic” we see the earth being destroyed, cosmic shifts decimating our way of life, perhaps aliens. Things having to do with the apocalypse are nerve racking, if not downright frightening. I still don’t like to watch these movies and I’m in my mid-30’s.
But what I’d like to tell you about apocalyptic literature in the Bible and its intention might surprise you: apocalyptic literature is actually meant to comfort those in distress. It is a moment of pastoral care, if you will.
How? Well, most of the texts in our Bible that speak of the end of days were written in a context where the people actually really did think the end of their world was already upon them. Daniel, a popular apocalyptic writer in the Old Testament was writing to people who were conquered and either killed or forcefully exiled to foreign lands, with foreign neighbors, and it was scary.
The author John who wrote the book of Revelations at the end of the New Testament, another place full of cosmic-shattering imagery, was most likely writing to early Christians who were experiencing persecution and violence at the hands of the Roman Empire.
These writers were describing the end of all things, yes, but their readers were enduring in their real lives the end of all things as they knew them. The literature reflected and validated the reality these people were already living--the cosmos and all things they believed permanent and good, were falling around them. And this imagery gave them a way to imagine, even if just in their minds, an end to all of it: an end to their oppressors, the empires that were killing them, the terror in their nightmares.
The writers were helping these communities put into words the hell that they were experiencing and then they were helping them imagine the destruction of that hell, of that terrible life.
Was the writer of Mark or Daniel or Revelation describing in code the end of times? Maybe or maybe not, but Mark was definitely helping the communities of persecuted Christians in his time imagine and find comfort in the imagery of an end to the terror of their lives and perhaps the beginning of a changed system and a new life, a new Jerusalem.
So in this sense apocalyptic literature is the exact thing we should be reading as we start the Advent season. We are waiting, in the midst of a darkening world, for a Savior to be born. For a change in the times. For a stop to the status quo and a reversal of the pain. It’s a time to express our disappointed expectations, even those that seem on a cosmic scale, or perhaps a nuclear one. This text today allows us to say, this world is scary sometimes and I want that to end--put the sun and moon and stars on hold--I want the fig tree to ripen. I want the boss who has been off traveling to return home. This apocalyptic passage is a perfect place to dwell as we wait for Jesus right now, even in our times and in this place.
Another reason this passage greets us at the very beginning of Advent may be that we need to hear stories where the narrative is talking about things changing. We need to hear that change is possible.
Let’s consider Mark’s reality, the writer’s reality. Let’s think about what Mark’s own readers were facing. The Gospel of Mark was most likely written around 70AD--the time when Rome sacked Jerusalem and burned the city. Josephus, a jewish historian, described the destruction of Jerusalem like this, “While the temple was on fire, everything was plundered...nor was there pity for any age...but children, old men, profane persons and priests were all slain in the same manner...the flames also spread a long way and roared.”
Yes Mark was writing about Jesus, but Mark was writing for a people ready to hear that God was as big as those flames. God was as big as the cosmos--indeed could control the cosmos--could use the failure of the largest pieces of our experience (the sun and moon and stars) to signal a change from the worst to better. This is what God does.
So as we consider this unusual text in the midst of our holiday cheer, we remember that Jesus, at his birth and in his ministry, has always been heralding the sign of the end of the old and hard and maybe terrible established things we live with every day and he is also announcing the beginning of something new. In this season we can expect the worst to happen. We can expect the sun to darken and the moon to not give light, but we know that that signals not our demise, but that God is somehow near; God is at the gate as Mark describes it. The fig tree is about to bloom.
And the last reason, at least for today, that I think we read THIS particular passage today, is because we need a text that acknowledges what we often try to sweep under the rug around the holidays: part of the Christian life, part of the reality of being human, involves suffering. The reason we need those wonderful and beautiful holiday songs is because life isn’t always wonderful and beautiful.
As Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel reading for today: But in those days, 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 the clouds with great power and glory.
Yes the Son of Man, Jesus, God, Immanuel, will come, but this is in the midst of or even after, suffering. Our worlds might come crashing down first. It happens. We might experience “those days.” In those days when the world seems to be falling apart. In those days where what we knew of integrity and ethics was cast aside. In those days when women were treated like trash. In those days, when weapons of mass destruction were being made. In those days, after the suffering we’ve experienced, the Son of Man will come. But we must acknowledge that we have (and perhaps have been complicit leading up to) “those days.” And we must acknowledge that THAT is when Immanuel, God with us, arrives.
So why this apocalyptic text from the middle of the Gospel of Mark at the beginning of Advent? So many reasons.
We too often assume that during Advent we’re waiting expectantly for things to quiet down and for God to arrive in peace. In the quiet town of Bethlehem. In the midnight clear. In the silent, holy night.
But our scripture passage today reminds us that God is also waiting at the gate right on the other side of our chaos, right on the other side of what seems cosmically dark, right on the other side of our suffering. God is near not just in the slow falling snow, but in the falling of the stars.
So as we look to our Advent candle burning today, the candle of hope, we remember this. God is near to us when our lives seem out of control. God is at the front gate and about to walk into the middle of our dark days when the sun won’t shine or the moon is silent. We wait expectantly for a God who will arrive, whose name is Immanuel--God with us--maybe even in the shape of a baby defying the odds and sowing God’s grace on earth.
So when you hear of the apocalypse do not fear, take comfort that as big as our lives can sometimes get, God’s presence is there to match it--we can expect and hope for that this Advent season.