This evening we have before us two crisis texts. This is how the season of Advent always begins, which positions the Christian community in stark contrast to the wider culture in which we live. The stores are decked with Christmas decorations, the radio stations are beginning to sneak in the occasional rendition of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”, some workplaces are already celebrating their Christmas parties—best to beat the December rush—and your take-out coffee might well be served in a cup decorated with greetings of the season. Two days ago it was “Black Friday”—a wild crush of shopping deals, only recently imported from the United States, promising unimaginable savings on all the gifts we simply must buy… and on all the things we convince ourselves we should purchase for ourselves, given how good the deals are.
We know, of course, that there is a much deeper meaning and a more profound truth to Christmas than all of that, but you really have to do some serious swimming upstream to keep it in view. That’s why this season of Advent is so important, maybe more so in our time than ever before. Advent puts Christmas in context, as the joyous feast celebrating the birth in time of the timeless Son of God. To be sure, it is an event crying out for a celebratory feast, but there is a long story that precedes it, and a long story that flows from that birth; a story that is still unfolding, and of which we are a part.
That’s why this season begins not with the promise of a baby, but with these crisis texts calling for wakefulness and some truthful soul-searching.
“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,” the psalmist prays, as he opens this song written as a national lament for a nation in crisis. The setting is the northern kingdom of Israel, some 700 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The mighty Assyrian empire is rattling its armor, giving every indication that Israel is next on its check-list of conquests. It is entirely likely that this psalm was written to be sung liturgically, in gathered worship, as a communal plea for God’s intervention. Think of it as being akin to a hymn written in the early 1940s, intended to be sung in the cathedrals of England, as the bombs fell on London and the future of the world seemed to be in the hands of the Third Reich.
“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel… shine forth… Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God.” Much more than a plea for God’s aid, this psalm is a true lament, for in it the writer gives voice to the nation’s deepest fear: “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” This is our doing, because we have failed to be truly a covenant people, and as a result of our unfaithfulness, “You have fed [us] with the bread of tears, and given [us] tears to drink… You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.” It is a terrible confession, based in a terrible fear; God has abandoned us, because we as a people have abandoned God. And yet even in face of that fear the psalmist can have the community sing, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Let you face shine again…
There are also swords rattling in the background, as Jesus speaks the words of warning we heard read from the Gospel according to Mark. The crisis is not quite so close as it was for the writer of Psalm 80, but it is there. This crisis teaching fills the whole of chapter 13 of Mark, and there are times when it sounds as if Jesus is pointing very directly to the impending destruction of Jerusalem and its great temple: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” he had said, and sure enough it is just thirty years later that the Roman Empire will plow that once grand city into rubble. There are times, too, when it sounds as if Jesus is pointing beyond that imminent crisis to something even more final; something of cosmic proportions.
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.
We hear these words and wonder at their meaning. The biblical scholar Larry Hurtado cautions against reading such words without attending to their context and literary genre. Noting that Jesus is drawing very directly and intentionally on the prophetic and apocalyptic literature of the Hebrew scriptures, Hurtado suggests that, “these allusions to the Old Testament (which the readers were expected to catch) are intended to indicate the meaning of the events.” The religious and philosophical traditions of the cultures surrounding Israel—and the religious and philosophical traditions of the Roman Empire that was occupying Israel—believed that the stars, the moon, and the sun represented gods who exerted control over the world. Yet here Jesus proclaims that in the fullness of time these celestial bodies “would be shown up as helpless creatures who would reel under God’s power, just as would people upon the earth.”
I get that. I get that Jesus is in a sense improvising on an older tradition, and pressing his audience into a posture of both wakefulness and of fundamental trust that—all political evidence to the contrary—God is in control and will be faithful. I also get the idea that Jesus is speaking very specifically about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, but also beyond that to the culmination and completion of all of time and history. And yet here we are some 2000 years later, called into the posture of wakefulness and readiness for Christ’s return… something that St Paul believed was so imminent that he advised it best to not bother getting married!
And in spite of Jesus’ saying very clearly that, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” certainly some people have spent an awful lot of time and energy coming up with predictive timelines and rather detailed predictions; something N.T. Wright suggests is akin to “reducing biblical prophecy to the level of horoscope.”
Even as my eyes roll at the very thought that a new Left Behind movie is set for DVD release this January—a version starring the ever-earnest Nicholas Cage of all people—I still need to contend with these words of Jesus, as given us by Mark. To ignore or avoid these texts on account of Nicholas Cage is a move we can’t make.
The Gospel call to be wakeful, ready, and prepared should not be heard as one based in fear—or in fancy—but instead as a powerful affirmation that there is a horizon to which God is drawing all of creation. It is a call to be open to what God is ever and always about to do in our lives, which is perhaps the most important word spoken into a society that goes quite mad over Black Friday deals, convinced as we are that if we could just get that thing—that newest iPhone, that bigger plasma TV, that pair of incredible shoes, whatever—then we’d be content.
Acknowledging that, “For many, life in this world is actually not very pleasant,” the biblical scholar Mark Allan Powell pointedly adds that “even those fortunate enough to have a life filled with joy and blessing should not be satisfied to the point of complacency.” “Mark’s point remains,” Powell emphasizes. “Christ is not with us as he once was, and he is not with us as he will be.”
Back to Psalm 80 for just a minute. In spite of the urgency of the psalmist’s lament and confession, this psalm is not without hope. As the lament is drawn to its close, the psalmist has the congregation sings, “let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.” “Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,” which is a plea that God will bless the people with the kind of king who can lead them out of the crisis. Ancient Israel’s imagination was so formed by the memory of David, the king who, in spite of his flaws and failings, was able to bring them to a place of stability and security. The psalmist longs for that kind of a king, knowing full well that most who had sat on the throne had been anything but a gift to the nation. Even so, the psalmist longs for a king who really is at God’s “right hand.”
And so do we. We know who that king is, because we carry his story and have known his presence in word and in the breaking of the bread. In this Advent season of open expectation and wakeful anticipation, we are called to rekindle that longing. “Christ is not with us as he once was, and he is not with us as he will be.” Even so, Lord Jesus, come.