First Sunday of Advent // Text: Mark 13:24-37
I had a mentor once who shared with me a secret he carried around in his pocket. For years, he had been a professor in a relatively small seminary. Late in his career, though, he left the classroom to be an administrator in a large teaching hospital. In one of our conversations, he described the transition as one of the darkest times in his life. While as a professor there were lectures to prepare, exams to grade, and paperwork to be done to submit grades these didn’t compare to the amount of paperwork he was buried under as a program administrator in a large for-profit hospital in a very large metropolitan city. And on top of all the administrative work the relationships he encountered with his colleagues at the hospital were not as fulfilling as those of his seminary colleagues. After several years in his new job, he became depressed and found himself struggling to find any joy in what he was doing. As he recalled this experience to me he said, “I knew I had to find a way to deal with the struggle I was in.” I asked, “What did you do?” And that’s when he told me the secret that he had carried around in his pocket. He told me that one night he sat down and wrote his resignation letter. The next morning when he dressed for work, he said he put the letter in his jacket pocket. And for the next two years he carried his resignation letter in his pocket every single day ready to submit it when the time was right. And then one day, two years after writing it, he handed it to his supervisor. For two years, he was living in a state of readiness.
This story made me think about a time in my own life when I lived in a state of readiness. I was young, the age of the west balcony dwellers. As a youth, I ate, slept, and lived to play basketball. I started playing on a team in sixth grade. And from the time I was about 12 until I graduated from high school I attended basketball camp at Gardner-Webb College every summer. In junior high, I tried out and made my school basketball team. However, I saw very little playing time in those early years. It wasn’t until about eighth grade that I actually got any game time. Throughout my ninth and tenth grades years, as my skills improved, I began seeing more playing time. Back then I was little, but I worked day and night on my quickness and ball handling skills and all the hard work eventually paid off. By tenth grade, I was the first sub in, holding the record for the most assists and steals. But I remember those game days sitting on the bench waiting to get the signal from Coach Fisher to take my place on the court. In those moments, never did I sit all the way back. I was on the edge of the bench with one foot ready to head toward the score table to check in at the slightest nod from the coach. Actually, there were times when I thought I got the nod only to be sent back to my seat. Nevertheless, at each game I lived in a state of readiness. Fully awake, ready to respond when called upon.
Our text for this first Sunday in Advent is about living in a state of readiness. For certain, it is a different context. It is not about secrets we carry around in our pockets or about basketball games. But all the same it is about living ready, keeping awake for the time when we are called upon to respond. It is about keeping awake and being ready for those moments when God comes our way and calls upon us to respond to the love being born in our lives and in the world today.
One theologian writes of Mark 13:
It’s really a shame how passages such as Mark 13:24-37 have been arrogated by the ‘Left Behind’ camp and others who view the Bible as an encrypted map of the future, leaked by God to code-breakers, who derive from it a deity who’s itching to snuff out the multitudes. Instead, this passage orients us to the future in a very different way, and for different ends. Jesus’ instruction here is part of a much longer speech. Notice the words ‘after that suffering’: He has just described a situation of awful destruction, persecution and sacrilege. The themes and imagery [in Mark 13] make this speech similar to other literature of the time, literature meant to interpret current events and political circumstances.
So what great devastation is Jesus talking about—a time when the sun darkened and the moon does not give light, and the stars falling from the heavens? He’s not predicting the Greek economic mess of the time or the UNC football team’s current season; his words rather resonated with those who knew firsthand of the siege of their beloved city, Jerusalem. The first readers of Mark’s gospel likely read this passage as the fumes of ruin—and failed promises—still hovered in the air.
As we read this apocalyptic writing of Mark there are several things to note. There were some, perhaps including Paul, who expected Jesus’ return very soon. They held what is called an imminent eschatology: meaning that they believed Jesus would be returning to Earth at any moment. Others, in response to the already longer-than-expected delay had begun to cast Jesus’ return as the culmination of human history, an event that would occur at the end of time. These folks held what is called a delayed or future eschatology. As theologian Mark Powell points out in his commentary on Mark 13, this passage in Mark contains elements of both traditions. In fact, he writes, “you can even parse out distinct elements of each that Mark apparently weaves together.” But as another theologian points out, “What if Mark wasn’t trying to make peace between two opposing views? What if, instead, Mark recognized that neither tradition had the last word…Indeed, he says as much in one of the key verses in this passage: ‘But about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only God.’ No one knows, and that includes Paul and Mark and us. For this reason, we are always waiting, always watching, always preparing for Christ’s return.”
This morning, I want to offer a third possibility—something beyond this notion of an imminent or future coming of God. What if instead Mark is inviting us to a present/in the moment eschatology? How might we read this passage differently on this first Sunday of Advent if we envisioned God’s coming in human form as something current and continuous—something that is happening all the time in places of deep vulnerability, openness, and need. How might we hear the words “keep awake” if our theology and faith consisted of a current/present/in the moment eschatology? And how might our lives be different if we truly lived in a state of readiness acknowledging that God is being born within us and coming to us every minute of every day—in the darkness and light; in suffering and in hope? What if we lived, as Marcus Borg suggests, a realized and participatory eschatology? Meaning that God in human form is already with us, in our midst. Meaning that each day we choose to participate (or not) in God being born in our world by the way we live and love and forgive and welcome the stranger and care for the poor and advocate for justice and equality for all people. What if we lived each day realizing that WE are the ones who make God real, alive in the world.
Just as an imminent or future coming of God is a false dichotomy, so is Advent and Christmas. Yes, this liturgical season invites us to relive the story of our faith—of Jesus’ birth. But let’s be clear: Advent and Christmas is a 365 day a year, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week experience. Waiting and watching for Jesus in our midst is not about passivity—it’s not about something coming any minute or in some future time but NOW. Jesus’ words in Mark 13 commends readiness and alertness every moment of every day.
Everything I learned about waiting I learned as a kid waiting to be picked up by my father after basketball practice. I couldn’t stand it when he was late—and he was always late. As I waited, I would do all I could to lessen the distance or the time between me and him, wherever he was. I walked to the corner in the direction from which he would drive. I would listen to the sound of each car passing by hoping to hear the familiar sound of his car. I squinted, looking for the right car color or headlight tint. All my senses were fixed on the road. That’s the kind of waiting—the kind of keeping awake—this passage has in mind, an active waiting that has come to know full well that the one who is coming is already recognizable.
Jesus’ message about his appearance encourages advocacy, not idleness. Expectancy means looking alertly for the opportunities that are already before us to come alongside the Christ-child and embody his purposes in the present—in the current darkness and light in which we live. In places like Ferguson, Missouri; or Bladenboro, North Carolina; or in southeast Raleigh; or at our backdoor; or in the life of the person sitting beside you in this sanctuary who is lonely and struggling; or in your own life where you long for grace and love and forgiveness.
Yes, this Advent season we are called to live in a state of readiness, to keep awake, not for some coming event but rather in the events that are happening all around us that ask for our participation—events that are already realized in our world and in our very lives.
May this season remind us of such truth; for it is in this truth that our HOPE is realized.