It may well be that you will hear this Gospel lesson a little differently this Advent. Perhaps, I dare say, more as those first century Christians might have heard it.
Why do I say that?
Because most scholars agree that when Mark penned this Gospel and particularly this chapter where Jesus seems to talk right at us in the first person, he was writing into the face of the world as he knew it coming apart at the seams.
It is widely understood that this little apocalypse is penned right after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., prompted by a Judea insurrection and revolt against the Empire. The city is placed under siege. Food is scarce. Insurrectionists are rounded up and crucified, at the rate of 500 per day Josephus recounts, so that the Legions ran out of wood to build crosses.
The Temple rebuilt by Herod the Great was constructed of massive, Herodian construction stones, each weighing from several to hundreds of tons. You still see the immensity of scale on the remaining Western Wall or “Wailing Wall” where Jews go to pray to this day. Stones so massive and well carved that it was all but impossible to put a knife blade in the seam. In all, the message meant to convey by Herod in the building of the Temple was “this one will stand forever.”
The Temple is burned and then dismantled stone by stone until it stands in ruins.
The world is coming undone.
It was Judea’s Pearl Harbor, it’s Dunkirk, or its 9/11. Watching something fall that you thought would be there forever.
As the Temple falls, so also goes the economy and the social welfare structure. There is no place for the poor, the widow, the orphan to go for relief.
The destruction of Jerusalem is the collapse of all social structures, all means of commerce, all means of welfare, health care and the vaunted “Pax Romana,” the promise that society would continue to operate as normal made by the Roman Empire is replaced with war, siege, and the end of all local governance.
The world is unravelling before the author’s eyes.
So, this Advent, as we watch our own “world unraveling” we might hear this lesson differently.
We are watching the careening of tax plans, the indictments of high officials, the unraveling of state and national government agencies, the reversal of policies, the saber rattling of nuclear nations, and the uncertainty of who to trust anymore for a variety of reasons.
The world as we know it feels like it is coming undone around us.
It’s perhaps small comfort to realize that what we experience is not nearly as bad as what Mark’s audience lived through, but still there are parallels.
Some seem to delight in the deconstruction and unraveling of things.
Still others are made anxious and fearful.
When we hear biblical texts talk about impending doom, darkening skies, falling stars, rolling clouds approaching, and the shaking of powers. We might therefore be filled with the same kind of anxiety as Mark’s audience.
What’s next, we wonder?
We live in that kind of a world of dread these days, where you’re not sure what next shoe will drop, or what new allegation or threat to the world as you know it, expect it to always be, will pop over the horizon.
It’s important therefore that we hear what it is that Mark asserts in the face of an unraveling world; for it is not what we might assume from other apocalyptic visions.
Normally the words of warning in Apocalyptic would be followed by the great and terrible things that will happen and how the world will be sorted out in the end. There would be accounts of who would be judged, and who would be saved, and who would thrown into the outer darkness. We just heard such predictions from Matthew’s Gospel. Sheep and goats and all of that.
But for Mark, these darkening skies, falling stars, rolling clouds and shaken powers signal something else.
Not more doom and disaster, but rather visions of hope.
“He is near!” Mark confidently asserts to the visions of an unraveling world.
How can that be?
You might be forgiven if you don’t know how that works, or maybe better, if you don’t remember how that works, for we all have a bit of a selective memory when it comes to experiencing adversity and uncertainty.
We remember that as a difficult time.
We remember the details of how awful it was, much as I list off the events of the Jerusalem revolt.
While you are in the midst of trouble and difficulty, it is terribly hard to see any way out, any hope of return to normalcy.
If, however, you search your memory of the tough times, the really tough times you have lived through, you might begin to recall something else.
You might begin to recall how it is you made it through.
I remember with stark clarity the stories my grandparents told about the 30’s, about the uncertainty, the people who walked away from their farms, the lack of food, the failure of crops and dust storms.
But I also remember the stories of how they found God to be present. “We didn’t have much but we always had something… enough.”
It takes a little more work, and maybe a little more encouragement.
It might also take an outside witness. For, while you are in the midst of the awful experience, it might not be possible for you to see any glimmer of hope at all, not until someone points it out to you.
That’s what Mark does here.
Just when it looks like the last string of the world is about to unravel, “then you will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds.” Jesus confidently promises.
Just when it looks like all is lost, then Jesus in Mark looks at us directly and asserts that you will see that the Son of Man comes not to mete out punishment, dread and judgment, but rather to “gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth.”
From the Fig Tree that Jesus cursed back in chapter 11, that looked like it was finished; “look for the tender new growth…and know that summer is approaching.”
“He is near!”
When is Jesus near? Well, watch for him in the evening, midnight, cock-crow and dawn…. All those hours of the Crucifixion that will read about in Mark 15. The very times when we might expect Jesus to be farthest from his disciples, that is when he is actually nearest!
How can that be?
Well, I’m not exactly sure how it works, except to say that is exactly how it works.
Looking back over my life, I recognize that my prayer life was never better than when I was deeply worried or experiencing significant hardship. When the diagnosis came, when the treatment was being endured, when the call was ending, when the conflict was at its most intense…that was when I prayed best.
I needed God to be near then. I could not feel God’s presence, and so I sought it out, and discovered that he was near!
That’s not to say that I would recommend getting neck deep in trouble or hardship as a prayer discipline to enhance your ability to pray and trust, I’m just telling you that’s how it works. When I thought God was most distant, that’s when God was nearest!
My Stewardship is never better than when I have made a decision to give even when it didn’t seem like I couldn’t afford to. There was something about deciding to give that re-organized all my other priorities, and the way I viewed and used all my resources. When I made the decision to give, I discovered that I had more than enough. God was near!
I’m not saying that if you give, God is going to shower blessings upon you in some “quid-pro-quo” prosperity Gospel fashion.
I’m just telling you that though I felt I had little to give, or that giving was a significant sacrifice, it nevertheless gave me greater joy and I discovered God was near. God was found in the daily decisions of what I could and should spend on myself as opposed to on helping others.
My bible reading is never better than when I am struggling to understand a particularly vexing passage. When I am beating my head against the words, that’s when God seems closest to me, struggling with me, present with me in a way that makes me question, and ask, and inquire and to listen anew.
There is, in other words, something about adversity that lends opportunity for God to be near in a way that we do not experience God’s presence if life is always rosy. It is at that express moment when it feels like the world is unraveling that you therefore must be most vigilant and awake and open to the signs of God coming near, to the sign of new life, to the gathering from the furthest reaches, to the entrusting of things to you with the promise to return.
That is the promise that exceeds all others.
Stones will topple, but that does not stop the Son of Man from coming near.
Systems will fly apart, but that does not keep God from gathering the elect from the four winds and the far reaches.
It may seem as though God has left the building, but the promise of return is most acutely felt.
Keep awake, keep alert to the moment and see what God is about to do.
Sometimes it takes darkening skies, falling stars, rolling clouds approaching, and shaking powers to get our eyes off ourselves long enough to look in hope for what God may be doing, in our very midst.
You might hear these Advent Gospels differently, because your world may indeed be unraveling in so many ways.
But, dear ones, do not hear them for warnings of awful things yet to come.
Hear them for the promise they bear witness to, that “He is near, at the very gate!”
Be awake to God’s presence.
See what God is up to, and look for the signs of hope in the midst of the unraveling, for God is surely near.