The First Sunday of Advent, Year B
Jesus said, “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.”Mark 13:24-37
For most of my life I never understood the practice of being fashionably late. The idea that guests should arrive later than the appointed time always appeared to me as unnecessarily convoluted and even disrespectful, as it implied a certain triviality to the gathering or a self-aggrandizing of the guest. My distaste for well-dressed tardiness was compounded when I began marching band in high school. Even all these years later, I can still hear my band director reminding us “if you’re on time, you’re late”, a phrase uttered by coaches, music directors, teachers, drill sergeants, and anyone trying to coordinate a large group for millennia. It never sat right with me that on the one hand, as a society we teach and stress the importance of punctuality, yet when inviting others to our home, we go through these mental gymnastics of figuring out what time we should tell our guests to come over, while accounting for when we actually expect them to arrive.
This same sense of frustration and expectation permeates the readings of this first Sunday of Advent. There’s nothing quite like kicking off the holiday season by bemoaning that the apocalypse is taking too long to come. Though in a year that has felt extra apocalyptic, we may feel a certain solidarity with Isaiah as he begs God to come down from heaven to cause the mountains to quake and cause the nations to tremble. At this point I don’t think any of us would be terribly surprised, and if nothing else, it would give us something productive to do beyond staying at home and watching the world spiral out of control on TV.
Advent has always been the season of expectation, both in good times and in bad. Whether it is excitement for Christmas gatherings, dinners, and presents, or dread of calendar year deadlines, social expectations, and cynical consumerism, this has always been a time expectation. Whether good or ill, this is a time of change, a time of being shaken awake. The LORD is coming! The question on everyone’s lips, “how much longer?”
“How much longer?” feels especially poignant this year. Patience is never easy, but this year as we have been fed with bread of tears and given bowls of tears to drink, patience has been made even harder. Not knowing how much longer is the hardest part, we may have our speculations, theories, and even hope, but no one knows. Neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, only the Father knows.
Jesus’ words today are disheartening to say the least. “How much longer?” goes unanswered. The call to “keep awake” seems tone-deaf. How can we keep awake when it has been so long? We are embattled at all sides, and it is no wonder that we are weary.
But what if “how much longer?” was the wrong question? What if we already knew the answer is “Now”?
Our Gospel today comes from Mark 13, which is affectionately referred to as “The Little Apocalypse”. It comes right after Jesus disrupts and teaches at the Temple in Jerusalem and right before Jesus is betrayed, tried, and sent to the cross. Jesus is prompted by the disciples’ admiration of the Temple in Jerusalem and its false sense of permanence, and is warning them what is about to happen; that the world as they know it is coming to an end.
What the disciples did not yet understand, and what we today often misunderstand, is that when we speak of apocalypse, we are not referring to a singular event or series events sometime in the unforeseeable and unknowable future (that would be the Eschaton). An apocalypse is literally an “uncovering”, a revealing of God’s plans. So when Jesus says “this generation shall not pass away” He is not misleading the disciples, he is speaking quite plainly. With His death and subsequent resurrection, the world as they knew it ended, they went through an apocalypse where God uncovered His plan for redeeming a lost and sinful world.
What is also critical to understand about apocalypses is that, being God’s plan, they are not bound by our typical sense of time and timeliness. There is much that is being revealed, not only for the disciples, but for us now. We can see that these words that are being spoken to the disciples are being spoken to us today. Or as Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away”.
Jesus’ charge to keep watch is not a demand that we wait and do nothing until the end of time, but to see what God is revealing to us now. As we well know, even while waiting and having seemingly more time than ever to prepare, we are experts at distracting ourselves and procrastinating. We distract ourselves with partisanship, with despair, with consumerism, with frustration, and even with practicing patience.
I never understood being fashionably late until I lived on my own for the first time. When it was finally entirely my responsibility to have my household in some kind of presentable order to host guests, I realized what the polite delay was for. Of course I prefer having a clean and presentable household all the time, but, (and I know this has never happened to anyone else,) without someone to hold me accountable, I would always let the place go. Sure, I would mean to clean, my intentions were always pious and sincere, but I would always find excuses, distractions, or even outright apathy to avoid putting my house in order. The only thing that could reliably motivate me to put my house in order was expecting guests. Now one would think that expecting guests would mean adequate planning and gradual preparation, but that is what a responsible person would do. In the final minutes before my guests would be expected to arrive, when I had been flying through the house trying to make it look like the home of a functioning adult rather than cave creature, I learned that being fashionably late could be a small moment of grace. A grace of time given to put our house in order.
Keep watch, be ready, the LORD is coming. Be ready not by looking ahead, to the unknown and the unforeseen, but in the present, in the places where the Son of Man is coming. Open your heart to what God is doing, and you will witness the great uncovering. This is our time to shape the future, and it is our responsibility to do our part, we must awaken and see that the LORD is near. Do not be led astray by those who say that it is hopeless, that we can do nothing. Even if we are to do nothing now, the stories we tell about this time will shape it, how we learn from it, and what we will do to make the world better. This is our time to put our house in order.
As we prepare for the LORD’s coming this Advent, remember that through any calamity, trouble, or strife God is with us. God has not forgotten us, but has given Himself for us. If you are unsure how you can be ready, remember that you have prayer always. If you are at loss for words, I invite you to say this prayer from p. 461 of the Book of Common Prayer:
“This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.”