The season of Advent in the Christian calendar anticipates the “coming of Christ” from three different perspectives: the physical birth of Jesus, the receiving of Christ in the heart of the believer, and the end times of the Second Coming.
Advent is a time of expectancy, a time of waiting, anticipation and preparation, marking the start of the Christian year.
Mark’s Gospel, most commentators agree, was written around 60 – 70 AD, the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple and the defeat of the Jewish nation by the Roman Emperor, Vespasian and his son Titus following the Jews’ successful revolt against Rome and Rome’s ensuing recapture of the city. This was one of the worse eras in Jewish history, poverty was rampant, many were destitute, violence was everywhere and crosses lined the highways from Rome to Jerusalem.
Mark’s reflection of these dreadful times is described in 13:24-37, where Jesus says:
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. (Mark 13:24-25)
The immediacy of the horrors, the devastation, death, destruction, violence and suffering were real experiences of those reading and listening to Mark’s Gospel. Jesus, the Son of Man speaking to his disciples, is powerfully unpicking creation and acknowledging the times of chaos and unhappiness which were shaping the known world and describing its end times for those who were living through them. Jesus echoed many of the Jewish prophets, Joel 2;10, Ezekiel 32:7-8, Isaiah 34:4, Amos 5:18-20 and Isaiah 13:10,13; 64:1-9 who wrote:
O you that would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence… (Isaiah 64:1)
Jesus and the prophets remind us there is a long tradition of understanding and celebrating the fact God is more powerful than anything we can imagine. By recognising God’s presence in the world, we signify for everyone our trust that evil and Satan will be destroyed, completely annihilated, however dreadful, and hopeless it looks in our experience; and we can name the certainty we have, knowing God will overcome. There is nothing that will stop God. Jesus presence then and now together with his words are intended to provide hope for those waiting, for all of us as we live in these troubled times.
O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:8)
However, Jesus offers a new insight for those listening to him, this is Christ Jesus, the Son of God who has already triumphed and is currently demonstrating God’s love and mercy, forgiving sins, being the Lord of the Sabbath, healing, raising from the dead, the one who is presently exercising the authority given by God, the Word who was there before Creation and who will be there at the end of all things. In Colossians, Paul writes:
Christ is the image of the invisible God: the first-born of all creation. For in him all things were created: in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. All things were created through him and for him: he is before all things and in him all things hold together: he is the head of the body, the Church: he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead. For it pleased God that in him all fullness should dwell: and through him all things be reconciled to himself. (Col.1:15-20)
The relationship of Jesus with God and with all peoples and nations, is intended to give hope with love, as Jesus comes first to suffer in the chaos and horror alongside all humanity to show unequivocally God’s love for all humankind. Jesus tells his disciples however, that first:
They will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him (10:34)
This is the hallmark of Christ, the anointed chosen one, who is already present in human history because of God’s love. Mark’s language in the telling of this teaching is clear and unequivocal, this story is for everyone.
Jesus describes the suffering of this world as birth pangs (13:8) which are intense. He also tells us about a glorious future yet to come. The challenge is if we focus too much on the matter of timing, get stuck in searching for the signs, we will lose sight of what is being described to us.
Jesus is saying, ‘don’t waste time or be distracted by looking for the end date, trying to calculate the end times, the arrival point, because this will surely come’. Don’t waste your life trying to work out when or how or if. We know Jesus will come again. He told us so. For us now, in these days just as it was for the early disciples, Jesus is reminding us rather than searching for the signs around us, pay attention to the journey, because for now, and it’s important you hear this, the journey itself is your home. The vigilance, the waiting, the preparations are where we are meant to be, active, busy and waiting.
Let us think about Jesus’ words understanding when this Gospel was written, realising it referred to the destruction of Jerusalem and the agony of the disciples who followed Jesus after his death and resurrection. Remembering like the disciples and the early Christian community, we all have experienced various natural disasters, the ongoing horror of war and the suffering violence causes just as in those decades immediately after Jesus’ death, then as now it is all a sign God is at the gates.
When we look back at our lives, particularly for those who have suffered enormously, God’s nearness is often most intense and very real in those dreadful moments, in the darkest, bleakest, most despairing of times.
Jesus’ words, his promises and his assurances will not pass away irrespective of whatever else does in the unraveling of human history and in the rolling back of creation. Jesus said:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Mark 13:31)
God is a sure foundation, God is near. God’s Word, Christ incarnate in human history will never fail us.
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. (13:35-37)
I commenced this reflection by reminding you what Advent is all about. This is God’s time given to us to prepare, to be waiting actively, simplifying our lives as we look forward to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, preparing the welcome we offer Christ in our hearts as believers, and being ready for the end times at the Second Coming whenever this happens.
I pray God does not find us absent or distracted in this time of joyful, hope-filled, focussed, prepared Advent waiting.
The Lord be with you.