Does this sound at all like something we ought to read on the first Sunday of Advent or the season which approaches? Yes. What do you mean, Richard? You mean to tell me Advent isn’t about jumping straight into images of a cuddly baby and insomniac shepherds? Yes, that’s what I mean to tell you. Mark is about the kingdom of God colliding with the here and now. Mark is about disturbing people with the reality that God is doing something right now and it’s happening right in front of you. This is Mark at his finest and Advent at its best.
I don’t believe this text to be prophecy nor a vague story about a fig tree. Instead, we are reading history as it unfolds. Mark is writing to a 1st century Jewish and Christian community in the midst of Rome’s impending destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. These words we read today were put to paper some 40 years after Jesus’ death. The words Mark puts into Jesus mouth are accurately describing the events occurring in the Jerusalem of Mark’s day and those within his congregation. Jesus never saw the temple fall. If anything, Mark is taking a degree of dramatic license to allow Jesus to say, “I told you so.” But Jesus never said those words. Mark wants to give his readers a degree of hope and encouragement that perhaps, Jesus anticipated the suffering which they are experiencing. I could go on all day about the 1st century context. The point is Mark was talking to his people about things happening then and now. The problem with understanding a text like this comes when we try to read our lives into their reality. When we do that, we disrespect the text, their reality, and we try to make generic natural, social and political conditions which have existed since the dawn of civilization somehow specific to only us in our here and now.
Everyone who has been alive since Jesus’ resurrection and heard about an earthquake, war, or weird eclipse believes this scripture is talking to or about their lives. Despite the fact that earthquakes, wars, and astronomical phenomena happened before any of us were born and people said the same things (to paraphrase Fred Sanford, “this is the big one, I’m coming home”) and yet Jesus has yet to physically return. But no, because an earthquake has occurred and violence is happening in my lifetime this must the one Jesus was referring to. There have been other earth quakes. Countless wars have been fought. I saw a meteor shower last week. No one knows the hour or the day. Why do we not take these words seriously? This text must mean something more than narcissistically reading ourselves and our modern worries into the lives of 1st century Jewish Christians who are facing true and immediate death at the hands of Vespasian’s Roman legions.
There are four important words in this passage: keep awake, stay alert. Granted that’s not as cool and doesn’t sell as many books or even get as many website hits as talking about the end of the world. But if you’re focusing on spooky stuff, you’ve missed the simple message Jesus and Mark want to leave with us.
The world wants to lure us into complacency and conformity on many levels. You see that so clearly in Advent and Christmas. There is a standard formula for every movie on the Hallmark Channel. Single mom meets hunky dad and through the magic of Christmas they find love or vice versa. There is a standard formula for how we decorate our trees, our menus, the “Top” gifts for the year, and the yearly cycle of activities. There is nothing wrong with doing things in a routine or pattern. What does become immoral; is when these patterns hypnotize us into believing our way of seeing and believing is the only way to exist. If we cannot see beyond the structures we create (or give divine status to our human creations) and acknowledge the possibility for growth and change, then we’ve got problems. In that case, we’ve fallen asleep.
There is nothing predictable, safe, clean, or cute about the idea of preparing for or the actual arrival of the promised Messiah. Allow me to pull back the curtain and give you a glance at what the coming of the Messiah looks like. In the days to come, things will spiral out of all control. Mary is a teenager. You do realize she was the age of high school freshman or sophomore when she had Jesus. Think for a moment how we talk about teenage mothers. It’s certainly not something we do at church. She was no more than 13 or 14 when she was betrothed to Joseph. A pregnant teenage single mother is an issue for social services, our gossip, and even our feigned pity today. Forced marriages in the Middle East are the subject of UN debates and BBC documentaries. This is the reality of Jesus’ identity. He is the child of unwed, refugee parents, and the Savior of humanity. Those are not the kind of things we like to acknowledge or reveal in Christmas pageants, discuss with our out of town relatives, but like it or not we are called to be awake, aware, and ready to be disturbed because Jesus still comes to us in that guise. And he comes, not just once a year, when the charitable impulse is supposed to strike. Are poor people only poor at Christmas? Are the hungry only hungry on holidays? They are if you’re asleep.
So yes, we need to keep alert for opportunities to be disturbed.
We need to be disturbed by the right things. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Does God care? I don’t know and I’m going to guess no! Does God have a dog in the fight about people saying Christmas, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays? Do you think the creator of the universe is invested in the argument? I’ve lived all over the world. I know that Americans are the only people who make this a perennial issue. It bores the snot out of me. It is such a nothing, meaningless thing to get upset about for a few weeks each year then they go onto their next issue and the next issue. All the while, people are still hungry, starving, and dying while we are arguing about whether or not Jesus is offended. Jesus is a brown skinned refugee child of the teenage mother, he could probably care less. We need to pick the right things for which to be disturbed and alert.
During the Soviet period, Christmas was celebrated in the USSR, within the Orthodox and underground churches. For that reason, Christmas celebrations have evolved differently there than in the United States. Simply because Christmas was removed from the wider consumer driven culture doesn’t mean it was removed from the church or society. There were no public nativity scenes in the Soviet Union but Christmas continued in the church and homes of believers. There were Christmas services in schools or concerts on the town squares. Yet, the Orthodox priests we gather the faithful (if they could) and say the liturgy each year to remember the birth of Christ.
Here’s my point, even though Russia is thorough secularized when it comes to our perspective of celebrating Christmas, this secularization has led to a deeper celebration with the Church and lives of individual Christians. The Russians discovered that one doesn’t need all of those forced social public observances to maintain the integrity of Christmas. They don’t need to judge the moral fiber of their nation by assessing whether or not a Wal-Mart greeter says Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas. The things we get so worked up about and are so alert and awake to each year are truly irrelevant to the meaning and purpose of Christmas. If they were crucial, Christmas would be dead and buried in a place like Russia because those practices were dumped in the mass graves of the Siberian GULAG camps alongside the bodies of countless priests and laypeople. Somehow, even in the face of great persecution, when Christians were being executed, arrested and condemned for their beliefs, Christmas never need. Because people stayed alert and awake over the things that mattered most!
If Christmas wasn’t killed by the KGB, what do we in America have to fear someone saying “Happy Holidays”? For all the time wasted on those kinds of live or die moral issues, people are dying of hunger, freezing to death, and suffering while we have the luxury to debate such immoral frivolities. What are we missing? If we are awake to this kind of junk, imagine what’s getting by us.