By the Rev’d Lucy Nguyen
Season: First Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:24-37
Advent is often seen simply as the “countdown to Christmas”, and Christmas has perhaps been diminished to “simply a birthday party for someone and we get presents”. I admit I contribute to some of that thinking. It’s fun, it’s engaging in festivity planning and I do know about Jesus, so there are nativity scenes that are lovely and a great gateway to introducing the
life and times of God active in the world through Jesus.
Interestingly, only 50% of the Gospels have infancy narratives – two of our four most elevated Biblical texts say nothing about
the physical birth of Jesus. John’s Gospel sets Jesus’s origin story in theological terms … “And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Jn1:1-4. And Mark, our gospel this morning, offers no origin story for Jesus at all.
And yet Mark is our Gospel source for the first two Sundays of Advent this year… Mark begins his Gospel… “in the beginning
of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and goes straight to the telling of Jesus’s baptism as an adult, which is
recognised as the start of Jesus’ ministry.
We are in Advent, but not as you might have expected. From Tracey Daub, whose advent study “Holy Disruption” we
had hoped to dip into, but unfortunately, COVID disrupted that plan. We are told that in Mark, there is no passive adoration of a sweet smiling baby in a manger but rather the incarnate presence of God who comes in the One who challenges the status quo engages the harsh realities of our world, and summons his followers to join him in a costly kind of commitment. (1) She writes that through Mark’s “… Gospel, we can discover a fresh understanding of Christmas – the holiness found when God’s transformative love is born in us.” (1). That’s encouraging – because how did the Gospel reading start this morning? With apocalyptic phenomena! End of time… “But on 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” great with power and glory …” (Mk 13:24-25). Why, when we are in this time of the year when we might be hearing about Mary and Joseph and the census, do we dip into the Gospel that skips “all that”? Really? Why do we have as our First Advent Gospel Reading one that begins as it does?
It’s helpful to remember that we are starting 13 chapters into the gospel. Mark has already been writing and testifying to the teachings and healings of Jesus. Perhaps we are starting our Advent journey with Chapter 13, often referred to as
Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” to better appreciate that Mark really wanted to bring hope and encouragement to people who were
experiencing great tribulation. People who are facing devastation will not be helped by stories of shepherds and magi. They need someone who can meet them where they are and bring change. Rome was a very violent, deprived place. Rome’s cruelty was notorious and a civil war amongst the different Jewish factions amid being under siege resulted, according to some records, in as many people dying of starvation as were later killed by the Romans. (1)
So, while we might not find joy in contemplating the end of the world, in the context of those who are suffering already – the
ending of their misery and a complete reordering of the world would be something of wonder and hope, something to be
anticipated. (1) Sadly, today, we are aware that many people around the world are living in extreme devastation and despair … and we ourselves will have experiences that bring us to our knees, crying out to God to break in and bring us what we need.
Recovery of loved ones from depression, cancer… you know your personal concerns or those of people close to you. So, let’s give our attention to this text because – it is relatable…
Mark speaks of end times to signal the start of something new. What follows this overarching story of creation’s forthcoming shift, this movement from end times, is a caution story about … a fig tree! A fig tree budding with leaves. Here is where we are given hope. Yes! Perfect for this first Sunday of Advent and our focus on HOPE…
But there’s a bit of context around the fig tree, this image of hope. We need to be paying attention to it, the fig tree … I know there are gardeners among us … how many of you have been watching and waiting for something to bloom or fruit and the one weekend you go away, the birds come and eat the fruit, or the blossoms are blown away before you can pick a few branches… Hope needs to be tended. It is gifted to us; it does surprise us, and we need to be paying attention. When the fig tree starts to sprout its leaves, we know good things are on the way— “Jesus is near, at the very gates!” It is exciting and hopeful. Our mouths are watering in anticipation. We don’t know when the figs will turn ripe, but we must pay attention and be ready to strike or risk losing out.
Advent is an active waiting in Hope. (3) And this staying awake, being “woke”, we might say, is so important that Mark gives us
one more story to bring the point home… In the story of the homeowner, Jesus spells out several commands: “beware, keep alert” (v 33), “keep awake” (v 35), “and what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (v 37). What does it mean to keep awake? The spiritual, theological reading of the text throughout the history of the church draws from the word awake’s definition as “watchful.” Advent people are watchful. (2)
We are watchful for what is happening around us. We are watchful of what needs doing and what we can do to encourage
or enable others in loving and caring for our neighbours, our world, and ourselves. And—like watching for the fig leaves to give way to delicious figs, we are watchful for signs of God continuing to be active in the world, which encourages us and others to continue even as we cry out for more, more justice, more care, more peace.
Christ has come, is here and will come again in the spaces between us. Stay awake and alert – be filled with hope even in
the waiting time. We know the full re-ordering of the world has not happened yet. We are a people living between two Advents – the Advent of Christ’s first coming as a baby who grew into a man and the Advent of the second coming when God’s redeeming work will be fulfilled. And in this in-between, our lifetime, perhaps, we are Advent people actively waiting for the God who has not left us. (1) We partner with the Spirit’s tending and caring by mirroring God’s watchfulness and care for others. (2)
As Jesus teaches, we anticipate the future and live as much of its reality in the here and now as we can. This is what it means
to be awake in peace, hope, love, and joy. This is what it means to live with Advent faith. Let this particular season of active
watching and waiting begin again.