Here comes Black Friday, even earlier than usual. Bell-ringers are appearing outside stores. Advertisers are shifting the consumerism-as-therapy machine into high gear. And Christians say: This is a good time to think about the world falling apart.
We're not trying to be morose. We're starting Advent.
The season of Advent (four Sundays preceding Christmas) traditionally begins, not with backward-looking remembrances of circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth, but with eerie images of cosmic mutations and grand promises of a future in which Jesus plays -- to put it mildly -- a noticeable role. Don't wear the tacky Christmas sweater just yet; track shoes and a hazmat suit may capture the mood better.
Advent's watchwords are preparation and waiting. It's about looking outward and ahead. It's time for Christians to declare that God's previous incursion into human affairs through Jesus Christ is not the end of the story but the foundation for a future hope of God bringing ultimate promises to fruition.
Advent Is About Preparing To Recognize Jesus
It's really a shame how passages such as Mark 13:24-37 have been arrogated by the "Left Behind" camp and others who view the Bible as an encrypted map of the future, leaked by God to code-breakers, who derive from it a deity who's itching to snuff out the multitudes. Instead, this passage orients us to the future in a very different way, and for different ends.
Jesus' instruction here is part of a much longer speech. Notice the words "after that suffering": He has just described a situation of awful destruction, persecution and sacrilege. The themes and imagery make this speech similar to other literature of the time, literature meant to interpret current events and political circumstances.
What great devastation is he talking about? He's not predicting the Greek economic mess or the Indianapolis Colts' current season; his words must have resonated with those who knew (firsthand or from reports) of the siege of Jerusalem, which effectively ended the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 C.E. The first readers of the Gospel according to Mark likely read it as the fumes of ruin -- and failed promises -- still hovered in the air. The war had been a time when many Jews (including some who were Christian) expected divine intervention, believing God was ushering in a new order.
Jesus deliberately separates his description of the war from his statements about his future reappearance. His point? The war -- and perhaps every other war to be waged -- will not be the occasion by which God's intentions come to fullness.
Why was the war a false sign of God's activity? Perhaps the war's end, another decisive Roman victory, indicated as much. But I think it's the means of the war that's the problem. Jesus will not exercise power like the world's rulers and would-be rulers do. He won't be changing the world with conventional tools and tactics.
False signs remain everywhere; they are events and trends we rely upon to inform our ultimate hopes or fears. Consider Iran joining "the nuclear club," the death of Osama bin Laden, the recommendations of the congressional supercommittee or the outcomes of the Arab Spring.
Important stuff, those things. But we Christians are still waiting and watching. We suspect God has other ways.
It's not that we don't find hope (or worry) in certain large-scale political developments. We do. Still, if we expect our pet political and social causes get to be identified (exclusively) as God's causes, we're mistaken. If the change we seek for the world embraces new forms of dominance over others, then we've missed the point. Those revolutions will not be theologized. Jesus' speech instructs us to direct our vision elsewhere to find signs of God's presence.
The outcome is not just about waiting for another physical appearance of Jesus in the future, although some Christians put great stock in that hope. I think it's also (and more fruitfully) about patiently and watchfully training our attention on where Christ might be manifested today. And so in Advent we ask where Christ and his message are apparent within -- and outside! -- of Christian communities. Where are God's desires becoming actualized? We may be surprised.
Consider the unfolding Occupy movements. Is God at work through all their aspects? Probably not. But do they manifest God's activity in some aspects? People of faith are keenly attentive.
Advent Is Dangerous
The impulses behind Advent should alarm those who are overly enamored with the current system (who probably number more than 1 percent), as well as any others who are overly confident in their ability to engineer what's best for the world.
Advent expresses the insistence that all is not right in our societies. That's a dangerous expression. Stoking hopes for a new world order, for justice really to be for all, usually implies that old systems, governments and loyalties aren't what they're cracked up to be.
Notice: The transformation anticipated in Mark 13:24-37 is such a monumental and all-encompassing upheaval, its description must resort to symbolism. The symbolism is unnerving, even though it was familiar to ancient audiences. It suggests that, in the face of the God's desires coming to full fruition, every other power (symbolized by sun, moon and stars) receives notice and sees its light go out. No aspect of human existence goes untransformed when God enters in for good.
The claims of Advent should rattle all who benefit from exploitative and domineering forms of power. This means a lot of us, of course.
Advent Is Busier Than It Looks
Waiting and watching for Jesus in our midst is not about passivity. His words in this passage commend readiness and alertness, not patient inactivity.
Everything I learned about waiting I learned as a kid waiting to be picked up by my mother. Whether I was at school or soccer practice, I couldn't stand it when she was late. Today, I could use a cellphone to find out where she is. Then, I had to cope by doing all I could to lessen the distance or the time between me and her, wherever she was. I walked to the corner in the direction from which she would drive. I squinted, looking for the right car color or headlight tint. All my senses were fixed on the road.
That's the kind of waiting this passage has in mind, an active waiting that has come to know full well that the one who is coming is recognizable, even before fully arriving.
Jesus' message about his appearance encourages advocacy, not idleness. Expectancy means looking alertly for opportunities to come alongside Christ and embody Christ's purposes in the present, as well as in the future. We expect he's all around us.
For us living north of the equator, it makes sense that Advent coincides with winter's dimmest and longest nights. We light candles, whose tiny, pathetic flames stand defiantly against the night. They say: No matter how much waiting -- and working -- lies between now and the dawn, we are not giving up hope.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.