Advent 1B (December 3, 2017)

Well, we made it to a new Church Year, and a new Advent, the season of praying for Christ’s coming. We acknowledge a divine absence of sorts. The Prophet Isaiah kicks things off with a profound statement: “Because you hid yourself from us we transgressed.” I’m usually tempted to think I transgress, and God, disappointed in me, hides God’s face. That’s such a scary thing to believe, and rather arrogant of me think that I could make God hide. Isaiah has it the right way around. Martin Luther writes in his Lectures on Isaiah, “God’s face is God’s very presence in the world. …Therefore, when God hides His face… nothing remains but the face of the devil, of death, and of sin.” We are helpless in the absence of God. Today, thinking of God’s absence, we read Mark 13:30.

The line “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” forces to the surface a longtime struggle of mine. Why am I supposed to care that this one time for a few months a man who some say is God helped a few people who largely merited no description? Because clearly that generation has passed away. It would appear that God was here for a brief while, and now is absent. There are plenty of attempts to wiggle out of this textual difficulty—Jesus was confused, Jesus was misquoted, if we just change the meanings of some of the Greek words we have a sentence we can agree with. They don’t work. That generation that knew Jesus is gone. By the time Mark’s Gospel got written most of that generation was gone. What, then, is Mark talking about?

Mark writes differently than the other gospel authors, and differently than most authors today. He writes in rings. Each scene builds to a middle, then unwinds; the middle interprets the beginning and the end. Scenes combine to form bigger rings, with middle scenes interpreting beginning and end scenes. A lot of the Bible is set up this way. So, what is going on in this scene? The text opens with an apocalypse. The apocalyptic says that the world’s problems stem from evil being in power, and that the world needs direct divine intervention, which will be awesome: sun darkened, flaming stuff falling from heaven, sky shaking. This is gonna be cool. Jesus says this is like a fig tree developing its leaves: natural, inevitable, and you’ll see it coming. Next, we get the verse that troubles me: this generation will not pass away until these things take place. Then, we get the announcement that Jesus’ words will never pass away. This is the middle part, the key to this scene, which will unlock beginning and end. Regarding the time that these things will take place, Jesus says, “No one knows the hour. I’m God, and my dad still won’t tell me; he’s not telling you.” Finally, there is the parable of the slaves watching for the owner. This parable somehow interprets the apocalypse in light of Jesus’ eternal words.

The parable is loaded with catch words that point to Jesus’ passion. The owner may come in the evening. There is a rather prominent evening meal in the next chapter, a “Last Supper,” if you will. The owner may come at midnight. The night after the evening meal, Jesus gets arrested. The owner may come at cockcrow. The rooster’s hollering will remind Peter that Jesus predicted a threefold denial. The owner may come at dawn. At dawn (after cockcrow), the Sanhedrin leads Jesus to Pilate. The parable is pointing to the Passion. The whole text this morning is pointing to the Passion. God’s apocalyptic trouncing of Satan will be Jesus’ passion. And that passion will work, because Jesus’ words will never pass away—he is God, in case you missed it—and he is the final authority on things.

That takes care of my little problem with verse thirty—this generation will not pass away before these things, because these things will happen in the next 72 hours. It merely leaves my enormous problem of these crucial faith events being in the past. The passion was roughly 2,000 years ago. What happens today, in 2017? Maybe we got ahead of ourselves. To get to the passion in Mark you’ve got to get out of the bigger ring into which today’s gospel fits.

Today’s gospel is but the end of a major story arc in Mark, that started with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. It’s the Palm Sunday story, though, because it’s Mark, it’s weird. Jesus rides the colt on the cloaks and palm branches, gets to the temple, looks around at everything, then leaves for his hotel which is outside city limits. We’re encouraged to ask, “What’s the matter, Jesus?” And over the course of this story arc, we learn that the Temple is dead and rotten at its core, and that the faith tradition which is supposed to give life is taking it, and increasingly trying to take the life of Jesus. His refusal to spend a night in the city is a prophetic statement. At the heart of this story is a showdown with the Sadducees, a powerful political faction, in which Jesus says, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Our gospel reading this morning rests on that statement. That’s the center of the ring. On Palm Sunday, Jesus came but refused to stay because everything was dead and rotten. Now, Jesus comes to stay, and his words will never pass away because he is the God of the living. Jesus will take on the forces of evil in his Passion and defeat them for the sake of the living. That’s not to discount the dead; Jesus has got them. There’s trouble among the living, in case you hadn’t noticed. Jesus is dealing with that. He is. He is the God of the living. When I say, “Jesus, yeah, question: why am I supposed to care that for a few months 2,000 years ago you did some stuff, even if I assume it was God stuff?” Jesus responds, “I am the God of the living, Timothy. I am your God.”

Christ is our God. He is risen and alive, and in his face we see God. The Prophet Isaiah lamented that God hid himself, hid his face, and thus the people sinned. With Jesus, we see the face of God. Though the events described in Mark are long past, Jesus is God, and we know where to look for him because Mark’s Gospel tells us. We look in the middle of the great ring story of Mark, in “Galilee,” as the man tomb-side at Easter says. For in the heart of Mark’s gospel, in the section that is key to understanding anything in the book, we see Jesus repeatedly welcome small, nameless children into his inner circle, and tell everyone to do likewise, and even to receive God as though we were little children. We see a man tell his followers, “If someone wants to be first—to be “number one”—they must be last of all and servant of all.” We see a man speaking of crosses—his own, and the ones all his followers will bear.

It’s what Martin Luther calls the “holy possession of the sacred cross.” It’s the grief the Church gets from the world for doing’ Christ’s work. In contemporary terms it’s “Solidarity with the suffering.” God’s work doesn’t cause people to suffer; it welcomes, reconciles, forgives, gives hope, and gives life. Because it does those things, it brings down the anger of a world that shuts out, divides, begrudges, feeds despair, and kills. The last thing the world wants to see is a whole bunch of Christians welcoming everyone, working out problems, helping people know God’s love, and making sure that everyone has the necessities and that the environment is not exhausted in the process. It is, frankly, annoying to the world when we do that. The people with whom we are called to be in solidarity are people the world would rather forget. The world wants to hide those faces. But in Jesus, God has shown God’s face, and it’s the face of those the world wants to forget.

What does Jesus mean, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place?” He means that he is the face of God, the God of the living, who on this day, this first Sunday in Advent 2017, takes up his cross and suffers alongside those whom the world wishes to forget, and in so doing he breaks the powers of hell. We open this Advent and this Church Year lamenting God’s absence and praying for Christ’s coming. Jesus opens this Advent saying, “You want to see me? I’ll tell you where I am. I am the God of the living. I’m with the homeless, with people struggling with addictions, with the lonely and depressed, with people who cannot pay their bills, with victims of human trafficking, with victims of hate crimes, with people who don’t fit society’s definition of normal.” He’s here. As we pray this season for Christ’s coming, let’s keep in our minds Luther’s words on the petition, “Your will be done.” “What does this mean?” Luther asks. “God’s gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in us and among us.” Let us pray that we may be with Jesus serving those the world would rather forget, and in doing so see Jesus break the powers of hell.