First Advent Year B – The Promise

Title:First Advent Year B – The Promise

Commentary by the Rev. David Lose

Because at the heart of the Christmas story is the promise that God not only came in the small and vulnerable form of a baby born to poor and frightened parents, but that God keeps coming in small, vulnerable, unexpected, and unlooked for ways even now. In fact, each time we reach out to another in love, God is once again invading the kingdoms and structures of this world with God’s radical and transformative presence and grace.

Readings

You will likely hear any number of well-intentioned and liturgically astute commentators remind you this week that, “Advent is not about the baby Jesus.” Fine.

Yes, the season that takes its name from the Latin adventus – “coming” – looks ahead to the second coming of Christ in power and glory as much, if not more, than the first coming of Jesus in the flesh of the Christ child at Bethlehem.

Yes, we – and particular we North American, relatively affluent Christians – have largely allowed the cultural impetus to use the weeks before Christmas (starting on Black Friday, not the First Sunday of Advent) as a time to get ready for Christmas via the overconsumption of shopping, eating, and decorating rather than making space through restraint and contemplation for the hopeful anticipation of God’s in-breaking into our lives.

Yes, we – same “we” as above – regularly fall prey to sentimentalizing the Christmas celebration, focusing on how cute Jesus must have been and how calm Mary (in our imagination always dressed in blue and looking strangely Nordic rather than Middle-eastern) was, overlooking Jesus’ destiny to die by capital punishment and Mary’s earlier rebel song about how her son would overturn the power structures of the day.

All true. And yet in response to the well-educated and well-intentioned advocates of keeping Advent more purely, I will still say, “fine.” More than that, I’ll advocate charting a different homiletical course this Advent.

Why? First, because you’ll lose. This year, especially, a lot of our folks will yearn for the spiritual “comfort food” of Advent calendars with chocolate behind each door, beloved carols about the baby who “no crying he makes,” and traditional manger scenes, complete with the attentive magi present way, way before January 6th. And, honestly, who can blame them? 2020 has already felt quite apocalyptic enough, thank you very much, and so about the last thing anyone wants heading into Advent is to be scolded about singing Christmas carols too early or admonished to “watch” for Christ’s second-coming instead of focusing on the baby.

But second, and more importantly, I think that, nestled within our increased hunger for the traditional trappings of Christmas – and the nearly overwhelming desire for a sense of normalcy that I believe these cravings represent – rests a much-needed corrective, not so much to our longings for normalcy but to our understanding of Advent itself.

Here’s the thing: this year has brought into sharp relief the fragility of the lives we have made for ourselves and reminded us painfully that we are not, on our own, sufficient to the challenges of life in this world. Isaiah’s cry in the first reading – “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” – is our cry, even if we have a hard time giving it voice. Isaiah’s plea to God is as simple as it is stark: Show up and do something! You know, like God used to do when God rescued Israel from Egypt. And we’d like God – well, preferably God but we’ll take anyone at this point (fill in your favorite political champion or celebrity of choice) – to do the same. And, in my humble opinion, projecting those hopes out to the second-coming doesn’t help all that much.

Which is where Mark’s intentional re-telling of Jesus’ apocalyptic parable points the way. I’ve suggested before that I think this parable works on two levels. The first is indeed to honor and reflect the eschatological roots of Jesus’ message that God will at some point come to right all wrongs, settle all accounts, and restore the creation. The second is to tie that redemptive action not so much to a future and cataclysmic event – as apocalyptic prophecies typically did – but rather to wed it to God’s surprising, even hidden, appearance and in-breaking in and through Jesus’ cross. For this reason, Mark employs the four “time-stamps” of the parable – evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn – to mark the scenes of the passion about to commence – gathering with his disciples at evening, betrayed and arrested at midnight, denied at cockcrow, and sentenced to death at dawn. Similarly, Mark uses the Greek verb to “rend or tear asunder” that is also used to translate Isaiah’s plea (in the Septuagint) at two points: Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit comes down, and the rending of the curtain in the Temple at Jesus’ death.

So when, according to Mark, will the unlooked for day and hour of God’s unveiling and appearance be? Not so much at the end of time, but at the cross, in the hidden and expected unveiling of God’s greatest work. Religious authorities mocked it. Bystanders dismissed it. Even his disciples missed it. Yet in that small and broken figure of Jesus on the cross, God was at work, rending to pieces all that would divide us from God, closing the gap between what we deserve and what God wants to give us, promising to be with us and for us in and through all things.

All of which invites us to hear a little differently the Christmas story for which Advent prepares us. I honestly don’t think there’s anything wrong with the comfortable and comforting picture of the baby Jesus with his adoring parents or the songs we sing depicting this scene. At the same time, and even as we’re singing, deep down we all know that that comfort won’t last for long. At least if we receive it primarily as comforting rather than as a promise. Because at the heart of the Christmas story is the promise that God not only came in the small and vulnerable form of a baby born to poor and frightened parents, but that God keeps coming in small, vulnerable, unexpected, and unlooked for ways even now. In fact, each time we reach out to another in love, God is once again invading the kingdoms and structures of this world with God’s radical and transformative presence and grace.

That, in turn, not only transforms how we approach and experience Christmas, but also how we look at our lives in the world. What small things can we do in love through which God’s presence and redemption are revealed (the root of the word apocalyptic, interestingly enough!)? What small gestures might we offer that signify our trust that God is with us and for us? What small sacrifices might we make – including, significantly, the sacrifice of not gathering with others when doing so risks spreading the coronavirus – that provide opportunities to see God still at work loving and blessing God’s people and world?

Whatever our usual (and admittedly at times over-the-top) preparations for Christmas, fundamentally Christmas is about small things, a baby, his parents, bottom-of-the-economic ladder shepherds, wandering astrologers looking for someone to save the world, deep-held longings for presence and redemption given voice by Israel’s prophets. And this year, and particularly because our preparations and celebrations will be necessity be a bit more muted, perhaps we’ll be able to hear that promise more clearly: that whenever and wherever we act in love, God is present. So indeed, watch, wait, look, and most especially listen, for in the Christ child who will grow up to embrace all of our longings and experience all aspects of our life, God is whispering, “Emmanuel, I am with you!”


From Advent Word

#TENDER
Tender is probably not the word you associate with the passage from Mark 13 used on the First Sunday of Advent. No, here we find the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus: bold words about the sun being darkened and stars falling from the sky, about the Son of Man coming with great power and glory.

The word “tender” does appear in this passage, but it’s in the context of reading the signs of the times: “As soon as [the fig tree’s] branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Jesus isn’t talking about the branch being loving or kindhearted as we usually think when we hear the word “tender.” He’s talking about reading the signs when you see that the branch is sensitive, when it’s delicate to the touch. Jesus certainly sees and understands the signs around him; he knows that he is entering the “time of trial” as Mark says, the “time of darkness” as Luke puts it. Soon will come the betrayal, denials, abandonment, trial, torture, and the cross. This Jesus, who one day will come with great power and glory, is also the one who suffers and weeps and asks his friends to stay awake with him in his time of trial, in his time of darkness.

But even more, this same Jesus who gives glimpses of his power and majesty in overturning the tables of the moneylenders and confounding the self-righteous in their attempts to trip him up is also the one who can read the signs of human pain and need in those who reach out to him. And he responds tenderly.

To the leper in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel who begs Jesus to heal him—“if you choose”—Jesus responds not by showing how powerful he is or by immediately healing him with the snap of a finger but instead by saying, “I do choose.” Jesus touches the man even before he makes him clean. Jesus sees the tenderness of the man’s pain and responds with the tenderness of his loving heart.

To the little children and their desperate parents who approach him to seek a blessing, only to have his disciples shoo them all away as if they are unworthy of his attention, Jesus responds with tender care, even as he is indignant with those who call themselves his followers and yet cannot see the signs of human need.

When we feel weak and overwhelmed, let us hang our hope on the blessed truth that this same Jesus who one day will come with great power and glory is also the one who walks alongside us right now, with tenderness in his heart and balm for our weary souls. Let us echo the words of the old spiritual that says, “When my heart within is aching, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

-The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry