Only Half The Story
This is a curious text for the first Sunday in Advent. Here we are looking forward to celebrating Christmas, ready to hear the story of Jesus' birth, of angels and the stable and a star in the night, yet we begin the Advent season with this text from the Gospel of Mark. It isn't what we'd expect, but it does tell us something about the Advent season, and in a way, about the curious position that we believers find ourselves in, looking back to the birth of our Lord, and forward to his coming again.
In less than a week, Jesus will be dead. That's the context for this passage in Mark. It occurs after Palm Sunday and before the last supper. Jesus' earthly life is about to end, and he's talking with his disciples about the future. Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars, knowing he will soon be gone. And in the midst of this, he offers a word of hope. Facing his own death, Jesus looks to the future and finds hope.
This passage is called eschatological, from the Greek word eschatos, meaning last. Traditionally the church has interpreted what Jesus says here as dealing with questions of the last days, the end of history. From the beginning, the church has believed that there will be a fulfillment of history, with the return of Jesus, the Son of Man. Here, Mark gives us a glimpse of what that return will look like, and at first glance, the future looks bleak. Nations will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famine, and "suffering such has not been since the beginning of creation." And after that suffering, "the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light." The stars will fall and the very powers of heaven itself will be shaken. This is not a very comforting image. Is this our future? It sounds more like the present to me.
If you just turn on the evening news, you hear of places all over the world where nation has turned against nation—places like Bosnia, Jerusalem, Chechnya. Last summer when the NATO forces started bombing the Serbs in Bosnia, a Paris newspaper carried a story about the bombing, with an accompanying photograph. It was a picture of an elderly Serbian woman, bent over with age, standing amid a pile of rocks that had been her home the previous night. She had escaped the bombing with her life, but with nothing else. Like the Bosnians killed in the marketplace the week before, this Serbian woman knew the suffering of loss—the loss of loved ones, the loss of her home, the loss of peace as a way of life. The bombs that had come in the night—like falling stars— made the nation's self-destruction a reality for this woman, plunging her into a night that even now shows only small signs of lifting.
You don't have to look as far as Bosnia to see the same self-destructive tendencies that our world is embracing, or the suffering that wars and rumors of wars inflict on us all. National Public Radio carried a story a few months ago about a three year old girl named Stephanie who was shot to death in the back seat of her parents' car when they accidentally took a wrong turn down a dead end street in Los Angeles. The street was owned by a gang, waging their own battle against rivals in a turf war designed to lay claim to streets and neighborhoods and children's lives.
This is Advent, and it will soon be Christmas and yet, even as we prepare to celebrate what is for us as the church one of the happiest times of the year, we know that for many people life is hard. For anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, the pain of a broken relationship, the disappointment of unrealized dreams, it's painfully clear we live in a world of great suffering. It often seems as if the sun refuses to shine, and the moon gives no light.
But...it's the same world into which God was born. Jesus came into the world in poverty—born in a stable. He was condemned to death by order of Herod, and his family were refugees, fleeing to Egypt to avoid persecution. This is the story we tell each year at Christmas time.
Even in Mark's day, people knew suffering. In Mark's day when this gospel was written, probably around forty years after Jesus died, the temple was being destroyed by the Romans, and Jews and Christians alike were being put to death for their faith. That's probably why Mark felt it important to include this text in his gospel. This was a description of his world. It's also the world into which Jesus was born, and it's also our world. When we proclaim the birth of Jesus to this suffering world, at this time of year, what difference does it make? Baby Jesus has come and still there are children living and dying in poverty. The Messiah lives and still there are people dying of AIDS. The Prince of Peace has come into the world and still there are people all over the world who know only war, suffering, or loneliness. What difference does it make to proclaim the birth of Christ when the sun seems darkened and the stars have fallen?
And yet—when we proclaim the birth of Christ, we proclaim it as good news for this suffering world, and we do that with integrity precisely because we know that it's only half the story. The other half is what Mark is telling us in this passage. That's why we read this text at Advent. At the same time that we look back upon Jesus' birth, we also look forward to his return. Even in a world as harsh as ours, we celebrate, because we know the past and we know the future.
And what is our future? Jesus tells us with a parable. How will we know when the time is at hand? "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near." In contrast to the dismal description of the present, Jesus offers an image of the future, of the Kingdom of God, as one of tenderness and life. When the budding tree puts forth new signs of life, then we know that the harsh winter is over and summer is near, and when we see these new signs of life amid the death that is our present reality, then we know that he is near, even at the very gates. Just when it looks like the powers of heaven itself are shaken, Christ will return. What was begun in his life here on earth will finally be established once and for all. And that's where our hope lies. We hope not only in the coming of one who will judge this world and set it right, but in the fact that the one who is coming, is the one we already know, the one whose birth we celebrate. The one who is coming is the one whose ministry was to the poor, whose mission was to proclaim release to the captives, and who loves us and gave his life for us. If we want to know what the future will be like, look to the life of Jesus.
Even as we, the church, celebrate this time of year, this time of remembrance of our Lord's birth, the future is breaking in all around us. As the church we maintain a kind of in-between position, to stand with one foot in the present and one in the future. Always looking forward to that coming day, we work now to create a community that foreshadows what the whole world will be like when Jesus returns—a community where people love each other and forgive each other and bear one another's burdens. A community where life is valued, even the lives of an elderly bent over woman and a three-year-old child. A community that says to the world, "This is the way it can be! This is the way that God intends it. And, we believe, this is the way it will be one day." As believers, we assume the mission of Jesus, the mission started in his lifetime and that will reach consummation at his return. Far from just passively waiting for God to affect justice, we work for justice, even knowing that our efforts will not be completely successful until Justice himself returns and is established forever. It's a paradox, but it's the delicate balance we maintain, proclaiming to a world at war that the Prince of Peace has come, and will come again. It's the hope we maintain in the face of everything in the world that seems hopeless.
Elie Wiesel, in his famous book, Night, describes his experience as a prisoner of the Nazis in Birkenau. Auschwitz and Buchenwald, He was imprisoned as a boy of thirteen, with his father, having been separated from his mother and sisters at the time of his family's deportation from Transylvania. It was 1944, and the death camps that were still relatively unknown to the world nevertheless were fully active. Wiesel's description of the torture and death that were the daily experience of the imprisoned Jews explains the title of his book. Even the train ride to the camp was agonizing and of his arrival he writes. "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into the wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky."
That was only the beginning for Wiesel, and the others with him. The daily selection meant some chosen to live and others to die, marched to their own deaths in the crematoriums. And in the midst of all this, Wiesel describes the observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. "[As night fell,] surrounded by the electrified barbed wire, thousands of silent Jews gathered, their faces stricken.... The voice of the officiant had just made itself heard. I thought at first it was the wind. 'Blessed be the Name of the Eternal!' Thousands of voices repeated the benediction; thousands of men prostrated themselves like trees before a tempest. 'Blessed be the Name of the Eternal!’... I heard the voice of the officiant rising up, powerful yet at the same time broken, amid the tears, sobs, the sighs of the whole congregation: 'All the earth and the Universe are God's’" Though Wiesel was no longer able to pray himself, his praying voice silenced by the sight of death, all around him people prayed to God for their deliverance and the deliverance of their people. The Rosh Hashana service ended with the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which they prayed for parents, for brothers and sisters, for their children and for themselves. Standing at the gates of hell, they prayed to God in heaven, and even as they walked to their deaths, they looked to the future and found hope. Though night surrounded them, still they looked forward to the dawn of the Lord's day, and maintained their hope that the God who had delivered them from the Babylonians would deliver them once again. Their story provides a powerful witness to the hope of God's promises, even in the face of death. They did not deny the terror all around them, they hoped in spite of it. With their feet planted firmly in the present, their sights were just as firmly set on the future.
And so we start the Advent season by looking forward to the future. As we begin to tell the story of Jesus' birth, we know that it's only half the story. As the church of Jesus Christ, the one whose birth we remember, we see the difference between the world as it is and the world as it can be, as it will be. When we look around us, we may see only crises, but when we look ahead, we see Christ, and even in our worst moments, we as the church, declare that hope, so that in our best moments, we may help the world to have hope. The Messiah has come. Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.
Old Bridge, NJ
1. Elie Wiesel, Night, (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1982), p. 32.
2. Ibid., p. 64.
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