Stay Awake to Simple Revelations
This passage from the gospel of mark is not fun, and its not easy, often times I skip it when I come to it in the lectionary. I almost did… There are so many other uplifting, more palatable stories, that I often choose a different scripture when faced with wrestling with the imagery and prophetic message of this passage from the Gospel of Mark. Actually, I think to begin with I am going to set the scripture aside again for a just a few more minutes…
I recently saw a silly movie called love and monsters. Basically, it is a coming-of-age story about a kid that grows up in a world suddenly dominated by strange creatures and has to overcome his many fears and shortcomings to become the person he wants and needs to be. It’s fun, not overly cerebral, not too artsy or even too goofy, its actually just the right amount of goofy. As you can probably tell from my use of words like goofy and silly, it is a comedy. But beyond being a comedy, it’s also a piece of apocalyptic fiction. Now I have seen all sorts of apocalyptic movies, read all kinds of apocalyptic books. Some of them are funny, but others are sad, and many, underneath their different elements, their settings, and their plot, many carry a social commentary, a perspective on what has been and what will be, on how things work, on how people behave. This is a very popular vein of literature and cinema, not just with me, but I imagine with many of you as well. This morning’s passage from Mark is apocalyptic as well, and is often referred to as Mark’s Little Apocalypse, or at the least it is considered a portion of it. But what does it mean to be apocalyptic, and why do I feel that this passage is more unpalatable than usual this year, and why do I feel more than ever we need to hear and think about the message of this passage as we enter into Advent this year?
To begin with this year has been tough, it has been a long uphill battle to say the least. For many of us the approach of Christmas is an opportunity to find joy that is hard to find otherwise, and yet many of the traditions and practices of Christmas and advent that hold that joy for us, cannot be held, or maybe they have been relegated to online venues and they just aren’t the same. Covid 19 remains, an active ever-present element of our lives, and the lives of people around the world. Political tensions that have just begun to settle in the recent weeks continue to smolder and sputter in the news. Peace is an elusive sensation in the best of times, and more so today, so I am reluctant to hold forth scripture that on the surface threatens what peace we have with its use of apocalyptic language. Despite its promises of salvation, its tone remains difficult, so I am reluctant to dive into it today for fear that you won’t hold out and listen for what reassurance it has to offer. And I think it offers tremendous reassurance.
In its original context this passage would have been far more difficult to wrestle with than it is today. Preceding this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus prophesies the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem when Peter comments on the great stones from which the temple is built. When the Gospel of Mark was written in the late 1st century, the prophesied destruction of the temple was a recent reality. In approximately the year 70ce, Romans destroyed the Great Temple in Jerusalem. This destruction destroyed more than a building, it tore down the physical center of Jewish Identity, and practice, and left first century Jews reeling. How could they go on without the temple? We cannot hope to understand the loss that that community felt in those days, but we can imagine the reception that Jesus’ prophecies would have received… Despite its promises of salvation in the end, where did it leave those struggling in the present? And where does it leave those of us struggling in the now?
When Jesus describes the destruction of the temple in the gospel of Mark and the signs and portents that make up our passage this morning, possibly in a fit of frustration with his disciples and their fascination with the great building, I wonder if Mark isn’t hoping Jesus’ word’s will shock some of their readers out of their focus on the pain and loss they felt, and open them to potential and possibility, if only as a means of surviving a loss or a trauma of such magnitude. In our global moment, when we cannot be out, or together in the ways we normally would, engaging in the longstanding traditions and practices that have been central to our observation of Advent and Christmas for a very long time, practices and traditions that are central to many of our Christian identities, couldn’t we stand to be shocked out of our focus on the traditional, if only to open us to the possible.
My favorite image from this passage this morning, in light of where we are in the world today, is not the profound arrival of the Son of Man on a bank of clouds, though that is an amazing image, but the new leaves of the summer Fig tree described as equivalent to the signs of the coming of the Son of Man. In those leaves Jesus says one can observe the arrival of summer, just as one can observe the arrival of the Son of Man in the signs he has described. At this point it would be helpful to understand that apocalypse comes from the Greek apokalypsis, which can be translated as revelation. Knowing that how apocalyptic is Jesus description of those leaves, how revelatory is the idea of those leaves, simple and green, leaves that emerge as temperatures rise and seasons change, leaves that promises such sweet sticky fruit. How profound is their simple promise, when held alongside the apocalyptic promise of God’s arrival on a bank of clouds.
Joan Chittister, in her book entitled The Liturgical Year, notes that, “The liturgical year does not begin at the heart of the Christian enterprise. It does not immediately plunge us into the chaos of the crucifixion or the giddy confusion of the resurrection. Instead, the year opens with Advent, the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious. It trains us to see what is behind the apparent, advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.” Those leaves, oh what those simple fig leaves could symbolize! the profound revealed in the mundane, that is what Advent makes us look to for signs of God in our lives, and Jesus reminds us today, that in those leaves we can find revelation. In the simplest thing, even when it is not what we have come to expect, even when its not what we want, Gods love is revealed.
Toward the end of this morning’s passage, Jesus urges his disciples to “stay awake” so that when the Son of Man returns, they will be aware, and be ready. This simple charge, stay awake, stay aware, stay vigilant, is as relevant for you and me today as it was for Jesus disciples as they contemplated the fall of the temple, as relevant for you and for me as it was for the first century Jewish audience of the Gospel of Mark as they imagined new ways to practice their faith. In this moment when the world cannot be together as it often is at Christmas, when we cannot be tother as we often are, Jesus charge to stay awake is all the more important! In this time of waiting when we are made to look in oft forgotten places for God’s love, we must stay awake! We must stay awake so that we can know God’s love when we encounter it, in the profound and in the mundane.