Advent I, Year B
1 Cor 1:3-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
(1 Corinthians 1:3-9)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This text is a lesson in awareness. The use of the language of apocalyptic has fooled many into perceiving Jesus as simply another apocalyptist, from Albert Schweitzer (The Quest of the Historical Jesus) to Tim LaHaye (The Left Behind Series). The striking aspect of the text, as Rene Girard has pointed out is that the gospel text ‘demythologizes’ apocalyptic in that it anthropologizes otherwise traditional apocalyptic themes.
Kasemann has already pointed out that “apocalyptic is the mother of early Christianity” (Ernst Kasemann, New Testament Question for Today). If that is so, persecution is the mother of apocalyptic. When things get really unjust, ugly, out of control, violent, hateful and fearful, people want out. Who can blame them? Apocalyptic has served as a large metaphor for the way things would work out at the end of time. Jewish Apocalypses, the apocalyptic scrolls from the Dead Sea, the atmosphere promulgated in small militant religious circles all contributed to the larger ‘apocalyptic myth.’
Jesus utilizes this metaphor of apocalyptic but subverts its function. This subversion can be seen in the parables as William Herzog has shown (Parables As Subversive Speech). Here in Mark C.E.B. Cranfield notes that “while the language of apocalyptic is indeed used, the purpose for which it is used and even the form of the discourse are different” (C.E.B. Cranfield The Gospel According to St Mark). To find Jesus turning things around, looking at life from a different perspective, should not astound anyone.
One theme that will be mentioned again and again in these studies is that while Jesus may use the language of his culture and environment, he sees things from a very different perspective. One significant area relates to his understanding the character of God, his abba, the creator of heaven and earth (Jeremias, Theology, Prayers of Jesus). Jesus’ Father is all about LIFE. Life expressed as love and forgiveness.
Yet, Marcus Borg (Conflict, Holiness & Conflict in the Teachings of Jesus) has demonstrated that the ‘threat-warrant’ tradition permeates the Jesus tradition. Yes, Jesus talks about judgment. A lot. But not in the way we have become accustomed to. The threat -warrant tradition is simply “the warning of a future consequence that flows from a present behavior.” (How many times have we done this with our children?) Raymund Schwager (Jesus In The Drama Of Salvation) has also analyzed the ‘judgement sayings’ and come to the similar conclusion that “the judgement proclaimed by Jesus showed itself first as the self-judgement of humankind.” That is, “With the measure we measure others, we will be measured by God.”
In the Psalm for the day, the writer of Psalm 80:3 sees the tribulations of his/her present, and the destruction of the temple in terms of God’s anger. But even here already, it is the innocent victim who cries out, for in 80:12, the singer cannot figure out a reason why things are as bad as they are. The Isaiah text develops a theory of the human condition that God will help those who ‘do right’ (64:5). The text declares that, in spite of that fact, the terrible calamity that has befallen in the destruction of the Temple (64:11) results from God’s anger which is the same as “God hiding His face.” In fact, the apostle Paul will develop and radically alter the themes of this chapter in several of his letters.
One can see this clearly in the lectionary’s juxtaposition of texts for the day. Both texts from the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 80 and Isaiah 64 perceive the apocalyptically experienced events of their time in terms of God’s anger or wrath. God is therefore ultimately responsible for the destructive events occurring in our life. This is also the perspective of Job’s friends.
The Mark 13 text is wholly devoid of any reference to God as the cause of these events. The problem of human violence is laid squarely at the door of humanity. As Raymund Schwager has programmatically expressed (Must There Be Scapegoats?) there is a tendency to separate God from violence more and more throughout the development of the Hebrew Scriptures, and clearly shown in the teaching of Jesus.
Mention should be made here that two contemporary ‘lives’ of Jesus vividly demonstrate the vivacity of Jesus and his message, Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus and Raymund Schwager’s Jesus of Nazareth: How He Understood His Life. One should also see the tantalizing perspective on Jesus’ message of the “vivacious effervescent God” by James Allison in Raising Abel.
In Mark 13, unlike the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, it is clearly shown that the maelstrom of events that will bring about the destruction of humanity are not an expression of divine anger or wrath, these events are of human origin through and through. Robert Hamerton-Kelly finds it “remarkable that among all the apocalyptic imagery of this discourse there is not one claim that the tribulations to befall humanity in the messianic apocalyptic history and the ultimate eschaton are expressions of the vengeance of God (The Gospel and the Sacred). And to most, they will come as a complete surprise.
In a recent Discovery Magazine article about black holes, the author noted that there are at least a half-dozen black holes in our galaxy. What is more is that astrophysicists would not even know about an impending black hole. They would only be able to tell we were pulled into one after the fact. A similar analogy is drawn by Jesus except that we are not to be surprised as it happens. Violence is everywhere, it rules the planet; it is the heart of the ‘principalities and powers.’ When we acknowledge that violence cannot be attributed to God, we also disclose the anthropological dimensions of violence.
The text of Mark 13 is aptly called “the Second Sermon on Revolutionary Patience” (Binding The Strong Man). Myers’ argument that the Mark 13 text can only be properly understood in the light of a call to arms (as it occurs e.g., in the War Scroll of Qumran or I Enoch) is certainly worthy of observation. That is, the ‘little apocalypse’ is not an end-time call to arms but a warning that when that occurs, in “the war of all against all” as Girard puts it, Christians ought not to be surprised.
3. False Readings
A. Perceiving Jesus as an end time preacher of apocalyptic judgment
B. Asserting that Jesus message contained elements of divine vengeance
C. Masking our inherent tendencies to justify our violence by projecting onto God our propensity for self-destruction
D. Failure to discern that non-violence is primarily a theological category with ethical consequences, not just an ethical high ideal.
The First Sunday in Advent in all three years begins with an eschatological warning. Year B, in which John and Mark predominate, begins with a portion of the text from the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13. Theissen has shown (The Gospels in Context) that this text originated from within the Jerusalem community around Peter/James in the context of the Caligula crisis of 40-41 C.E.
The Markan use of this narrative, as well as that of the Passion, which was introduced by the same Jerusalem community, indicates that at the time of the composition of the Gospel, another crisis had emerged. The traditional dating of Mark to the time of the Neronian persecution (Hengel, Studies in Mark) is made more plausible when we note the debate over whether or not the author (whom we shall call Mark) is aware of the events occurring in and around Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The traditional Petrine influence can also be accounted for as well.
Scholars have detected both Petrine and Pauline influence in the Gospel of Mark. The tradition that places both Paul and Peter in Rome to be executed in the Neronian pogrom suggests that Rome, in the late 60’s or perhaps early 70’s is probably the location of the ‘ Markan’ edition of the gospel (this does not preclude a pre-Markan gospel outline [Dodd, According to the Scriptures] or partially formed text [Vorlage] as suggested by redaction critics. Nor does it preclude the Papias tradition where Mark is the ‘interpreter’ of Peter).
The Petrine tradition had gained a solid foot in Rome and the link between Jerusalem and Rome would be the apostle Peter. However, due to the expulsion under Claudius, it is probable that Pauline congregations began to exert their influence. The end of the letter to the Romans (Donfried, The Romans Debate) indicates a tremendous amount of awareness of the social, political, economic and ethnic standing of many of the addressees and some of the ecclesial leaders. Many of them were comprised from the upper strata of Roman society (Raymond Brown and John Meier, Rome and Antioch).
Why is this important? These texts we use in worship today were developed in worship then. It is a commonplace in New Testament Studies to acknowledge the influence of the early church on these documents. Form criticism has demonstrated that the texts were shaped in liturgical contexts. In the latter half of the twentieth century, New Testament scholars like C.F.D. Moule and Oscar Cullmann have shown real liturgical presence in the gospels and letters. Vincent Taylor says of the writer of Mark that “the writer’s interests are catechetical and practical” (The Gospel According to St. Mark).
Whether Petrine or Pauline, congregations in Rome had to deal with issues of persecution and martyrdom and how to faithfully respond in such times of crisis.
In times of intense social violence and persecution, using a text that was formed in Jerusalem and recast in Rome, it seems fitting that an end of the world scenario presented itself. Writing these lines in September of 2002 it is not difficult to construct a worst-case scenario regarding the next few years. Even the most liberal among us was truly surprised by the events of September 11, 2001.
Only those who follow Jesus and the churches who gave us Mark 13, churches who have renounced violence both in themselves and in their theology, can see that the ‘revolutionary patience’ that is enjoined here is a watchful waiting for “the coming of the kingdom [which] has nothing to do with triumphalism; it comes from below, in solidarity with the human family in its dark night of suffering. The world is Gethsemane, and we are called to ‘historical insomnia.’” (Myers)
Preaching from a Peace Perspective would suggest that just as the early church, so today this text is to be issued as an ‘alert.’ The alert says clearly that God will not be behind the violence of the End. But when humanity is hell bent on its own destruction, it can get ugly very fast. Even more so in a time of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons!
And the chain of events that will bring about that final spiraling of destruction is entirely of human origin. For Jesus, the coming of the Son of Man occurs after this final orgy of self-destruction. It is the final destruction, and the final rescue of creation. In the beginning God created, in the end humanity destroys. In the new beginning….
Reading this text from the perspective of peace calls the church to a stance of steadfast waiting and radical renunciation of violence. In our day, as millenialists look eagerly for the final conflagration, we are called to look forward in confidence, but not with glee. As Christians, we acknowledge that Jesus has already inaugurated the kingdom, and we are called to live in a way that shows its presence, not a way that will provoke a human melt-down.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Three years ago when we wrote this, we had not yet gone to war in Iraq, but the situation looked grim. Now at the end of 2005, the ‘apocalyptic group’ in the White House (the so-called White House Iraq Group) is experiencing their own version of an apocalyptic meltdown.
I still see things as ‘apocalyptic’, that is, I still think that American culture is undergoing a crisis that can either change us for the better or for the worse, but change we must. Who will win? Ultimately, the Victor if Jesus, for now I pray that Americans are able to discern the true message of Jesus, as opposed to the false one propagated both in the political and the ecclesial arena. Perhaps we may find a way out of this mess….but if not….be ready!
“You say ‘Goodbye’ and I say ‘Hello.’” – The Beatles
The Epistle readings for Advent this year are all about hello and goodbye, the way we enter and the way we exit the lives of our brothers and sisters. Three of the four come from the letters of Paul, one from I Peter.
Today’s reading is the opening salutation of Paul to the troubled church in Corinth. Like many contemporary congregations, a party spirit reigned. Splinter groups had formed and partisan positions were taken. The Corinthian church is the best example in the New Testament of mimetic conflicts within a congregation.
Yet, Paul begins his letter(s) to the Corinthian church, not with criticism or anger (like he will do in Galatians), but with an emphasis on the grace of God, eschatological blessings and community formation (see Richard B. Hays First Corinthians).
In Advent our preaching can take on an apocalyptic tone as we find in the gospels. And heaven knows, we have had many an occasion to wonder just how apocalyptic it might become since 9/11. With the exception of one epistle reading (I Pet 3), Advent is Year C is about invitation (Greetings) and hope (Until we meet again).
Our open invitation to is to bear witness to the grace of God given to us. I have been a fierce critic of the Christian church in the gospel readings. But in the Epistle we receive another word, a word that God transforms and equips us. More than that, the church has everything (en panti) it needs to complete her mission in the world. We are so lacking in nothing that Paul can say we are ‘wealthed’ (NIV – ‘enriched’) with every good gift.
Indeed we are most wealthy for being the Body of Christ means that our true humanity is restored. We live in and by the sheer effervescent grace and love of God. We are a truly blessed people.
Verse 7 has been interpreted as a reference to the ‘parousia’ or second advent of Jesus. This is why our text is most likely included in Advent. The use of the verb ‘apocalypto’ is instructive here. While not wishing to minimize the parousia hope of Christians, is it not possible that Paul might mean (or also mean), when Jesus is revealed (apocalypsed) in the Corinthian church? Paul speaks of God ‘apocalypsing His Son in me’, which for Paul was the end of one way of life and the beginning of another.
And what might happen if that was also our hope today, namely that Jesus would ‘apocalypse’ himself to His bride, the church? Might not His presence transform us so that we might look like him? As he was equipped with every gift he needed to complete his ministry, so also, we His body on earth, are equipped, his ministry is our ministry still. It has not changed one iota. So let us wait with patience, steadfastness and joyful hope.
Nothing significant this week.
The beginning of Advent, the second coming of Jesus- coming and going are times of great stress for people; what makes them manageable for us are the social/cultural structures we put in place. Part of preaching the peace of Christ involves helping the church to recognize how ingrained our violently based cultural constructs are- without being violent in the process. This week’s text offers a rich opportunity to deconstruct something so automatic that most of us literally don’t see it as anything other than being polite. Exploring how we “meet and greet” one another on a regular basis and how disconcerting it is when the stranger we are greeting doesn’t respond according to the regional script (whatever that is; it doesn’t matter so much what the protocol is, merely that “everyone” knows it and follows it) helps us to become more aware of the exclusionary boundaries that are built in to help us screen out potential danger from the “other”. Ritual is meant to contain experience, and the simple act of greeting each other automatically encodes our anxiety into a polite security check that few of us even know we are conducting. Contrast this with the practice in many churches of “passing the peace” or “greeting one another in the peace of Christ” or any one of a number of greetings customary only within the church or between members of the same church if they meet in public- our greeting in the name of Jesus invokes something other than our cultural framework. Posing the question as to why we take time to specifically greet one another again from this foundation helps to jog awareness that the basis for our community- including our coming and going and the dangers therein- is different in church.
Paul defines the difference as being the presence of spiritual gifts- the active presence of God within and among us. We come together in Advent to anticipate the birth of Jesus, only to discover that he’s already here to the extent that we can keep our focus on the kingdom of God instead of the world at large. Unveiling Jesus in our midst in this week’s sermon might take the form of identifying both personal (to your church) and public images that emphasize this in ways that affirm and challenge the church. Where/how is the Holy Spirit active in your midst? Focusing attention on how the church meets and greets the world (beyond and/or including the “new member” protocol) such that Jesus shows through the veil of culture in which we’re immersed is a good first step in this year’s advent preparation for his birth. For those wanting to acknowledge the apocalyptic tone of the recent gospel readings, it’s also the reassurance that the second coming IS good news.