Reflection: Hope at the End of the World

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Advent One, 29th of November 2020

Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

Happy New Year! And to those of you here, in the nave, welcome back to worshipping in the church building after months of lockdown. In previous years it might have been hard for us to experience the beginning of Advent as something ‘new’ because we were doing pretty much the same things at church that we had done the week before, give or take some Advent candles. That is not an issue this year. This year, as we start the new liturgical year, we are also starting a new (or renewed) way of worshipping God: together, not merely in spirit but in actual physical fact, in the church building. 2020 has been the year of learning to appreciate things that we previously took for granted, and being in the same place as other members of the congregation as we worship is one of those things.

So, here we are, finally together, at the beginning of Advent. Advent, like Lent, is a purple season. Both Advent and Lent are times of preparation. Lent prepares us to commemorate and celebrate Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection; Advent reminds us that as we approach Christmas we are not merely looking back to Jesus’ First Coming but forward to his Second. Therefore we start the church year where last week we ended it, with a prophecy of the end times, the eschaton. We start this Year of Mark with Mark’s apocalypse.

The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation’ and literary apocalypses, like the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures, are revelations of the mysteries of the future or of heaven. The ‘Little Apocalypse,’ so called to distinguish it from the ‘Great Apocalypse’ in the Book of Revelation, is Mark’s version of Jesus’ farewell discourse. It is addressed privately to Peter, James, John, and Andrew, his first disciples, as they sit on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple. The first part of the Little Apocalypse, which we do not hear today, warns Jesus’ disciples not to be deceived by anyone claiming that the end of time has come and that Jesus has returned. There are going to be wars and famines and earthquakes and destruction, Jesus says, but these will not mark the eschaton. Some commentators think that this first part of the Little Apocalypse refers to things that had already happened by the time Mark wrote his gospel, the expelling of Christians from the synagogues and the Roman-Jewish war of AD 66-70 that ended with the destruction of the Temple. Jesus warned, and Mark’s readers would have known, that none of these things would mark the end of time.

(It is strange that so many apocalyptic cults have taken Jesus’ warnings that the end is still to come (Mark 13:7); that false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens to lead the elect astray (Mark 13:22); that no one knows the day or the hour, ‘neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ – and used them to argue that they can in fact predict the day or hour and that the end is nigh. Not a single cult has yet been right but for some reason that does not seem to matter to their followers. For instance, when Jesus failed to return in 1843 or 1844 as American prophet William Miller had expected, the Millerites pivoted and became the Seventh Day Adventists.)

It is the second part of the Little Apocalypse, the part that we hear today, that talks about the future and the end of time. The eschaton will be impossible to miss, Jesus tells his four disciples, because the signs will be cosmic; the sun and moon darkened and the stars falling. It will only be then that the Son of Man will come in clouds with great power and glory. Last week we heard Matthew’s prophecy of the coming of the Son of Man in his glory, in which the king judged the nations. In Mark’s version the elect will be gathered ‘from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven’. In both cases there is a sense that some people will be welcomed, and others rejected. This is because apocalyptic was the literature of the oppressed and dispossessed. It arose among people who were relatively powerless and who had little chance of fighting back against their oppressors. The Book of Daniel, which is quoted in the Little Apocalypse, was written in the second century BCE when a Greek Emperor was threatening to destroy Jewish worship in Jerusalem. The Book of Revelation was addressed to Christian communities facing persecution in Asia Minor. Mark’s Little Apocalypse was probably written for followers of Jesus who had already been thrown out of Jewish synagogues and who were experiencing the aftermath of the Roman-Jewish war. In every case these revelations are written for people who have suffered for their faith and who can expect more suffering in the future, to console them that their suffering is part of God’s plan and that ultimately God will vindicate them.

The prophecy we hear today from the Book of Isaiah is just as uncompromising as the gospel reading. The prophecies of ‘Third Isaiah’ addressed the situation of the Jewish exiles after they’d returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE. They had thought they were returning to the way of life they had known before their exile, but return was not the same as restoration. The Temple was still destroyed and would not be built again for decades. The nation was now divided between the descendants of those who had gone into exile and the descendants of those who had stayed. It was to this divided community, still surrounded by ruins, that Third Isaiah spoke.

‘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!’ Isaiah speaks of the coming of the Lord as a terrifying judgment, when God will judge the nations, those who had exiled Israel, and condemn them as the enemies of God. So far, so apocalyptic.

But then Third Isaiah goes further. It is not just ‘the nations’ who will be affected. The people of Israel have also ‘become like one who is unclean’ with all their righteous deeds ‘like a filthy cloth’. Isaiah makes the coming of the Lord sound terrifying for both the Lord’s adversaries and for the Lord’s people. But that is partly God’s fault, Isaiah says. He argues that one of the reasons the people have gone wrong is because God has been absent. ‘You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.’ If God were to come down, Isaiah tells God, this cycle of sin and absence and punishment would end. And so Third Isaiah pleads for and demands God’s appearance.

Isaiah reminds God of who God is: ‘O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.’ The people need God, their Father, the potter who moulds them like clay. They cannot live without God’s presence; without God they are delivered into the hands of their own iniquity. God must know this, so why does God not tear open the heavens and come down?

This year we have been reminded as never before of the pain and frustration of waiting. Like Isaiah, like the elect who risked being led astray by false signs and omens because they were so eager for the Second Coming, we too look at the world and ask: where are you, God? Why are there still wars and rumours of wars? Why do children die, and people go hungry? Why this year have millions been infected with covid19, and a million and a half died? How can we continue to worship God amid all this suffering?

The season of Advent reminds us that God has come down, although not in the way Isaiah demanded. God came quietly, not tearing open the heavens and making the mountains quake, but entering the world as every single human being enters it, through birth as a baby. God came among us not as the mighty doer of awesome deeds who makes the nations tremble, but hidden in human form, powerless and pitiful. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, the gift of God’s presence we have been given in Jesus. So we know that God is with humanity as we struggle, whenever we are oppressed or abused or ignored. And, as Matthew reminded us last week, when we care for those in the world who are most oppressed, those most in need, then we are caring for the Christ who came and lived among us, and who will come again.

The season of Advent, which looks backwards to the First Coming as well as onwards to the Second, offers us hope in the midst of the world’s chaos and confusion. We are reminded that God did once come and live among us. We know that the end of the story of that First Coming was not Jesus’ Crucifixion, but his Resurrection and Ascension, and so we know that God through the Spirit is still with us. Remembering these things, we can look forward with hope to the day when God will come again; the day that Jesus promises us will come; the day for which we must be ready. Together with Isaiah we can say: ‘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.’ Because we remember that God once came at Christmas, we can await God’s return with hopeful expectation, during this season of Advent and always. Amen.

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