An Apocalypse of Presence: A Reflection for Advent 1, 2020

Well friends, we’ve made it to Advent once again. One of my most vivid childhood memories of this season is gathering with other children at the front of the church lighting an Advent wreath. In this tradition, each week of Advent, we would light one of five candles — three purple, one pink, and one white — that represented the week’s theme: hope, peace, joy, love, and for Christmas Day, Christ. We often talk about hope, the theme for the first Sunday in Advent, in rather hushed and lofty tones — as “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson famously put it. But this week, the lectionary readings present a different take on hope. It is less “the thing with feathers” than it is the thing with flames, the thing with rent garments, blood, sweat, and tears. Indeed, as Advent begins, the apocalyptic smoke we’ve been smelling the past few weeks becomes a raging fire.

This week’s readings offer us the desperate cries of people facing circumstances that feel like the End. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” cries the prophet Isaiah (64.1). The Psalmist likewise pleads before God, on behalf of Israel: “You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink. You have made us the derision of our neighbours, and our enemies laugh us to scorn” (Ps 80). And, Jesus gets in on the Apocalyptic action too:

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. (Mark 13.24ff)

It’s become a truism in New Testament studies to say that Apocalyptic was the mother of Christianity. And if this is true, then we have to say that suffering and oppression were Christianity’s grandmothers. Apocalyptic, as a genre, was a stubborn expression of hope — violent, escapist, dramatic, imaginative hope — in the midst of circumstances that feel so dire that they could only be thought of as the End.

It is a sad testament to human nature that these are common themes in our history. The Immanuel prophecy we remember so often this time of year was uttered at one such moment, when Jerusalem was hopelessly surrounded by enemies. Once that threat faded, the Assyrians swept through, conquering those enemies but presenting an existential threat to Judah. When Assyria fell, that existential threat was realized in the form of Babylon: Jerusalem fell, her great Temple razed, and citizens exiled. After the Persians conquered Babylon and ended the Exile, Jerusalem and her Temple were rebuilt, but, Judea fell again to successive waves of great world Empires: Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Seleucid Syria. During this last period, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes aggressively persecuted the Jewish people, forcing its young men to be surgically de-circumcised and turning the rebuilt Temple into a Temple of Zeus. And, by the time Jesus is preaching, mighty Rome has arisen and looms over everything. Within of few decades, Rome’s sword will come down in full force, and Jerusalem and its Temple will once again be destroyed.

Is it any wonder that people have always thought the world was ending: Doom! Doom! Doom! Come, LORD, and rend the earth like a garment! Come, set the seas ablaze and flatten the mountains! Come and set things right, even if the whole world must be destroyed in the process.

Into this situation — two thousand years ago and today alike — comes Jesus. It’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus was happy to use apocalyptic imagery in his teaching. Today’s Gospel reading is but one example. At the same time, however, it would be misleading to think of Jesus as just one more apocalyptic preacher shouting “Doom!” from the street corners. Jesus uses the form of Apocalyptic but subverts its function. Rather than using it to demand God come to offer the faithful a violent and bloody escape, he uses it to snap his disciples to attention to what God has already done and is now doing.

Yes, Jesus uses the violent and shocking language of Apocalyptic, but missing from today’s Gospel reading — and from the larger teaching of the whole chapter of Mark 13 — is any sense that all of the death and destruction is God’s doing. It’s the Romans — acting on their own and not as divine agents — who will destroy Jerusalem. It is the authorities — as a rejection of their sacred duties, not as an expression of them — who will drag the faithful before the courts. It is the intransigence of human hearts that will divide families. These tribulations are not God’s handiwork; rather, they are the birth pangs of the Kingdom.

So, if God is not revealed in the destruction and chaos, where is God in these situations? Where can our hope be found? Well, God is with us in them. The disciples can expect to be handed over to the authorities, but God will be there, giving them the words to speak. Families will be torn apart, but God will be there, with those who stand firm — faithfully showing up — within it. There is tribulation, but God is there, mercifully working to shorten its days.

We could say that Jesus unites the apocalyptic hope of what God will do at the End with the prophetic focus on what God is doing in the here and now. In hopeless times, the Christian hope is not to be whisked away, but to wake up. It is not hope of the End, but hope of the Beginning. It is not an Apocalypse of escape, but an Apocalypse of presence. In other words, God is not revealed in the destruction and chaos, but as faithfully present within it. The answer to the Apocalyptic puzzle is Immanuel: God is with us.

We are not waiting for the Apocalypse, for God to be revealed, because we believe — we entrust ourselves — that God has already been revealed in Jesus. The Annunciation to Mary was an Apocalypse. Jesus’ birth was an Apocalypse. The manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s Baptism was an Apocalypse. Christ’s death and resurrection were an Apocalypse. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the faithful at Pentecost was an Apocalypse. All of these are revelations of God’s presence in the world, in and through our circumstances, and in and through us. To paraphrase N.T. Wright, the mystery of Christianity is that the End has come in the middle.

The Day of the LORD has come in the midst of history. God has already inaugurated the Kingdom, and we are called to live in a way that reveals its presence. As today’s Epistle reading reminds us, God has enriched us in speech and knowledge, and given us every spiritual gift we need to stand faithfully as we wait, work, and prepare for God’s nascent Kingdom to be fully birthed.

This is the true hope of Advent: God is with us.

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