ADVENT 1 Bring Us Focus: God of Hope (Rom 15:13, Is 2:2-5, Mk 13:24-37)
Bring Us Focus, God of Hope. This is our theme for the First Sunday of Advent and it’s a good one! It’s a prayer. It’s a cry for help. When life feels scattered and chaotic, bring us focus, God of Hope. When the foundations that make us feel safe and secure are shaken, bring us focus, God of Hope. When it feels like the world is crashing down around us, bring us focus, God of Hope.
I don’t know how you feel these days, for for me this has been a year of dismantling. It’s been a year of loss and challenge and change. This is true on a personal as well as national level. When we find ourselves in the midst of uncertain times, It’s easy to feel a bit wobbly and unsteady. It’s easy to feel anxious and afraid. It’s easy for our thoughts to be all over the place. And so, we pray “Bring us focus, God of Hope.”
This is a good place to start our Advent journey, because this season is all about hope. This season is all about longing for a light to shine in the darkness of our lives. Just listen to the sense of longing we hear in that familiar Advent hymn: “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear.”
Yep, Advent is a season for those who long for a world that looks a whole lot different than the world we inhabit in 2017. It is a season of waiting in hopeful expectation for the reign of Christ to have dominion over everything and everyone. If you, like me, are one of those people who feel a bit shaken this year, our readings for today offer two pieces of advice regarding how we navigate times of uncertainty in our lives and in our world: “Keep awake” and “have hope.”
The first one comes from our gospel lesson. But in order to appreciate what Jesus is saying here we have to go back to the beginning of Chapter 13 which is where his speech starts. Mark writes: As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Then, after they hike to the top of the Mount of Olives, where they have a birds-eye view of the entire city of Jerusalem, the disciples ask Jesus: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Jesus replied, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ And they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Chapter 13 is what some scholars call Jesus’ Little Apocalypse. While it is not true apocalyptic literature, it plays with some of this genre’s imagery and language. Those who took my class on Revelation know that apocalyptic literature is not meant to predict something in the distant future. It is meant for right here and right now.
In fact, much of the book of Revelation is a critique of the Roman empire who occupied Israel during the time it was written. In heavily coded language, John of Patmos criticizes the political, economic and religious abuses of Rome against Israel’s citizens. In the midst of events that cause them to be anxious and afraid, John tells them to remain faithful to what is good and right and true. He also reminds them that Rome will be defeated and Christ will reign for all eternity.
I think the same message is being conveyed in Mark 13. Many scholars believe the context of Jesus’ words is the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE It was a future event that no one could have ever imagined. But it happened. Yet, we could also see Jesus’ words as a warning about what was going to happen to him. In Mark, our gospel lesson occurs after the Palm Sunday story and before the chief priests and scribes begin plotting to kill Jesus. So we could just as easily see these words, as Jesus’ trying to prepare his disciples for his arrest, trial and crucifixion.
But no matter the intent, Jesus knows there are dark days ahead for his followers. Therefore he tells them to “keep awake,” which we could understand to mean “Pay attention, keep your eyes wide open, and don’t be fooled by wolves in sheeps clothing.” If you tally the number of times Jesus says “beware” or “keep awake” in chapter 13, the total comes to 8 which is quite significant. It’s nearly the thing we’re supposed to pay attention to in Mark 13.
I’m sure you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with us. As we place Jesus’ warning in our own context, I see it as good advice regarding what we’re supposed to do when it feels like the world is crashing down around us. It doesn’t matter whether this dismantling is personal or national, the advice is the same. In times that cause us to be anxious and afraid, we are called to “keep awake,” to “be on the watch.” We should not be distracted by trivial things, nor be deceived by those appear righteous, but whose actions will harm us in the end.
Instead, we are encouraged to stand firm in the values Christ taught us: to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbors as ourselves; To take care of the least of these, the homeless, the hungry, the poor, as well as others who are victims of an unjust society. We are called to value service and sacrifice instead of always getting ahead at the expense of others. I believe these values are being challenged by some of the most influential people in our nation. Jesus warns us not to be fooled by them, but keep our eyes wide open and see things for what they really are.
Well, that’s a fun way to begin the season of Advent! Yet I find Jesus words to be valuable advice. In a year where I experienced loss and challenge and change, I found it was easy to lose focus. It was easy to let grief get the best of me, and get distracted by trivial and unimportant things. And so I hear Jesus’ warning to “keep awake.” It helps me to navigate this challenging time in my life. Perhaps his words will do the same for you if you feel like your world is being dismantled as well.
But we’re not finished yet. There is a second piece of advice regarding how we navigate times of uncertainty in our lives and in our world: Have hope. We see this in our First Lesson where Isaiah give us a vision that is brimming with hope. Isaiah dreams of a time when people from every nation will be united as one, saying, “Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God so that God may teach us God’s ways and we may walk in God’s paths.” And on this glorious day God will settle all disputes between nations. God will inspire them to beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning hooks. War will exist no more. [Is 2:2-5]
If that’s not a hopeful vision, I don’t know what is. It’s the kind of hope that lives in the hearts of most people I know. An end to war and terrorism? Sign me up for that! The vast amounts of money our world spends on guns and bombs being directed to feeding people? Amen and Hallelujah!
This same hope is reflected in the words of our second lesson which I chose to accompany the other two. The writer of Romans references Isaiah, saying “There will be a root of Jesse, (Whom we understand to be Jesus), who will rise to rule the Gentiles. The Gentiles will place their hope in him.”
This Jesus is our hope, not only this Advent, but every single day of the year. Every time we get a sneak peak of his reign appearing in our midst, it fills our hearts with hope. This hope is what keeps me going when it feels like the world is crashing down on me. This hope reminds us all that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Christ is the light who shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not defeat him. This is the hope that is so boldly proclaimed during the Advent season. It helps us to focus on what’s important in life, what we need to worry about, and what we need to let go of.
So, Friends in Christ, if you feel like the world is crushing down on you, keep awake. Pay attention. Focus on what’s important. And, have hope. The kind of hope that reminds us that Christ is always with us, breathing new life into dead places, mending that which is broken, calming frazzled nerves, and helping us to dream dreams of a better world than the one we currently inhabit. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by David Eck