Monday, November 30, 2020

Two Kinds of Signs


Advent 1 / Year B

Mark 13:24-37

The way the new Church Year and the season of Advent begins with the end always feels counterintuitive.  It is like one of those movies where the opening scene is actually the end of the story and the rest of the film reveals all the events leading to the ending.  

“The sun will be darkened… stars will fall from heaven…  They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds…”  Whatever this imagery describes, according to Jesus it has already happened.  Speaking to his original followers he states clearing “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  There have been about 100 generations since then, and yet still we wait for something that transpired in some form or fashion a long time ago. 

Some biblical scholars associate Jesus’ apocalyptic vision with the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD – an event taking place within the lifetime of the actual generation Jesus addresses.  The pleas to watch for signs, to stay alert, and to keep awake urge followers to anticipate the catastrophe to come and to trust Jesus will provide a pathway to deliver the faithful through it.

Because the language is so vivid and the ‘signs’ are so timeless and universal, believers have long suspected they are living in the end of days.  During last Monday’s Evening Prayer we heard a passage from Ephrem of Syria, who lived in the 4th Century.  He notes how the signs Jesus describes “have come and gone with a multiplicity of change; more than that, they are still present.”  What does is it suggest to you that a person writing around 350 AD is bemused by all the generations before him who thought Christ was going to return at any moment in their own time?  It suggests to me those who attempt to sync events in our world with apocalyptic imagery in the bible are mining for fool’s gold.

But it is such a tempting project, isn’t it!  In the midst of threats and calamities, we long for explanation and meaning.  We want something or someone to quell our anxieties.  What more powerful narrative can there be than grounding our present challenges in a cosmic struggle and believing specific troubling signs indicate a Savior is coming who will rescue those who recognize what is happening while those foolish enough not to pay attention will be left behind.   I take from today’s reading Jesus promises to be with us to deliver us, no matter what the challenge. 

Jesus draws on two kinds of signs as he speaks to his followers.  The first kind, of course, is dark and dramatic.  The second kind of sign is softer and more hopeful.  Did you hear it?  Jesus said, “Learn the lesson of the fig tree: as soon as its branches becomes tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.”  This second kind of sign points not to an ending, but rather toward renewal, a new beginning. 

What signs do you see indicating God is about to do a new thing? 

Origen, who was born in Egypt in 185 AD became the leading representative of the school of theology in Alexandria.  He possessed the most powerful mind in Christendom in his age, but sadly many of his writings have been lost or destroyed.  In his work On Prayer, he offers these thoughts which help to illuminate today’s reading:

According to the words of our Lord and Savior, the kingdom of God does not come in such a way for all to see.  No one will say, “Behold, here it is!” or “Behold, there it is!” because the kingdom of God is within us.  Indeed, the word of God is very near, in our mouth and in our heart.  Thus it is clear that the one who prays for the coming of God’s kingdom prays rightly to have it within, that there it may grow and flourish and reach its full potential.  For God reigns in each of his holy ones. 

Advent begins at the end because we anticipate God’s kingdom will break forth in us in a new way.  As our lives change and as our world evolves, God’s Spirit in us manifests itself in new ways; creating new paths to worship, to pray, and to serve.  Jesus’ words remind us to be open to possibility and to except renewal.

This morning we hear of two kinds of signs, both of which are always present in our world.  The first kind of sign is ominous and threatening.  And Jesus tells us when we see these kinds of signs we are to look for him because he will be with us as the Good Shepherd.  The second kind of sign is more hopeful, like a bud about to burst forth in bloom.  When you see this, Jesus says, be open to me and my presence in your life.