Mark 13:24-37, which foretells an astonishing event!
Well, this is not exactly the passage we expect to begin the journey to Christmas, is it?
It doesn't seem very focused on the holiday, now does it? Instead of joyful cheer, we get this passage about the future and destruction and the coming of Christ. While we are waiting for this momentous event, we have a call to keep awake!
Advent always begins on what seems a profoundly unsettling note. The gospel lectionary for today is always a passage that, whether taken from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, is known as "the little apocalypse." Each year the first gospel lectionary of Advent challenges us to remember that this season is a time not only of remembering the Christ who has already come to us but who, the gospels tell us, will come again, with attendant signs and wonders. Jesus calls his hearers, calls us, in these passages to keep awake, to stay alert, to be ready, for we do not know at what hour he will come. Jesus tells us to expect the coming, but that we will also be surprised by it.
The Scriptures continually remind us that one day God shall, as Isaiah puts it – ". . . judge between nations and shall arbitrate for many people." In light of which we are reminded by Paul that ". . . it is now the moment for (us) to wake from sleep" and "put on the armor of light." Jesus reminds us that "about that day and hour no one knows," so we must "keep awake therefore," because, "you do not know on what day your Lord is coming", and "the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."
Now, let's be honest, odds are against it happening in our lifetimes. Given the span of history and the fact it hasn't happened yet, it probably won't happen in the next fifty or sixty years either. But even if the hour doesn't come for the whole world in our lifetimes, the hour will come for each of us. We are mortal and we each will have our own judgement day. And we don't know when that day is either. Regardless of health, wealth or situation, we don't really know when that day is coming.
And maybe, just maybe, this passage is talking about more than just the dramatic judgement day and more than just our own personal judgement days. Advent isn't just about waiting for the baby in the manger. It's about expecting Christ here, in our own messed-up lives, right now.
We are called to be on the lookout for the big return, but we are also to be aware of the many ways Christ appears in the present. Are we alert to see where Christ arrives, breaking through time and space to be present in our lives and the lives of others? Remember, Christ comes in the form of the least and the loss.
So really, we could be walking past Jesus every day and we don't recognize him any more than the world did when he was born as a baby in a stable, or lived as a roaming homeless man, or died as a convict on a cross.
Jesus is coming. The best way to be sure we will recognize him when he does is to get lots of practice in the meantime. Whatever we do for "the least of these," we do for Jesus. If we want to see Jesus and know Jesus, if we want to experience the Good News that Jesus is coming, we need to listen to the stories, the hopes, and the concerns of "the least of these." If we want Jesus to recognize us as a neighbor, we must become neighbors to the least of these, building real community - shared bread, shared dreams, shared vision - with them. That shared vision is Jesus' vision. That shared hope is what makes the certain news of Jesus' coming Good News. That shared dream is coming true among us, and Jesus invites us to make it our own.
As Christians, we should expect to find Jesus in the unexpected places, in the company of unlikely people, at any time of the night or day. We should expect the unexpected. We need to try to ready ourselves for the possibility of divine disruptions as the Spirit moves people and situations into our line of vision and into our all-too-carefully-constructed lives and overbooked schedules.
One way or another, the Son of Man is coming, whether in a big dramatic cloud, as a stranger in the street or to take us home when our day is done. And we do not and cannot know when. Because we cannot know when, we have to be ready whenever it might happen. We have to live as though we might meet Jesus again at any time.
So what would you do if the world were going to end tomorrow? Would you reconcile with a long lost friend or family member? Would you finish a project you started years ago? Would you tell your children, or maybe your parents, that you love them one last time? Would you wrap your beloved in one long embrace? What would you do?
Asking and answering this question has a way of clarifying our values and sharpening our priorities, and it's not a bad question to ask as we move from the festivities of Thanksgiving to the headlong dash toward Christmas. Why? Because it's easy to miss it in the weeks ahead. We often get so caught up in the cultural pressure to have the perfect Christmas that we can lose a sense not only of what Christmas is supposed to mean but actually of ourselves.
This is not say there is anything wrong with the celebration of the season, or to scold those who enjoy it. Rather, amid all the planning and preparing, amid all the parties and shopping, amid the all cards and cooking, amid, that is, all the festive activities, I'd like to offer us some Advent space, to be still, to experience just a bit of quiet, and to be reminded of who they are: God's beloved children.
Being alert is a spiritual posture. When we're alert we see things, and notice things that we wouldn't notice otherwise. If we live spiritually alert, waiting for Christ to come, how much better might we see him when we enters our room? When he shares a meal with us. When he shuffles by us on the street.
We're meant to be Advent people. Waiting. Watching.
As we enter into these Advent days, may even those everyday times of waiting which inevitably come to all of us be a blessing where we find ourselves also called upon to watch for the arrival of Jesus once more. May we discover in those times not impatience and irritation, but perhaps even the chance to reflect on what matters most of all.
So remember how you answered that question about what you would do if the world were to end tomorrow? Why are you waiting? You do not know the day or the hour after all. Do those things now! Love the ones you want to love; finish the work you started; be reconciled to those who need you; be faithful to the people and tasks around you; undertake some small and wonderful and great endeavor. Why not?
For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again, all in the name of love.