Advent 1 B: Preaching a Participatory Advent

Dear Partner in Preaching,

There are times when I wish Mark would just make up his mind!

Okay, so maybe I should back up a bit and explain. The brief apocalyptic sections of Mark, and later of Matthew and Luke who clearly follow him, have always been something of a puzzle to me because they are so out of character with the rest of the Gospel. I assume that these traditions were so prevalent in the early church that Mark simply couldn’t ignore them. Note, however, that I use the plural – apocalyptic traditions – because it seems there were at least two. Some, perhaps including the Apostle Paul, expected Jesus’ return very soon. We might say they held an imminent eschatology. Others, in response to the already longer-than-expected delay and the death of many of the original eye-witnesses, had begun to cast Jesus’ return as the culmination of human history, an event that would occur at the end of time. We might call this a delayed or future eschatology.

As Mark Allen Powell points out in his excellent commentary on Working Preacher this week, Mark’s “little apocalypse” (as opposed to the much larger apocalypse in Revelation) contains elements of both traditions. In fact, you can even parse out distinct elements of each that Mark apparently weaves together. Which is where I kind of wish Mark would just make up his mind. Rather than compromise, couldn’t he have just decided which it was – imminent or future eschatology?

But what if Mark wasn’t simply a middle child trying to make peace between two opposing views? What if, instead, Mark recognized that neither tradition had the last word on Christ’s return? Indeed, he says as much in one of the key verses in this week’s passage: “But about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). No one knows, and that includes Paul…and Mark…and us. For this reason, we are always waiting, always watching, always preparing for Christ’s return.

And yet I think there’s more at stake as well. I don’t think Mark was simply acknowledging that both sides have something to contribute to our discussion, but rather was pointing us to another possibility altogether: that the primary advent of Jesus had already happened and that all of our waiting and watching should be shaped by that. Here’s why I believe this.

In the mini-parable that closes this apocalyptic section, there is an interesting foreshadowing of the Passion these verses immediately precede. Notice that Jesus warns that the servants do not know whether the master will come back to his house in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. Now notice the way in which Mark divides the scenes leading up to the crucifixion: 1) Last Supper, beginning, “When it was evening he came with the twelve…” (14:17). 2) Jesus’ prayer and betrayal: “And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” (14:40) because it was the middle of the night. 3) At the close of Jesus’ trial, Peter’s denies Jesus for the third time just as the cock crowed for the second time” (14:71-72a). 4) And then Jesus is delivered to Pilate for trial “As soon as it was morning”(15:1).

Mark, I think, intentionally depicts Jesus as declaring that his return – when the heavens shake and the sun is darkened – occurs precisely at the moment when he is nailed to the cross and our breath is taken away as we see God’s love poured out for us and all the world. From this perspective, Mark isn’t simply mediating between competing traditions but inviting us to imagine that whenever Jesus may come again – whether in the imminent or distant future – all of our anticipation and preparation of Jesus’ second advent should be shaped by his first advent in the form of a vulnerable infant and as a man hanging on a tree. More than that, I think Mark is inviting us to look for Jesus – even here, even now – in similar places of vulnerability, openness, and need.

And that might just preach during the coming hectic days of Advent. You and I know that sometimes we are tempted (or feel pressured!) to believe that our job during this season is to encourage people not simply to wait and watch for Jesus’ coming, but also to not indulge in too much Christmas lest we betray our theological and liturgical commitments to Advent. Hence we worry about Christmas carols and tree decorations in the church and are tempted to urge, if not downright scold, our people into a proper observation of Advent that most of our folks experience more as a far more muted, if not dour, experience of “not-Christmas.”

But if we can imagine that Mark wasn’t simply mediating between traditions but actually calling into question the false dichotomy of imminent or future eschatology, we might similarly call into question the false dichotomy between Advent or Christmas. This view, often called a “realized eschatology,” has also been referred to by Marcus Borg as a “participatory eschatology.” And given how much I love “participatory preaching,” you won’t be surprised that I’m eager to advocate a participatory eschatology that shapes a participatory Advent. 🙂

And so perhaps, Dear Partner, our task this week is to invite people to look for Jesus in the need of those around them and to be awake to God’s presence in response to their own need. For many of our folks, after all, Advent has become a rather ambivalent season that is marked in equal measures by joyful anticipation and hectic, even pressured, preparation. Dinners, buying gifts, parties, cards, school holiday programs and all the rest. Each and all of it can be wonderful, and each and all of it can become rather overwhelming. And so perhaps we might invite folks to make a short list – whether in their heads or on paper – of a few of the things that will occupy their Advent and then to think about how in each of those events and activities they might be more attentive to the vulnerability and need of those around them and more honest and open about their own need that they might receive the care of others.

Perhaps, in this way, we will experience Jesus’ coming and God’s presence in our lives even here, even now, and in this way discover, share, and actually participate in Jesus’ advent among us once again.

This is a challenging passage, no doubt. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers and that I am confident your words will be a blessing to those who long for a deeper experience of God in their lives this Advent and always.

Yours in Christ,