Advent 1 B: A Present-Tense Advent Nov27


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Advent 1 B: A Present-Tense Advent

Mark 13:24-37

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I sometimes think Norman Rockwell is one of the most dangerous artists of the past century. I know that may initially sound a bit absurd, as Rockwell’s overly cheerful, even sentimental style led many to dismiss him as a serious artist and, indeed, often to refer to him instead as a mere illustrator. Moreover, I say this as one who enjoys Rockwell’s endearing style and portrait of what feels like a bygone era. Yet it is precisely Rockwell’s sentimentality that poses certain hazards, particularly when it is viewed it not as sentimental but as ideal.

Think of it this way: how many of us look at Rockwell’s famous painting of a family gathered around a holiday table (presumably Thanksgiving), all smiles and about to dig into a turkey, and somehow wonder why our family experiences don’t quite measure up. No arguing in this picture. No debate over recent politics. No one sulking because a favorite dish has been omitted or because there are no gluten-free options at grandma’s table. Instead, familial bliss. Perfection. Little wonder our experiences don’t measure up.

Rockwell, of course, is not the issue. (Interestingly, his iconic picture was intended to be an ideal, representing one of FRD’s “four freedoms” – freedom from want – not the standard.) The culprit is our tendency to seek out ideals in the first place. The ideal job. The ideal relationship. Ideal children and homes and holidays and more. I suspect our longing for ideals is rooted in the desire to improve, to be always prepared to see potential, a vision for how something could be better. But this admirable, and no doubt evolutionarily productive, trait can easily turn aspiration into envy and devolve from a determination to improve to grasping for an ideal that, no matter how unrealistic, nevertheless undermines the reality with which we’ve been blessed. And that, I think, is the greatest danger of idealized pictures – whether painted by Rockwell, created by Madison Avenue advertisers, or concocted in our own imaginations: they lead us to see what we have – and often who we are – as insufficient, unworthy, unimportant.

All of this came to mind as I read Mark’s “little apocalypse.” Because while many read this passage and others like it as Jesus’ predictions of the end, I think it can instead drive us back into the present with renewed energy to see the people and situations around us as gifts of God that we are called to love and care for.

Notice, for starters, that there is no mention in here of the end of the world, no indication of final judgment, no call to flee the day-to-day realities and obligations and responsibilities of life, only the promise that “he (the Son of Man) is near” (29). Indeed, if we recognize that the key temporal markers of the parable that concludes this passage – evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn – as identical to the temporal markers of the passion story about to commence (as I’ve suggested in an earlier column), then we realize that much if not all of what comes before – darkening of the sun, the powers being shaken, etc. – also correspond with key elements of the passion narrative (Mark 15:33, 38, etc.). Mark, in other words, isn’t pointing us to a future apocalypse (“revealing”) but rather a present one, as Christ’s death and resurrection change absolutely everything. For once Jesus suffers all that the world and empire and death have to throw at him…and is raised to new life!…then nothing will ever be the same again. Including our present lives and situations.

The church has long counseled keeping Advent as a season of active and vigilant preparation for, rather than constant celebration of, Christmas. Good advice, but too often that counsel devolves into arguments about whether or not to sing Christmas carols (which I’m fine with, for what it’s worth), or pseudo-theological discussions about when to put a tree up in the sanctuary, or scolding sermons about remembering “the reason for the season.” Perhaps, however, our preparing – and the line between preparing and celebrating for me is regularly overdrawn – might be more about practicing seeing where God is still entering into our lives in ways that align with God’s coming in the vulnerability of the manger and the cross.

Key to that effort will be to recognize – and underscore in our sermons – that God comes to us as we are. Not as the people we are trying to be or have promised to be or so very badly want to be, but the people we are. The families we are. The congregations we are. The communities we are. The nation and world that we are. Is there room for improvement in all these areas? Of course, but the best way to create energy to change is to offer the powerful word of blessing that who we are just now is, however imperfect, still beloved of God.

Perhaps more than any of the other Gospels, Mark offers a distinctly apocalyptic view of not only Jesus but the Christian life. Not, mind you, apocalyptic in the “end of the world” sense, but rather in the sense of pulling back the curtain of false hopes and realities in order to reveal God’s commitment to enter into and redeem our lives and world just as they are. Which may offer us, Dear Partner, the opportunity to invite our people to look around at the those near them – in the pew, in their families, in their schools and places of work and volunteering – with new eyes. Eyes that see in the people around them – whether they be similar or different – gifts of God who, while as imperfect as we are, are nevertheless meant to be loved and treasured just as God loves and treasures them.

Further, we might look ahead with our folks and recognize that we all will likely be tempted at points this season to take various idealized portraits of our family or church or Christmas morning as the standard by which to judge our actual families and congregations and Christmas celebrations. Noting that these comparisons are often the root of much of the heightened depression associated with the holidays, so we might prepare them to counter those temptations by committing to remind each other that God loves us as we are, accepts us as we are, and redeems us as we are. Yes, we have room for improvement. And yet at the exact same time we are enough – totally and completely enough – and deserve love and respect now, as do those around us.

Advent. Coming. Jesus’ coming. We begin the church year by looking ahead to the promise of Jesus’ “second” coming, but Mark help us to recognize that Jesus comes into our lives in many and varied ways – “about that day and hour no one knows” –  each of which corresponds to the first coming in the vulnerability of the manger and cross, an advent that continues to reveal the lie of so many false ideals we’ve bought into and simultaneously to affirm and accept the people and communities we are even while beckoning us forward in faith to become the people God has called us to be.

Rather than direct our attention ahead – whether to the end of time or just to December 25 – perhaps our sermons this Sunday, Dear Partner, can offer a “present-tense Advent,” an Advent that directs our gaze to this very present moment, imperfect yet beloved, fragile yet important, flawed yet beautiful, the very time and moment in which God chooses to meet, love, and redeem us. Here. Now. Right before our eyes.

Blessings on your proclamation this week and throughout this season, Dear Partner. Your words and witness matter, often more than you might imagine.

Yours in Christ,