Saturday, December 2, 2017

“Even in Chaos, Joy”

This Sunday, we begin “Advent,” that four-week period of preparation for the celebration of Christmas and the birth of the Messiah.  In the Proclamations during these weeks, I will reflect on the four key themes of Advent:

1.      Joy
2.      Love
3.      Peace
4.      Hope

The scriptural basis for these reflections will come from one of the suggested Lectionary readings for that particular Sunday in Advent.  We begin with the theme of joy and a passage from the Gospel of Mark—13:24-37.

            In order to fully understand this biblical passage, a bit of background is necessary.  It is important to remember that the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were not written immediately after Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension.  At first, writing a biographical account of Christ was not necessary because there were plenty of eyewitnesses who had been with Jesus and heard his teaching.  However, as the years passed by and the eyewitnesses began to die, an urgent need to write biographical accounts of his life, death, and resurrection arose.  Thus, the Gospels did not begin to emerge until some 70 years after Christ.

            Biblical scholars believe that each of the four Gospels was written within a particular community of faith and that these churches were geographically dispersed from one another.  Each of the gospelers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—had information about Jesus from within their local community of faith.  As with any other biographer, each of the Gospel writers had to pick and choose from the information which they had about Jesus.  Although all four Gospels tell the story of the Messiah, each Gospel is unique because each gospeler had to make decisions about how to tell the story of Jesus, including choices about what material to include and what material to exclude.  To some extent, these choices reflect the unique questions and concerns which existed in each of the four gospel communities.

            Today, when we study the Gospels we can deduce what some of the community concerns were by looking at what each Gospel emphasizes in its biography of Jesus.  Our scriptural passage this week offers a perfect example.  The Bible is a diverse collection of different types of literature, including poetry, history, and wisdom teachings, among others.  Our passage from Mark 13 would be characterized as “apocalyptic,” which means that it describes or foretells the end-time.  Look at how the passage begins, in verses 24-25:

 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light, 
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’ 

In these verses, Jesus speaks using apocalyptic images, which his disciples would have understood to describe the end of time.  One of the techniques of apocalyptic speaking is to describe how astronomical bodies will cease to function as they should.  For example, the sun and moon will cease to provide light, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  (To see how the Hebrew prophets used the failure of astronomical bodies to function normally in their apocalyptic writings, see Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4, Ezekiel 32: 7-8, and Joel 2:10-11.)

            After describing the apocalypse, Jesus then reassures his disciples that “they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (verses 26-27)  After describing his triumphal Second Coming, Jesus then moves to the description of signs that the end of the age is imminent.  Finally, he concludes by urging his disciples to be watchful and alert for the coming apocalypse, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”  (verse 33)

            Now, with this background, we can ask, Why did Mark choose to emphasize these teachings of Jesus in his Gospel?  Why not some other story or teaching from Jesus?  Most likely Mark emphasized these apocalyptic teachings of Jesus because he thought that they would comfort the Christians in his community of faith.  In other words, Mark would emphasize these teachings because his Christian friends were experiencing persecution and chaos and crisis.  Biblical scholars have several theories about what Christians in the Markan church were facing.  Some believe that it was the persecutions of Christians after the Jewish revolt against Rome, which resulted in the Roman soldiers destroying the Temple in Jerusalem.  Other scholars suggest the chaos and crisis occurred when the Emperor Caligula demanded that the Jews erect a statue of him in their Temple. 

            The actual historical events are not crucial to our understanding of the truth of this passage.  The point is that the Christians in Mark’s home church were living through a chaotic time, in which they suffered marginalization, persecution, and sometimes death itself.  Because of their situation, these apocalyptic teachings of Christ are important for Mark to include—even feature—in his Gospel.  By emphasizing these teachings from Jesus, Mark reminds his Christian friends that despite the chaos which they must endure, ultimately God is with them through Jesus Christ. 

Even though these Christians must endure chaos and perhaps even death, ultimately they have the assurance that Christ will come again “with great power and glory” to establish God’s Reign forever.  In the end, God will prevail.  Thus, even in the midst of chaos, there is joy—and hope. 

God’s ultimate control over our destiny is the basis for Christian hope and joy, especially during the season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the birth of the Messiah.  That is, each year, at Christmas, we celebrate anew, as Joy and Hope come again.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church.  This Sunday, in the proclamation, I will suggest some parallels between the context of the Markan church and our own time and context.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.