Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, & Mark 13:24-37
The first Sunday in Advent
I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.
There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.
For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.
When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.
I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.
For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.
Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.
So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.
But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.
Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.
So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?
Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.
In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.
In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.
He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.
The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.
It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.
It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.
Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.
The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.
And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.
So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”
It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.
It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.
And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.
I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?
And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.
But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.
For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.
What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?
Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.
All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.
“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”