There is a popular old film, often shown at this time of the year called “Meet Me in St. Louis.” It tells of the ups and downs of a middle-class family. Toward the end of the movie, the father decides, just before Christmas, that it is in the best interest of the family to move to another town. For his girls, it seems like the end of the world. There is a particularly touching moment in the film when Judy Garland’s character sings, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret O’Brien, playing her little sister in the story. It is a song calling one into the joy and hope that Christmas brings, and is particularly meaningful at this moment in the story, because she sings it at a time when their hopes have all been shattered. Under normal circumstances, this time of year can be difficult for those for whom Christmas may not feel like a time of joy: individuals who are alone, individuals who are facing financial hardships and are unable to participate in gift giving, individuals whose health may prevent them from participating in the holiday activities. This year, with the restrictions and fears of COVID, with the increased work load for those on the front line battling this disease, for those with decreased work loads but increased financial anxiety and boredom, for those juggling working from home and home schooling children it may seem that all our hopes have been shattered. But in these times, reminders of the hope that lies within us can give us strength and courage to persevere.
Our readings this morning may not seem like a favorite Christmas movie. They are dark and complex, full of confusing symbolism for us, but to the people who originally heard them, they were messages of hope. Isaiah is pleading with God to remember all the times God rescued Israel in the past. God has not forgotten, but in his prayer, Isaiah is remembering and hoping. Jesus draws from Israel’s tradition, from the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and Daniel. These are stories that have brought comfort to God’s people for generations in in many difficult times.
Israel has gone through several periods in her history where hope became a very fragile thing. The Assyrians captured the ten northern tribes of Israel and dispersed them among the nations, never to be returned. Then Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying the temple of Solomon and with it the Judean form of worship, and carried the tribes of Judah and Benjamin into captivity in Babylon and Egypt. They eventually returned and rebuilt the temple, only to have it desecrated by the Seleucids. Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and Daniel used imagery of cosmic chaos to prophecy about these events. Isaiah says, “for the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light.” (Isaiah 13:10) This is not a prediction of some kind of eclipse that will occur before the events Isaiah is predicting (though it is possible a natural phenomenon informed his use of symbolic imagery). Isaiah is metaphorically using the illustration of cosmic darkness to describe the evil and destruction that is occurring and God’s response to it. Isaiah continues, “I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.” (Isaiah 13:11)
Jesus uses the same language, language that sounds strange to us, but that is familiar to his disciples to assure them that God will bring justice against those who oppress Israel, in this case, most immediately Rome. Jesus is describing the time of his crucifixion and resurrection. Mark’s readers can add to that the destruction of the temple in 70 AD and Jewish war with Rome which was bubbling under the surface at this time. Jesus tells them, “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.” (Mark 13:24-25) He is calling to mind the imagery from the earlier prophets to link current events with the history of God’s faithfulness to Israel.
The book of Daniel was probably written about the time the Seleucids invaded Israel. It reflects on the period of the Babylonian captivity and by remembering God’s faithfulness to those who remained faithful to God; hope was renewed in a very difficult time. Daniel has a vision that he describes saying, “I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven… His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus tells his disciples, “then they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great glory.” (Mark 13:26). Daniel uses “like a son of man” to indicate their salvation will come through a human being. Jesus takes on this title for himself, both connecting himself to the savior in Daniel’s vision and contrasting his reign with that of the Roman emperors who identified themselves as “Son of God.” After something terrible happens, Jesus will appear victorious.
The use of metaphor and apocalyptic language allows Mark to apply multiple meanings to Jesus’ words. For the disciples, Jesus’ crucifixion will feel like the world is coming to an end, but Jesus’ resurrection will prove that he is triumphant. For Mark’s audience, the destruction of the temple in the Jewish-Roman war will feel like the world is coming to an end, but Jesus promised that if he left, he would return. Last week, when we listened to the beginning of this passage Jesus appeared to be speaking of the immediate future, and in today’s reading he even mentions that “this generation will not pass away before these things happen” (Mark 13:30), but as he continues he appears to move more and more toward a time in the undetermined future. His message moves from immediate caution against deceptions, overlaid with hope for a brighter future, to caution against complacency brought on by waiting.
When God’s people were waiting for the first coming of the Messiah, they had no timetable to rely upon. They had the law and the prophets which pointed toward the Messiah and gave them hints about how to recognize the Messiah, but they did not have Advent Calendars which allowed them to precisely determine the date of the Messiah’s arrival. Some like the shepherds, the Magi, and Simeon remained watchful and recognized the Messiah, even from his birth. Others like Herod and many of the temple priests and Pharisees claimed to be watching, but spiritually fell asleep.
Staying awake does not mean proclaiming yourself to be a prophet and charting the future. That is not even what prophets did, they told unvarnished truth about the present in the hope of calling people to repentance and changing the future. Those who attempt to predict and describe Christ’s second coming are entering an exercise in futility. When Jesus says that when we see these things it is like seeing green shoots on the fig tree does not mean we know when the figs will be ripe, but it is a sign of hope that the fig tree will bear fruit in due season. It is a sign of the hope of spring on the edge of winter. Jesus’ resurrection was and is our hope of spring on the edge of winter.
There is an old English proverb, “Good things come to those who wait.” We are waiting now. Waiting for COVID to go away. Waiting for normal, which in reality, has changed so much things will never be exactly the way they were before, but we anticipate they will be better than they are now.
This Advent we are called to wait, but not to wait passively like those who lie down on the couch, fall asleep, and miss what they are waiting for. We wait like one expecting an important guest. We clean our house and cook nourishing food. We examine our souls, dusting and scrubbing where necessary. We feed our souls with the bread of life and living waters, and we wait in eager anticipation for the arrival of our Lord.
It is my hope, that we will use these difficult times, not to fall away, to fall asleep, but to become more creative in our response to God. My hope is that we will find ways to support one another, to worship together, to get back into the scriptures for Bible study, to engage both young and old in the life of the church. My hope is that we will come out on the other side of this pandemic stronger and wiser and more alive than when it started.