1 Advent Year B
Pilate asked him, “So are you a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Please be seated.
I don’t mean to be confusing. The verse I just shared with you is John 18:37, and it seems to bear the central message in a passage that will be this year’s gospel for the final Sunday of this liturgical year, that is Reign of Christ, or Christ the King. I’m often interested in exploring the energies that dwell in and around beginnings and endings in scripture. We’ve sometimes looked, for instance, at writings like Matthew’s teaching discourses, or John’s Farewell discourse, a given episode in the life of Jesus, or a chapter in a gospel, and how the ways they begin speak to the ways they end and, sometimes, everything in between. Right now I’m feeling drawn to look at our gospel today – the opening of the church year according to Mark – and hold it up together with the final reading of the year, making them form something like an inclusio, or bookends. So, let’s see how our considering them together might make for some enrichment.
Today’s passage, from what is often called Mark’s mini-apocalypse, seems at first, quite challenging – as does so much apocalyptic writing in the bible. At worst, it might be seen as Jesus using scare tactics. In another way, it might be perceived as something of a weak or empty message of hope. But those would be first impressions, and I suspect you’re like me at least enough that challenging scripture passages can have the power to beckon us toward further consideration.
A first step toward expanding our perceptions comes when we notice the phrase ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ in quotes. It, and a number of other references in the complete passage, are terms or references taken verbatim from the Book of Daniel. And this is significant. Daniel is a sprawling and breadth-y work, apocalyptically reflecting upon a series of assaults against the people of God – and, consequently, how they experienced their identity. These assaults came in the form of conquering oppression by, first, the Babylonians, then the Medes and finally the Persians. Most scholars suggest that, in Mark Chapter 13, we have a basic apocalyptic scenario lifted from Daniel and applied to a new situation. Now we’re getting somewhere.
But the more we look at the apocalyptic scenario as literary device, the more we see that the basic message of apocalyptic visions goes something like this: The rebellion against the reign of God is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. Things will get worse before they get better. But hang on just a little longer, because just when you’re sure you can no longer endure, God will intervene to turn the world right side up.
See what I mean about a weak or empty message of hope? It almost sounds just a little like God may intentionally wait through our suffering in order to spring into our realities at the last minute just to be a hero. Now, this is not necessarily how I think about it. I’m far more accepting of sacred mystery. But so many of the people I love dearly can’t wrap their minds – let alone their arms – around this kind of thinking. They want nothing to do with a God who would behave in such a manner. And I wrestle with how to articulate how it is that I am able to see God in the presence of suffering.
Honestly, I’m not trying to be blasphemous – I’m trying to work this out in some way that integrates with what I think I know of God, and how to let that blossom into words that have meaning. And I’m not just talking about “preaching to the choir” – which, in this case, is made up of people I love dearly – some of whom may not be terribly satisfied with the kind of God-speak much of the rest of us non-heathens are relatively comfortable embracing.
So. God is love. The greatest commandments have everything to do with viewing everything through the lens of loving commitment and expression of God’s love to us and through us into the world. Add to that the belief that God’s primary wish for us is to be at peace somehow, through it all, and it’s still hard to accept Mark’s mini-apocalypse.
So, I’m workin’ here. I’m wrestling with this text, not just for my sake, but because my call to do so is deeply grounded in what it means for us to be on this journey together. That’s crucial. I’m clinging to the beginnings of an expanded perception borne of the relation between Mark’s and Daniel’s writing. Bad things happen. A lot. Over and over in this world. There’s clearly a rhythmic quality throughout history. (Except of course for today, when nothing like the oppression of the righteous could possibly happen.) And God will intervene…
God will intervene. At some point. How? And how to talk about what that even means?
Enter Jesus and Pilate. “For this I was born”, says Jesus. “For this I came into the world – to testify to the truth.”
As an aside, in this the year of Mark’s gospel, you may wonder why the year closes with a reading from John. This is due, in great part, to the fact that Mark’s is the shortest gospel. So John’s writing fills in in certain places – at some of the highest holy days, and during the summer when we get almost all of chapter 6, John’s version of the feeding of the multitude and the beautiful yet incessant metaphorical references to Jesus as bread.
For this I came into the world – to testify to the truth…
What is truth?
What was the truth in that moment between Jesus and Pilate?
What is the truth about apocalyptic times? What is the truth about the apocalyptic times we’re living in? I don’t think I’m the only one who has had to navigate emotional and psychological content – yes, even in terms of spirit and all energetic principles this past year – content that resonates in ways that often seem like I and my loved ones are being threatened. Apocalyptic reverberations. What is the truth about such times?
Truth. It’s a soft concept. It’s internal. It’s associated in some ways with perception. Especially when we remember not to confuse truth with factuality – a key concept when it comes to engaging the meaning in scripture.
This opens the door onto spiritual consciousness as a mode of “operation” in this discussion. Yes?
What about if the truth has less to do with the negatives – be they in today’s gospel passage or in Daniel or in any series of world events with apocalyptic reverberation – what about if the truth has much more to do with me and my spiritual consciousness?
How do I react to suffering? Could that be the question to which Jesus bids me “Keep awake”?
Do I tend to amplify suffering in some way? Am I seduced by my resentments and outrage into a spiral of wasted spirit? When I encounter disappointments in my fellow citizens (or even family members), do I allow that to become a reason to “break-up”? Or can I begin to see that my outrage is, potentially, akin to the fig tree whose branch becomes tender as a sign that the “summer” of my own spirit approaches? Can I think in terms, perhaps, of a politics of love rather than a politics of hate?
How do you react to suffering? Do the challenges suffering brings also bear the marking of opportunity somehow? Does it require the work of being alert in order to see that in your life? Does the exercising of your own spiritual consciousness allow you to be drawn into God’s experience of the world? Or, like me, have you expended far too much energy trying to hold God accountable for what goes on in Congress and the White House?
Or are we, together, beginning to really see that the people and things we resent the most are, in fact, our best teachers? It’s not easy, but it’s often easier together.
At the risk of seeming like I’m monetizing, I wonder: what is it worth to you in these apocalyptic times to attach to something that does not lead to suffering or amplify it? And then be attentive enough to direct your spirit in the ways of love and peace.
I’ve always believed that Jesus is sympathetic to us in our struggles. And now I think I’m beginning to understand that the way God intervenes as we are hanging on for dear life might not be in some overt and concretized way of moving people or things. Instead, I think God intervenes by providing us, through scripture and in so many other ways, but especially through scripture, a gateway into the knowledge that the concepts we’ve been exploring today, are bigger and stronger than our personal preferences – stronger than our will. It’s more about our view of what we believe that makes all the difference.
Through the lens of these two gospel passages, Jesus opens a door onto the journey we will share in the year ahead.
You up for it?
The Rev. Edwin Chinery
December 3, 2017