You have no doubt noticed that various places have put up Christmas decorations. Christmas stuff is for sale. I understand that for some retailers this is their make or break season. I just wish they could wait until at least a little closer to Christmas to start the season.
It feels like it’s time for my annual, our society has stolen the church’s celebration rant. Our society has stolen our observance of Christmas. For example, it would come as a shock to many people, and probably many Christians, to learn that on the church’s calendar, the Christmas season begins on…December 25th. The season leading up to Christmas we call Advent, and even Advent doesn’t begin until the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which means it is only about four weeks long, not two months. So this year, Advent doesn’t begin until December 2nd. For the rest of this month, then, we are still in the season of Pentecost, the time when we focus on the mission of the church, entrusted to carry on the work of Jesus.
I don’t think we Christians will get Christmas back. I think the best we can do is to faithfully continue to observe the seasons of the church year, and let the rest of our culture do its thing. And I believe it is important for us to make our way through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost every year. Doing so helps remind us that God has been at work in Jesus of Nazareth, and that God continues to be at work, through us, in people’s lives and in the world.
The cycle of the church seasons reminds us that there is more to life than spring, summer, fall, and winter, even though those seasons are also part of God’s plan. The church year helps orient us to God’s activities, past, present and future. So maybe it’s ok if Target and WalMart do their thing and we do our thing. Let’s just not forget to do our thing.
The reason I begin with the seasons of the church year is not just to complain about the culture stealing our holiday. It’s also to give a little background to today’s gospel reading. Every year, as we get close to Advent, we get readings in the lectionary about the end times.
Today we hear Jesus talk about the destruction of the temple, about wars and rumors of wars, nation against nation, earthquakes, and famines. What fun stuff! It’s not at all the sort of thing Jesus usually talks about. Ninety plus percent of the time Jesus is talking about the kingdom or reign of God, one way or another. Usually he’s arguing with scribes and/or Pharisees and/or Sadducees about what scripture really means. In Mark’s gospel, he talks about the end times only in the thirteenth chapter. That’s one chapter out of sixteen.
So the first thing that tells us is that we need to be careful about over-emphasizing talk about the end times. It’s simply not one of the most prominent themes in Jesus’ teachings. And when Jesus does talk about the end times, he’s not being inconsistent with what he says about the reign of God. He’s still pointing in the same direction.
The other interesting thing about Mark thirteen, aside from the unique content, is the question of timing. The general consensus among scholars is that Mark was written around the year 70. That’s right at the tail end of the war the Jews waged against Rome to try and gain their freedom from Roman occupation. The Jews were defeated, and in 70 the temple was destroyed and has never been rebuilt. Today the Dome of the Rock mosque, the beautiful building with the gold dome you see in pictures of Jerusalem, stands where the temple stood.
So did Jesus, living a few decades earlier, foresee what was coming in the destruction of the temple? That’s what Mark claims, if Mark saw the temple’s destruction, or at least knew it was about to happen. Is Mark saying, see, Jesus told you this was coming?
Apparently. And Mark claims Jesus knows more than that. In the opening verses of chapter thirteen Jesus warns about the coming of people who will say they are Jesus, who has returned. Then he mentions wars and earthquakes and famines. All of those had probably happened, to some degree, by the time Mark is writing.
And we know that the early Christian community believed that Jesus was going to return soon. Paul says things like, “the appointed time has grown short,” and “For the present form of this world is passing away.” At one point Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Yet here we are, two millennia later, still chugging along. As best we can figure, Jesus hasn’t returned. We’re still waiting. Through the centuries there have been many people and many events which have led some to believe that the end was near. No doubt things like the bubonic plague and various wars in Europe had people in the middle ages thinking God was acting in a decisive way. Even in our day, when we are used to wars and earthquakes and such, we see people like Jim Jones and David Koresh gathering followers and convincing them they are living in the end times.
But we’re still here. We don’t think Jesus is out there, somewhere, and we just don’t know it. We’re still waiting. So that must mean that God is amazingly patient.
God has put up with a lot before and after the time of Jesus. Many times we human beings have not treated each other well at all. Just in what we might consider “modern” times, the watershed event was not World War II but World War I. At the time of the outbreak of that war, the western world was in the throes of the industrial revolution. Amazing new products, like automobiles and airplanes were being created and produced, and not just for the wealthiest but for the masses. Electricity in homes was changing how people lived.
And then along comes a war, conducted among what the people who fought it believed were the most advanced cultures on earth. And it wasn’t a neat and tidy war. The two sides used poison gas on each other. New war technology like machine guns and tanks created casualties in staggering numbers. It was after World War I that movements like nihilism and existentialism arose, ways of looking at the world which said, no, everything is not getting better day by day. In a sense World War II and the Holocaust simply confirmed those ways of thinking.
In many ways life has gotten better, much better, for many of us since World War II. We have advances in technology that were undreamed of in previous generations. Advances in medical science has us living longer and healthier. In many ways life for a lot of us is easier, more convenient, more luxurious, than life has ever been for human beings.
But we know that is not true for everyone everywhere. We know there are still millions locked in poverty who don’t know how to escape. We know there are still wars which create refugees and casualties. We wonder what to do about immigration and dangers to our environment and who pays what for health care. We know there is still a lot of suffering in our world, some of it caused by natural disasters and some of it we bring upon ourselves. So what is God waiting for? Why not bring Jesus back, maybe start all over?
Apparently God is amazingly patient. Apparently God believes there is still hope for us. Jesus says that the wars and earthquakes and famines are “but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Later on in this same chapter in Mark he says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And God’s not telling, he might have added.
Apparently God is amazingly patient. God must think we can still do better, that we can find ways to live together in which we treat each other with kindness and respect. God must believe we can eliminate war and violence as ways to resolve differences. God must have faith that we can find ways to take care of those in need and take care of this wonderful planet that has been provided for us.
Jesus tells his followers, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” We always have to be on the watch for those who think they are tuned into God’s timetable, those who think they know exactly what God is planning and when. And while we wait for whatever God has in store for us, we know that we have work to do. We know that we have good news, the gospel, to share and to live out. We know that there are things we can do to promote the reign of God in the here and now. We know that we always have the example and teachings of Jesus to follow.
And we know that, fortunately, God is amazingly patient. Amen.