Advent II: Preparing the way for Peace

Before you eat, you really should wash your hands. The world is full of germs and dirt and grime and other gross stuff. You touch a lot of things during the course of a day, and you don't know where that stuff has been!

What's on the menu

What's on the menu

Those are the kinds of things moms usually tell kids anyways. But they probably have a point. Moms are smart sometimes. 

In Mark, the beginning of the gospel doesn't have a genealogy or a birth story or magi or shepherds. That's how Matthew and Luke start their gospels, but not so with Mark. And unlike John's gospel, Mark doesn't start with the notion of an eternal Logos through which everything was created and which will take on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Mark apparently doesn't have time for that. Instead, Mark immediately jumps into the waters of John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8). 

John the Baptist shows up to prepare the way. He's sort of an esoteric character. He lives out in the desert, dresses in scratchy clothing and eats honey glazed grasshoppers. Mark explicitly identifies him with Isaiah's words, but John is also mimicking some of the actions of Elijah here, and some of the things he does or says are echoes of Malachi, Zechariah, Moses and other prophets. At some level, Mark is positioning him as the fulfillment of the whole Israelite prophetic tradition. But if John is preparing the way, what is he preparing the way for?

John was baptizing, he was dunking people into the water. It was a ritual cleansing; it was a metaphor for his message of repentance and forgiveness. Someone greater is coming, and the people needed to get ready. John immerses people in the water as a sign of their repentance; this One who is coming will immerse people in the Holy Spirit. 

A lot of people came out to see what this wilderness man, John, was up to. In fact, the Greek text literally says that "the whole countryside of Judea" came out to hear his message and receive his baptism. For Mark, John isn't just preparing, cleansing and preaching repentance to the people, but to the land itself. Perhaps this One comes not only to redeem God's people, but the land too. 

One theme often associated with the second week of Advent is Peace. John the Baptist comes and preaches repentance and forgiveness of sins. We repent to God, and pray to God for forgiveness. But we don't only need peace with God - we need peace with other people too. The violence of our sins against our neighbors and our enemies (and, yes, their sins against us) plagues not only ourselves and our relationships, but also the earth itself. In Romans 8 the creation itself painfully groans as it waits for the revealing of the children of God, the children of the God of peace. 

We wash our hands before we eat a meal. In a way, baptism serves a similar purpose: we’re also preparing to eat. Revelation and other texts talk about a great wedding feast - a party! - when Jesus returns, but in the meantime when we gather for worship we break bread together. In order to do that we need to wash in the waters of baptism - a sign of repentance and forgiveness - and we need to enact that repentance and forgiveness with our neighbors. Communion or Eucharist or the Lord's Supper is about peace. It's about peace with God, and it's about peace with our neighbors. We wash ourselves of our grudges and make peace for the wrongs we have done, then we feast. 

The world is full of germs and dirt and grime and other gross stuff. And, sometimes, so are we. But we have a God interested in making peace with us and with the earth, cleansing us and the earth, and feasting with us upon the earth. In forgiving and in asking for forgiveness, and in baptism and communion, we are preparing the way for the coming of the God of peace. 

Advent I: Hoping that the Sun will go dark

Advent starts with hope. 

We look forward in expectation to Christmas, and we remember that there was a time before Christmas, a time before the Word-made-flesh, a time before the fullness of time. But we also remember that the hope that was fulfilled in Christmas is not really complete. We remember that the hope of God dwelling with humanity is not perfectly realized. The fullness of time is not yet fully, well, full. 

For instance, regardless of what we would like to think about where we are at, it is obvious that our society has not yet realized racial equality. If Ferguson hasn't taught us that, five minutes on Facebook reading some of the innumerable asinine comments should. But there's plenty more. People starve to death. Tragedy and natural disasters still strike. Children are still raised in loveless homes, and families still struggle to get by. There is still crying and pain. There is still war and violence. There are still plenty of situations crying out in need of hope. 

Jesus came and said that God's kingdom is at hand, but it hasn't come fully, on earth as it is in heaven. But we hope, because we have a God who acts. We hope, because Jesus came two thousand years ago to be God with us. And we hope, because Jesus - God with us - will come again. 

Jesus said:

“In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.” (Mark 13:24–27 CEB)

Some people might think that this doesn't sound hopeful at all. In fact, the first part of this might sound scary: it might even sound like bad news. The lights will go out - the sun, moon and stars will go dark, and the planets will be shaken. The planets might represent other supernatural heavenly forces that might oppose God's reign - other 'pagan' deities popular in the first century that Jesus' arrival puts in their place. Similarly, the sun and moon and stars often represented other gods, and often these even had political connotations: Pharaohs and emperors were often associated with the sun and other heavenly bodies. 

But Jesus' arrival puts these in their place too - no other force can claim supremacy in the face of Jesus, no other king or nation or powerful institution or military force or president. All are put in their place. And this is surely good news for the poor, the suffering, the oppressed, the outsiders. These folks exist beneath the thumb of social and economic and political forces. So the good news is that Jesus comes in from outside of those, Jesus is different from these things, Jesus is no one's pet. Since Jesus isn't owned by the status quo, where the status quo seems to be working for evil Jesus can come in and disrupt it. This is not bad news at all! 

But this is now a world without heavenly lights - no sun or moon or stars to provide light. This raises another question, with practical as well as metaphorical consequences: Does the darkness win?

The Human One comes on the clouds, clearly an intentional conflation of Jesus with the image of YHWH in Daniel 7, and the notion of God gathering his people from the whole earth has plenty more Old Testament echoes. God comes down, God's people are gathered together. By what light are they gathered, and by what light does this gathering live?

Isaiah and Revelation offer a clue:

“The sun will no longer
be your light by day,
nor will the moon shine
for illumination by night.
The LORD will be your everlasting light;
your God will be your glory.” (Isaiah 60:19 CEB)
“Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always.” (Revelation 22:5 CEB)

The sun and moon and stars go dark, but the world doesn't go on in the dark - it goes on with God as its light. This imagery isn't meant to be terrifying, but hopeful. This isn't an image of the triumph of darkness, but of its ultimate defeat. This is the starting point of Advent. It starts with a call to hope. 

And there are still plenty of situations crying out in need of hope. As Christians, those are the places where we are called to live. 

The Church of the Apocalypse

During an interlude in John's Apocalypse, we hear a roll call of one great crowd (144,000 from the tribes of Israel), but then we see another, even bigger crowd:

After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9 CEB)

This innumerable crowd proceeds to shout out a chorus of praise, and the angels echo back with one of their own. This is apparently a heavenly worship scene, in the throne room of God, complete with the twenty four elders and the four living creatures, fixtures in the book of Revelation from chapters 4 and 5.

The size and transnational nature of the crowd is not to be underestimated. It apparently consists of martyrs who died in a great persecution/hardship/tribulation. θλῖψις (thlipsis) is the word in Greek, and it connotes great pressure and affliction. 

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship (θλῖψις). They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:14b–17 CEB)

This passage is probably most naturally read as a scene of heavenly reward - the faithful have come out of the θλῖψις and are now resting in God's shelter, where they don't have to worry about food or water or sunburns or tears. The Lamb shepherds them and leads them to life-giving waters - it's Psalm 23, fulfilled!

The implication seems to be that they were faithful through the θλῖψις and that their association with the Lamb in life has brought them - through the Lamb's blood and their own death - to this shepherding relationship with the Lamb post mortem. The note is pastoral: stay faithful in spite of the θλῖψις, because due to the Lamb, things will not always be this way. 

But another angle sticks out to me here. These people are before God's throne because of their white robes that have been washed in the Lamb's blood. That sounds like baptism - the white robe, the theme of washing, the association with Christ and specifically his death - that's baptism. 

They worship; God shelters; they don't hunger or thirst. This sounds like a prototypical early Christian community, gathering for worship (understanding that to be under the protection and provision of God), and the one with much sharing with the one who has little. 

In this heavenly vision the sun's scorching rays aren't a danger to these martyrs, but not because the sun ceases to be necessary as in Revelation 21, but specifically because of the Lamb's shepherding. Christ is guiding and protecting them as a shepherd would do. Another word for shepherd is "pastor."

And of course in this vision they are flushed with life-giving water, and God is wiping away their tears. 

But aren't we, in the church today, supposed to wipe away each other's tears? The Samaritan woman in John 4 receives life-giving water, which then bubbles up into eternal life for her, but it also bubbles over to quench her life-thirsty neighbors as well. In addition to the obvious baptism image, couldn't we also read this as something we in the discipleship community do for each other and for the world?

Christ shepherds them - he pastors them - but the church today also has pastors, who hopefully share in their own way in the spirit of Christ's pastoring, through leading the people to these life-giving waters.

The scorching sun must be connected to the curse of labor in Genesis 3, and it's easing is at least a heavenly expansion of the Sabbath easing of that curse. But might the curse of labor also be eased in the context of a community constantly looking out for each other, carrying each other's burdens? The same point goes for food and drink with their lack of hunger and thirst - the sharing of goods in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 11:17ff. Indeed, isn't this whole paragraph a kind of apocalyptic re-imagining of Acts 2:42-47?:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47 CEB)

To bear each other's burdens is at some level to bear each other's θλῖψις - to come into the community of Jesus followers should mean being washed in Jesus' blood through baptism, but it also should mean to come out of θλῖψις. Suffering and hardship are still realities for us, but they should be made lighter and less substantial. 

Death is surely transformed in this passage - this vision of the dead is no hellish ending or annihilation. But this must also be taken to be a picture of the church as well. In baptism we die and rise with Christ, passing through his θλῖψις on the cross and in some sense departing from our own. This is at least partially substantiated materially by what the theologian James Wm. McClendon describes in terms of the church as a community of care engaged in the practice of "watch-care."

And so in this passage I think we see not just a picture of martyrs on the other side of the grave, comforted and pastored in a post-θλῖψις existence. We also see a picture of the community of faith now, still somehow in the midst of θλῖψις and under intense pressure from all sides, but abiding together as they abide in the Lamb - after all, the word "martyr" in Greek just means "witness."

This end-picture, this image of transformation, is not just for the end but, under the gracious pastoring of the Lamb and the martyrdom/witness of God's people here and now, might just as well become a now-picture. May it be so. 

Revelation, with tears

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, from a blurb on the back of Michael Gorman's Reading Revelation Responsibly:

"Sometimes I think there are only two kinds of Christians in America: those who've never read Revelation and those who read almost nothing else."

John Wesley, from his Explanatory Notes:

"The Revelation was not written without tears; neither without tears will it be understood."