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The First Sunday of Advent



The First Sunday of Advent

03 December 2023

Revd John Wilson

Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-8, 18-20; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-end

“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.”

There are few passages in the Bible as ominous as our Gospel reading today. For the past two millennia it has captured the minds of children and theologians alike, producing an endless amount of speculation, often combined with a numerology reminiscent of kabbalistic Jewish mysticism. However, what often becomes lost in the seemingly irresistible quest to crack the code, is the grave warning that Jesus directs at his followers – and by extension, us here today. Like a long road-trip involving driving through the night, it is easy to fall asleep at the wheel.

The Gospel reading picks up in the middle of a prophetic teaching that Jesus essentially stakes his credibility on. Earlier he had prophesied the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:2), and his disciples are keen to know when that would come to pass, since not only did it seem laughable, but the destruction of the Temple would represent a radical turning point in history. 

For the Israelites, the Temple represented hope, the dwelling place of God in this world. When Solomon completed the construction of the Temple, like the Tabernacle in the desert before it, it was filled with God’s visible presence in the form of a cloud or pillar of fire. The building itself, with all the gold and ornamentation, must have been a sight to behold. But later when the Babylonians plundered and then destroyed the Temple, it was not the loss of gold or an architectural treasure that the Israelites wept over, but rather the fact that God’s presence was no longer visibly amongst them. 

Imagine then, the great hope that filled Israel when the Temple was rebuilt. It required an enormous fund-raising campaign, and went in fits and starts, but eventually they cut the ribbon. While certainly not as grand as the Temple Solomon built, it was nevertheless impressive. However, to everyone’s dismay, it remained empty. At least empty of God’s visible presence. They waited and waited, but no cloud or pillar of fire made its appearance. Some might have even begun questioning whether the pillar of fire was the stuff of myth and legend. Others blamed it on the architecture, surmising that it simply wasn’t worthy of housing God’s presence.

Eventually, shortly before Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great personally funded a massive expansion and renovation project that resulted in a Temple that surpassed Solomon’s, both in scale and beauty. People held their breath in fear and anticipation. Would God’s presence return? Sadly, no. While magnificent, It ultimately remained empty – a shell of what it ought to have been.

Consequently, Jesus’ prophecy concerning the destruction of Herod’s Temple represented a final and definitive change in God’s relationship with his people. The glory of God would not be concentrated in the Temple, but in the Son of Man, and with it the focal point of faith.

This first part of the Jesus’ prophecy was concrete and historical, and the disciples wanted to know when to expect it. To that, Jesus gave a clear answer: the Temple would be destroyed within one generation. And that is exactly what happened. 

Jesus also uses the example of a fig tree. Unlike the other trees in the region – olive, oak, almond, etc – the fig tree loses its leaves in the winter. We have a big one in our back garden, and I was shocked about ten days ago, when overnight it lost virtually all its leaves – like someone flipped a switch when the outside temperature dropped to zero. It was stunning and very clear. One day the fig tree had leaves and the next day it didn’t.

Similarly, Jesus assured his followers that the signs would be clear before the destruction of the Temple.

But this was only the first step in the process that would upend human history. Jesus goes on to say that one day he will return again, no longer veiled in mystery, but in power and glory. While there will be no mistaking the Son of Man, who will gather the new people of God from across the entire world and finally set the world to rights, the timeframe for this is completely unknown. 

Like virtually all biblical prophesies, there is a concrete, short-term historical fulfilment, but also a less defined, long-term reality that it simultaneously points to. In this case, the coming of the Son of Man is synonymous with the Day of Judgment, when the first will be last and the last will be first, when Jesus will judge between the sheep and the goats. This ultimate reversal in humanity’s fortunes is even symbolised by cosmic upheaval. 

Today we begin the season of Advent, which literally means to come or arrive, and it embodies this tension. On one hand, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, the coming of the promised messiah into the world, something concrete and historical. However, Advent also anticipates the second coming of Christ, when the Son of Man will return in power and glory. 

The Israelites spent almost six-hundred years waiting for the “Shekhinah” – for the glory of God to re-inhabit the Temple. And here we are, almost 2000 years later, waiting for Christ to return. I suppose after all that time we naturally begin to reinterpret things. Maybe we should just take it all metaphorically, merging heaven and earth into one concept, where the Kingdom of God becomes a present reality as opposed to a paradoxical present-but-yet-still-future reality? No need to worry about the Last Day, this day is all we have…

Others might be inclined to fall into the opposite trap – of focusing too much on the next world and losing sight of this one – selling their house and quitting their job, convinced that Jesus will return next month. Ultimately, we need to hold the two in tension.

After so much time, it is easy to forget that God’s presence did return to Israel, just not in the Temple but in the person of Jesus Christ. And the Second Temple really was destroyed about 40 years later, the traditional length of a generation, in 70 AD. 

There is still a step of faith involved, but if Jesus was right about demise of Herod’s Temple, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to explain away the second half of his teaching. 

Interestingly, Jesus seems to anticipate this temptation. Warning us to keep alert, to be diligent with the unique work God has entrusted to each of us, he foreshadows a long wait ahead. 

When I begin to lose interest in a movie I’m watching with my family, I tend to nod off. And after all these years of waiting for Christ’s return while the world is still marked by so much violence and evil – it’s easy to do the same. It might be another 500 years before Jesus comes in glory, but it might also be tomorrow. The challenge is that we won’t know until it happens. 

Consequently, Advent is a helpful reminder each year, despite the darkness around us, to keep awake. 

Amen.

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