Reading Ramblings – November 29, 2020

Date: First Sunday in Advent, November 29, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Context: We begin as we ended, in anticipation. We begin the liturgical church year awaiting our Lord’s return just as we ended the last liturgical year (over the past few weeks) considering our Lord’s return and reign. Advent is not so much an artificial anticipation of a 2000-year old birth, but the recognition that as God fulfilled his promises with the Incarnate birth of the Son of God 2000 years ago, we can trust God the Father to fulfill his promise to send his Son again as the end of all things and the beginning of all things, the alpha and the omega. Now that we are back in a festival season of the church year, all three of the readings (and the psalm) should coordinate with one another, amplifying a central thematic thread each week as well as through the entire season of Advent. During this Advent of COVID, we have a firm reminder in the Word of God that we await far more – and far better – than simply a vaccine or an end to a pandemic. We wait for the return of the King of Glory and the beginning of an eternity of celebration of his victory on our behalf. Come Lord Jesus, Come!

Isaiah 64:1-9 – Close to the end of Isaiah’s prophetic writings and you can hear the eagerness,the impatience in his voice. When indeed, O Lord? When will you come to purify your creation, broken and sinful as it is? To claim your sinful but repentant people? To display your glory to those who mock, those who chase after feeble divine imaginings and cobble together cold comfort from spiritual smorgasboards? Truly our God alone is an awesome God who has and does and will continue to display his glory in unparalleled ways. And when He does come, though there will be fear and darkness and trembling for some, those who put their trust in him have no need of fear, and can trust his anger has been turned away through the work of his Incarnate Son. Verse 9 is so simple and eloquent. We are indeed his people, all of us the creation of his hands though not all willing to acknowledge such. These verses move from anticipation to an assertion of the Lord’s glory to the unavoidable recognition of our own sinfulness, only to end on a plaintive note of hope, of pleading. May God be merciful, just as He has promised.

Psalm 80:1-7 – I was struck by what appears to be a contrast in terms in vs. 1-2. God is addressed first as Shepherd, but the language quickly morphs into royal language of enthronement and might. Are these incompatible images, the lowly shepherd and the mighty ruler? We might be inclined to think so. Conditioned, no doubt, by our familiarity with speaking of God as our shepherd and we as his sheep, I think we are apt to consider God as a guide and protector. But to an actual sheep, the differences between a shepherd and a king would be rather non-existent (or even pointless, but let’s ignore that for a moment!). The shepherd rules his sheep. He does not make suggestions, he orders and they obey. When they disobey they are brought back into compliance, perhaps with a sound whack on their backsides from his staff. The sheep don’t necessarily pause to consider whether the shepherd has the right to order them around – it’s his job to, and they are designed to obey. There’s much we could learn from sheep, perhaps. We who value our vaunted rights and freedoms and democratic processes! All of these things tend to draw us away from obedience to our God and into a grey realm where we consider whether or not we like the King’s orders and whether He has the right to issue them and how much we ought to obey. Thanks be to God that He is the Good Shepherd and therefore is gracious and merciful and forgiving to his hard-headed sheep, even as He disciplines and corrects us!

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 – Paul writes to a congregation in turmoil and before correcting them reassures them of their identity in Jesus Christ. They have received his grace and peace. They have been enriched through his gifts. They are waiting for Jesus to return. They are in fellowship with the Son of God. They just need to know what that looks like here and now. In our fractious culture we are moved to quickly unfriend or unsubscribe or block or otherwise move people in and out of groups based on how we feel about them at the moment. Thankfully God does not do this with us! He is patient! We cling imperfectly to his promises in Jesus Christ but our sins are forgiven all the same, for the sake of that small mustard seed gifted to us by God the Holy Spirit. We should be more cautious in deciding who is in and out of the Church of God, trusting the Holy Spirit’s desire and ability to guide people out of ignorance and rebellion and back to faithfulness. We ought to be more quick to affirm our unity in the body of Christ rather than drive distinctions and emphasize divisions between us.

Mark 13:24-37 – As we begin the new liturgical year we move from Matthew as the predominant Gospel to Mark. Mark is widely considered in more liberal theological circles to be the first Gospel, based primarily on it’s brevity and the assumption that since there are many similarities with it in Matthew and Luke, they probably copied from Mark. This is hardly a necessary deduction, however, and the historic assertion of the Church is that in fact Matthew’s Gospel is the oldest. Mark’s is distinctive for the action-oriented tone, the emphasis on immediacy. It’s a Gospel more suited to the action-oriented, CGI dominated imaginations of American Christians who may more easily tire of the extended monologues and dialogues in the other Gospels.

The assigned reading (the one I opted for, as opposed to the alternative option of 11:1-10 (Palm Sunday) continues the theme of the past few weeks in terms of the suddenness and unexpectedness of our Lord’s return. We are to be watchful without being foolish enough to think we will know when the precise day and time of his arrival will be. Most if not all of the signs cited in these verses are true and real here and now, but also have been for the last 2000 years and before. The net effect is that we are to be always watchful and expectant because truly it can’t be said that the conditions are not right for his arrival!

We do not wait fearfully. We are God’s people, as St. Paul reminds us in the Epistle reading, and as such we can come to God in expectation of his grace and mercy as indicated in the psalm and Old Testament reading. The firm hope and promise of his return should be our foremost expectation and hope, and should be a beam of light in the midst of whatever struggles – personal or communal – we experience. Satan can attempt to torture us here and now with all manner of sin-related and death-oriented focuses. But we can and should remind him that his future is certain just as ours is, but for very different reasons and with very different results!

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