The First Sunday of Advent, 30 November 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
I Corinthians 1:3-9
St. Mark 13:24-37

Background: Apocalyptic
This literature emerged, quite understandably, during the period of forced Hellenization in the first two centuries prior to the Common Era. It’s stress on dualism and the battle between good and evil is found in both Jewish and in Christian sources. Some notable examples are chapters 7 through 12 of Daniel, the books that come out of the Essene community, and the “Little Apocalypse” found in St. Matthew, chapters 24-25. What bind these expressions together are a pessimistic view of the present time, and the foretelling of imminent disaster.  Unlike the prophets, who described similar conditions, these circumstances, described in apocalyptic literature, are followed by a coming period of judgment and resolution. The Book of Revelation offers a fine example of these qualities. The complex of ideas is always described in a narrative form, unlike the prophetic oracle. These descriptions are always eschatological in nature, as well, where the prophets declaimed the here and now.  Such literature developed in later Christian times, but the emphasis moved from a consideration of the salvation of the entire community to that of the individual.

Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil--
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

This psalm, “O that you would rend the heavens” (Isaiah 63:15-64:11), is the pericope from which the first lesson is taken.  The structure of the psalm is:

            Introductory prayer (63:15-16)
            Lament in three parts with an annexed prayer (63:17-19a)
            Prayer that God be present in an Epiphany (63:19b-64:5a)
            Confession of sin and challenge to God (64:4b-7)
            Confession of confidence (64:8)
            Prayer that God should repent, and a Lament for Zion (64:8ff)
            Concluding question. (64:11)

You may wish to make comparisons with Psalm 18:10, where there is a similar emphasis on the “coming down” of God, and the quaking of the mountains. Here God is seen as a literal deus ex machine, who, being present, challenges those who are adversaries, and defends the chosen people of Israel. The cry for the appearance of God is the quintessential Advent theme, and the verses from Isaiah undergird that theology. There is a considerable meditation on the situation of humankind, the falling away and sinfulness, and the frailty of human life, “We all fade like a leaf, and or iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” In spite of the flawed relationship, the prophet recognizes the on-going relationship of God and people, where God is honored as “Father”, and given the role of the potter who forms individual lives. “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” The confession is closely woven with the idea of confidence in God’s not remembering the people’s sin, but acting with us in consideration that, “we are all your people.”

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Into which situations of life do you wish God were present?
  2. How is God indeed present in them already?
  3. What might your prayer be like?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 Qui regis Israel

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?

You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.

You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.

And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

The second verse of the psalm gives us clues as to the intents of the work.  The names “Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh” point us to the north and to the Kingdom of Israel. The scene is one of trouble and distress, but not of the trouble that is soon to come, when the Assyrians defeat and deport the people. Here all is troubled, but there is the hope that God would intervene, “Restore us, O God of hosts.” Prior to these prayers, however, are tacit admissions as to the difficulties of the people that have given rise to the fervent prayer, “How long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people.” The attitude is similar, in some respects, to second Isaiah.  The feeling of desperation is deepened in verse 6; “you have fed them with the bread of tears.” In our translation the second part of the verse is blunted from its Hebrew intensity. It might be better translated as “and made them drink triple measure of tears,” rather than our translation’s, “bowls of tears to drink.” Regardless, the language is quite descriptive of the situation.

The elided verses trace the history of Israel from Egypt into the new land of promise. The image is one of a transplanted vine, and the difficulties that can come of such an agricultural pursuit.  The theme quickly changes from the vine to the idea that Israel, as a people, are God’s son.  Christian eyes will see these final verses differently.

Breaking open Psalm 80:
  1. Are you aware of a “bowl of tears” for yourself?
  2. What is it made up of?
  3. How can God intervene to obviate your bowl of tears?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

We enter into the midst of an on-going and intense conversation between Paul and the congregation at Corinth.  Paul greets them with the peace of God, and then gives thanks to God for all the graces that have been shown to the people of Corinth.  This was a people proud of what they had accomplished by means of the grace of God, and thankful for all the gifts and talents that were evident among them.  Paul’s concern, however, are their experiments concerning the freedom Christ has won for them (indeed Corinth was a center for freed slaves in the Roman Empire.) The question then is, “How do we live with such freedom?” and that will be Paul’s theme as he continues in his letter to them. At the outset, however the concern is that they remain “blameless” in the fellowship of “his Son.” 

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What spiritual gifts have you been given?
  2. Have the spiritual gifts of another helped you? How?
  3. How might you use your spiritual gifts?

St. Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said to his disciples,

"In those days, after that suffering,
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.

Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

In order to understand these enigmatic texts, we need to be fully aware of the context of the times.  Probably written around 70 CE, much had happened that made for a new context for Jesus’ words and concepts. These Mark places into a time full of disappointment.  In 40 CE, Caligula attempted to have a statue of him erected in the Temple at Jerusalem, an act fully reminiscent of Antiochus Epiphanes during the Seleucid period.  In 70 CE, Silvus, the Roman general under the Emperor Titus, destroyed the Temple, and indeed Jerusalem itself. The anxiety and grief over these events provide the context for Mark’s report of Jesus’ apocalyptic.  The message is simple – the times give you clues about what is to come, but do not think that you have the complete knowledge. The take-home lesson is “keep awake!” It’s good grist for the Advent mill. Behind the glitzy commercialism of Christmas in our time stands the reality of war, poverty, and intolerance. So, the message of wakefulness obtains even in our own time.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are your expectations of Jesus’ judgment of you?
  2. What are your expectations of other’s judgment of you?
  3. How do you judge yourself?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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