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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Advent Mindfulness

Mark 13:24-37

Happy new year! Today marks the first day of the church year, and we’re beginning what the Lectionary calls Year B, the year of Mark. So we begin the church year with a description of the end of the world. Seems a bit out of place for the first Sunday of Advent, doesn’t it? But the idea is that as we prepare for celebrating Christ’s first coming in a few weeks, we read about the Second Coming. There’s a lot of different understandings about what that term means. In Jesus’ time some believed the Messiah come and establish the messianic kingdom, defeating Rome and establishing the line of David to rule Earth forever. A second point of view believed in the total destruction of the planet and that the Messiah would come on the clouds, as described in the book of Daniel, and save the chosen ones who were patiently waiting for him, and destroy everything else. A third view held to the vision of the prophet Isaiah of “a new heaven and a new earth” which depicts a utopian vision for Earth’s future with the lion laying down with the lamb, swords turned into plowshares, and world peace forever. (That’s the one I like.) Jesus was certainly familiar with all these traditions and understandings of the world’s future. And in this passage, he seems to tie them all together.

I think it’s helpful for us to draw a picture of the whole chapter of Mark 13. The scene is Jerusalem, and the chapter begins with Jesus and the disciples walking by the temple and disciples commenting how amazing the temple is. And Jesus basically says “Meh, it’s all gonna fall down someday”. He was keenly aware of the impermanence of all things, and was unimpressed by the powerful looking building. Then Jesus goes on to talk about all the suffering that will come—nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom—and says it is just the beginning of the birth pangs. This is the same image of labor pains Paul uses in Romans 8 when he describes the birthing process of creation obtaining the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Next in Mark 13 Jesus describes persecution and suffering being unavoidable in life. And then he moves into the passage we just read.

And in this description of where the world is moving Jesus introduces a new idea that all the other apocalyptic traditions seem to ignore. Jesus emphasizes the idea of watchfulness. “Keep awake” he says. He moves from describing the clouds and the heavens that would usually have been the center of apocalyptic talk, and tells his disciples to look at the fig tree. I mean think about it. Everyone’s looking up at the clouds, thinking about heaven and stuff. And he says, “Look at the fig tree!” He draws his disciples’ attention back to Earth and the present moment and teaches them that just as the fig tree ripens before summer, so creation will ripen and bear fruit.

So the long answer to Peter’s short question at the beginning of the chapter is no one knows when the end will come. The important thing is to be present, alert, watchful, mindful of the moment. Pay attention to things like the fig tree and don’t stress yourself out worrying about the end of the world. That’s God’s business; your business is to ripen like the fig tree.

What Jesus says really is different. He doesn’t predict a time for the end of the world; instead he calls his disciples to be watchful, to live in the present moment and not be distracted by concerns about the future. Mindfulness is a popular term nowadays, and I really do think that that’s what Jesus is encouraging here. I believe Jesus was much more concerned with teaching his disciples to be one with the present moment than he was with predicting the future.

It’s a fantastic irony that the best way to prepare ourselves for the future is to live in the present. It’s rather hard to do. Especially this time of year. Everything in our culture is propelling us forward to December 25th. We wait impatiently for presents, vacation, family and friends visiting, and stress ourselves out trying to do all that shopping and baking and wrapping. Do we practice patience and being in the moment, or do we always look forward to the future because the grass is always greener?

Can you slow down in this season and appreciate the little moments that demand no attention? A good way to start is to take time to pray and contemplate the mystery of Christ’s birth. What does it mean for God to become incarnate? What is God’s purpose for you? What is God’s purpose for the universe? Taking time to reflect on those questions and sit in that wonder is a magnificent spiritual practice. The important thing isn’t even finding the answers, simply sitting in wonder deepens our connection with God more than any quick and easy answers ever could.

Humans tend to want to know all the answers; to have control of the future by knowing what lies ahead. Perhaps that’s why we’re so fascinated by apocalypse predictions. And for some reason we seem thirsty for terror and destruction. Why is it that our culture, spurred on by modern doomsday predictions and Hollywood films are so captivated by a destructive interpretation of the world’s future? Many Christians don’t even know about the biblical promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Many seem to think that God can’t wait to destroy the world. But isn’t the message of Christmas that God comes to Earth to save it? Not destroy it. But to love us and save us. God became incarnate because creation is good. The physical is not some evil realm we need to escape from. This physical world is a beloved part of God’s universe. God wanted to become human—the divine becoming human so that the human might become divine. That’s the good news of the Gospel. That’s the point of Christmas. Not that Earth is going to hell in a hand basket—but that Christ is born for us.

May you be blessed this Advent season with the hope and peace and joy and love of Christ. May you have patience for his coming. May this season of waiting be a gift to you as we long for Emmanuel, God with us. May you learn to listen and ponder the deep mystery of our being here, not focusing on trying to figure it all out like the disciples asking about the end of the world. But rather patiently waiting for God to come alive in you, as we wait this Advent for the mystery of Christ’s birth among us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Brian, December 3rd, 2023.

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