Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Tender Time

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. (Mark 13.28-29)

The Most Impossible Ways

The other night Walt and I fell asleep to a local channel that airs “The 700 Club” each morning. When we awoke to the pseudo-news program hosted by far-right zealot and doomsayer, Pat Robertson, my first impulse was to grab the remote and punch in random numbers; anything would be less toxic. But his opening froze me solid. “It looks like Israel’s set to launch air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities,” he said—or something to that effect. I stared at video cobbled from file footage and nebulous sound bites (with nary a word from high-ranking Israeli, Iranian, US, or European officials), while an ominous voiceover indicated Israeli bombers were queued up, ready to go at any moment. Visions of World War III erupted in my head as I raced for the American networks, BBC, and France’s Canal 5: not a whisper about imminent Israeli air strikes anywhere, not even in the news crawls. “What a boogey man!” I sighed, feeling like a dunce. But was I?

It’s no secret that Israel has plans in place to disable Iran’s nuclear capabilities, nor that its penchant for self-serving acts of aggression has become a constant source of regional grief and worldwide angst. Robertson’s sky-is-falling scenario wasn’t beyond the pale. It just wasn’t true—yet. That it starred two loose cannons (Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu) on opposing sides of humanity’s longest-running race war certainly leant it credibility. Once again, threatening disaster confirmed we live in perilous times, when monomaniacal powers and people exhibit no concern about shipping the rest of us to Hell in a hand basket for the sake of their obsessions.

A nearly identical atmosphere hung thick with jitters and gloomy prospects hovers above Mark 13. It's there that Jesus warns the disciples not to be alarmed by global instability and religious hysteria, but to remain watchful in their work for the Kingdom’s sake. We’ve heard this a lot lately: “I will return. Be ready.” Though theories abound regarding the Second Coming, the essence of His message is lost on no one. We approach each moment as if it’s our last before The Big Moment. And while slating this passage as Sunday's Gospel seems a bizarre choice to kick off Advent's anticipation of Christ's birth, its overtones of wakefulness couldn’t be timelier. In an age when the worst of all possible worlds seems all too possible, Advent reassures us that God reaches us in the most impossible ways.

A Longer View

Scholars call Mark 13 (and its mirror passages in Matthew 24 and Luke 21) “The Little Apocalypse,” citing it as a miniature precursor to The Revelation’s epic nightmare. An innocent—rather sweet—comment prompts its litany of dark predictions. A disciple, perhaps visiting Jerusalem for the first time, looks at its magnificent Temple and architecture and says, “Wow!” To which Jesus replies: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (v2) After the group leaves the city to relax on Mt. Olivet, Peter, James, John, and Andrew—the first disciples—ask Jesus privately, “When will Jerusalem be destroyed? Will there be signs that it’s soon to happen?” Before we get to His response, we should note their lack of curiosity about why or how the city will fall infers widespread assumption it’s only a matter of time. (As it turns out, the Romans raze the Temple and much of the city in 70 CE.) Thus, Jesus’s answer in verses 3-23 is a short-range forecast not to be misconstrued as end-time prophecy. Regarding Jerusalem's demise, He tells the disciples to expect an upsurge in religious chicanery, warfare, earthquakes, and famines. They will be unjustly tried, persecuted, and hated because of Him. When these events start to materialize, Jesus says, “Head for the hills, because it’s going to get crazier by the minute.” Bogus messiahs will pop up everywhere, performing signs and wonders that might even fool them. “Be alert. You've been warned.” He says. (v23)

Then Jesus offers the disciples a longer view—and the pending chaos He just described sounds like a picnic. “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,” He says. (v24-25) The Son of Man will come in the clouds, dispatching angels “to gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heaven.” (v26) Jesus cautions, “When you see these things, know that He is near" (v29), adding in verse 32 that only God knows the day or hour when they’ll transpire. He closes in verse 37: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Watching, Waiting, and Ready

Realizing Jesus gave them more information than they need—but not much they can actually use—might lead the disciples to think, “Thanks for nothing.” On further reflection, however, they’d find the inconspicuous gem tucked inside His end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it preview. In verse 28, He advises, “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.” And that’s where this highly problematic text's Advent message coalesces.

Advent is the tender time, when bleak realities of our wintry world give way to revived hope and first signs of renewal. What we perceive as grim likelihoods and inevitabilities are simply the dying gasps of an overlong season. Whatever happens in the world at large and in our own lives will happen. We accept that by admitting very little of what affects us rests in our control. Yet none of it possesses sufficient power to halt time. Without fail, fragile rigidity brought on by anxieties pass with their passing. Sooner than we imagine, persistent fatalism yields to resurgent faith. As we reacquaint ourselves with the organic flow of God’s calendar, we rediscover how supple and resilient we truly are.

The Christ Child appears at the height of global chaos, when new technologies give rise to corruptive wealth, militaristic overkill, unprecedented oppression, and fabricated myth. The Incarnate God enters the worst of all possible worlds at the least likely moment to reach us in the most impossible ways. Nobody sees it coming, yet there it is, and very soon it's apparent the harshest human condition cannot prevail against the tenderness of divine spring. It occurs so suddenly we’ll miss it if we’re not watching, waiting, and ready to receive it when it comes. That's what Advent wants us to remember most of all.

O God, we come to another Advent, praying You’ll steer our attention from the bleak winter pounding at our doors so we may rediscover the tenderness blossoming within. We watch, wait, and stand ready for You to rid us of fearful rigidity. Make us supple and resilient once again. Amen.

Advent teaches us the bleakest circumstances can’t prevent the resurgent tenderness of divine spring.

Postscript: Advent at S-F

As in previous years, Straight-Friendly will observe Advent by resuming daily posts on Monday—most being reposts of earlier reflections (and labeled as such). Sunday and occasional midweek posts will be new. Whether revisiting a familiar entry or exploring a fresh one, I trust you’ll drop by often and enrich this tender time we share with your personal thoughts and invaluable insights. Praying a blessed, tender Advent for one and all, I can think of no finer jump-start to the season than R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the Word As We Know It”.

That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane - Lenny Bruce is not afraid. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn - world serves its own needs, regardless of your own needs. Feed it up a knock, speed, grunt no, strength no. Ladder structure clatter with fear of height, down height. Wire in a fire, represent the seven games in a government for hire and a combat site. Left her, wasn't coming in a hurry with the furies breathing down your neck. Team by team reporters baffled, trump, tethered crop. Look at that low plane! Fine then. Uh oh, overflow, population, common group, but it'll do. Save yourself, serve yourself. World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed. Tell me with the rapture and the reverent in the right - right. You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

Six o'clock - TV hour. Don't get caught in foreign tower. Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn. Lock him in uniform and book burning, blood letting. Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate. Light a candle, light a motive. Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush. Uh oh, this means no fear - cavalier. Renegade and steer clear! A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies. Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

The other night I tripped a nice continental drift divide. Mount St. Edelite. Leonard Bernstein. Leonid Breshnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs. Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom! You symbiotic, patriotic, slam, but neck, right? Right.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine...fine...


Sherry Peyton said...

For some reason, Martha comes more and more to my mind. As with this passage, one might say, Martha you worry about all kinds of things, few of which in the end can you control, and all of which will pass in their own good time. Such a good thing to remember in this busy time. Thanks Tim! Once again, you bring forth a hidden thought scurrying around in my head. Martha may be my key this Advent.

Tim said...

What a galvanizing thought, Sherry! The commercialization of Christmas has indeed turned us into Marthas--fussing with details and working overtime to make sure everything is perfect. I believe, like Martha, we start with the best of intentions, striving to do all we can to make our homes and hearts hospitable for all the guests who pass through their portals. Yet in the midst of our madness, Christ sort of gets stranded in the parlor while we're off in the kitchen baking cookies. Do we really need another batch of cookies, when Jesus has come to us (and, I fear, sits waiting for us to come to Him)?

This morning, our pastor struck a similar chord to your thoughts. "Israel wanted a king to attend to their needs," she said. "But what they got was a Baby, Who demanded their attention." Advent reminds us this great Movement that swept the world, changed the world, and altered our lives literally began in infancy. It urges us to remember that our first duty to is sit with the Christ Child--which for many of us means letting go other preoccupations (just as all parents and caregivers must do) to make Christ our main focus.

Between your comment and today's sermon, I sense a new post coming on! Thank you.

Many blessings and hopes for a joyful, focused, and minimally "Martha" Advent!


john said...

Hi, I hope you have had a great Thanksgiving....I realize that with each passing celebration of thanks, my list grows longer with the blessings I've received during my life...

Tim said...

Hi, John! How wonderful to hear from you! I'm so glad your Thanksgiving was rich with gratitude. I too find each year's list growing longer with new blessings and mercies added to older ones. God is so good to us--so faithful in kindness and generous with favor we don't deserve.

I pray this spirit of thanksgiving stays with you--with all of us--and grows stronger throughout the holiday season.

Many blessings and much joy,