Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37.
The suffering ones cry out, How long O Lord? Advent begins with God’s judgment on a world of violence, greed, and oppression.
With the first Sunday in Advent, a new year now begins. Unlike the secular New Year on January 1st, however, it is not an exuberant celebration of new beginnings.
Advent begins with a world-sweeping view of the suffering, oppression, and sinfulness that dominate the human condition, but it also gives voice to the desperate, agonized cry for God to bring peace and justice in place of violence and oppression. In the midst of this hurting and yearning, it also glimpses a world-shaking divine intervention by the Son of Man.
The last eleven chapters of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) are a mixed bag of amazing visions of hope, of agonized pleas for relief from suffering, and of confessions of sin. This confused mix is probably a fair representation of the ups and downs of early post-exilic life in Judea, at least in prophetic circles. Judea was then a poor and marginal sub-province of the Persian empire when that empire was at the peak of its power, 520 to 460 BCE. (This was the time of the Persian wars with Greece [499-479 BCE], famously memorialized by Herodotus’ Histories.)
Our reading is a desperate prayer for God’s intervention, a prayer from a people of rather low self-esteem:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” (verse 1, NRSV; verse 63:19b in the Hebrew text).
This is an appropriate opening cry for Advent. The suffering and oppressed—perhaps even outcasts (see 63:16)—raise their distress to a cosmic level. God should rip open the old canopy of the created world—that is, God should initiate a return to chaos—in order to be rid of the disastrous mess that the human world has become! Such is the speaker’s desperate outburst.
The speaker knows God has done wonderful things in the past—referred to in verses 3 to 4—but the present is truly abysmal.
“We have 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” (verse 6).
As is often the case in the psalms of lament, God is indirectly blamed for allowing this miserable condition. “But you were angry, and we sinned; / because you hid yourself we transgressed” (verse 5).
Advent begins with a cry for deliverance. The deliverance called for so desperately is partly from external enemies—God should come down “so that the nations might tremble” (verse 1)—but it is mostly the confusion, transgressions, and iniquities of the community itself that require divine relief.
They need the forgiveness of sins, and the external signs that wholeness and peace have been restored.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19.
The Psalm reading voices another plea to God to take notice of the suffering of people who were favored by God in the past but now suffer oppression and humiliation.
The people speaking are the tribes of the old northern kingdom—Joseph, divided into his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, and his brother tribe Benjamin (all mentioned in verses 1-2). These are now praying to the God of Zion (“enthroned upon the cherubim,” verse 1) to save them.
There has been a period of alienation between these now humble peoples and God—“how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” (verse 4). They have long suffered with “the bread of tears”; their neighbors hold them in scorn, and their enemies laugh at them (verses 5-6). Each stanza of the psalm ends with its fundamental message, the urgent plea: “Restore us, O God (of Hosts); / let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verses 3, 7, and 19).
Near its end, the psalm hints at a human deliverer. Their real hope is for a king who will recover their old glory and make the nations hold the Israelite tribes in respect and awe again (as in the days of David).
“But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself” (verse 17).
There is a yearning for a new figure, a king, who will arise and save Israel.
I Corinthians 1:3-9.
The prophecy and the psalm plead for God’s saving intervention, but the Epistle reading gives thanks that it has come.
It has come to the people of the assembly of God in Corinth, the major commercial city of Greece. The thanks is given by their founding apostle Paul. From Paul’s letters, we have more information about the inner life of this earliest of Christian communities in the non-Jewish world than any other such community.
One of the things these well-heeled citizens of a merchant city prided themselves on was their education and their learning. Paul goes with this. “I give thanks…for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verses 5 and 7, NRSV).
We are still in a world that is waiting for the final divine intervention for the righteous, but the agony and uncertainty of the old prophecy and psalm are gone. Now joy and a sense of confidence in the salvation are in process. The waiting is now easy, and the apostle is confident that the elect ones will be found “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 8).
The ultimate Christian version of the answer to the Advent prayer—“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”—is Jesus’ vision of the final cataclysm accompanying the coming of the Son of Man (the Human One, in the CEB translation).
Mark 13 is Jesus’ instructions to an inner circle of disciples about the last things. Jesus emphasizes that there will be much turmoil in the world before the real end comes. There will also be false messiahs (christs) popping up here and there (13:6). The really real ending, however, will be unmistakable!
When the real time comes the cosmos will come unraveled (as the Advent prayer, Isaiah 64:1, requested): the sun and moon will go dark, stars will fall, casting all horoscopes and astrological charts into chaos.
In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken (verses 24-25, Common English Bible translation.)
These images come from prophesies of doom on the day of the Lord. For example, when Babylon would finally fall, the whole world would be involved, as prophesied in Isaiah 13.
See, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the earth a desolation,
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
I will punish the world for its evil [God speaking],
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant,
and lay low the insolence of tyrants. (Isaiah 13:9-11, NRSV)
The final wrath is God’s judgment upon all the forces of evil, to reestablish a cosmic balance of justice for the wicked and the righteous.
When that cataclysm has occurred, Jesus, in our reading, tells us that the ancient prophecy of Daniel will be fulfilled. This is the prophecy of the heavenly Son of Man (“the Human One”) who will bring in a new world dominion to save and vindicate the suffering righteous.
Daniel’s vision was of God setting up the heavenly judgment, and then of transferring to the Son of Man dominion over all the earth.
As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne, …
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened. … (Daniel 7:9-10, NRSV)
[After the judgment of the world beasts, representing the progressively more violent old empires described earlier in the vision, Daniel continues,]
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being [a son of man]
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
This was the old prophecy that guided the major expectation among Jesus’ early followers. Mark puts it directly on Jesus’ lips. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26, NRSV).
In his own or in later teaching, Jesus was identified as this Son of Man, this Human One. It was he who was expected to reappear finally and set all things well with—if not the whole world—at least those who waited and “watched” faithfully, as the rest of the Mark reading instructs the hearers to do (verses 28-37).
Advent, as presented by the readings, is not good news. It knows that even for the righteous there are continuing hardships and suffering. It knows that for the present the arrogant, the oppressors, the workers of evil, prevail in an agonized world. The opening message of Advent is that there definitely IS a judgment. There is a world-shaking assize near at hand.
As Advent goes forward, we will gradually hear more and more about what there is BESIDES that judgment!