“Watch out! Stay alert!” Colchester Federated Church, November 29, 2020, (Mark 13:24-37) First Sunday of Advent

“Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor.  Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.”[1] Well, Happy Advent.  To begin exploring this admittedly strange text (called the Little Apocalypse), we need to contemplate this Divine figure called the Human One.  For most Jews living in Jesus’ time, the Human One (or the Son of Man as other Bible translations name this being) was a well-known but mysterious figure of hope and liberation.  The Human One was a powerful ally to the chosen and a terrifying enemy to those who were not. 

It’s helpful to briefly explore where the Human One appears in the Bible.  Because the First Sunday of Advent begins with the end of the world.  And it’s perhaps not that easy to find the hope here.  Though maybe contemplating apocalyptic literature is especially fitting for 2020.

Here’s the thing, Jesus’ contemporaries would have recognized this Divine figure we see today from the Book of Daniel.  Daniel was exiled with the rest of the Jews, living far from home in a foreign country.  Daniel said that the Human One would come to save his people in exile—to judge their oppressors and rescue the faithful.[2]

The Human One makes another appearance in the Book of Revelation.  John of Patmos explicitly identifies Jesus as the Human One.  We get a fuller description of this Divine figure.  John describes his vision by writing, “In the middle of the lampstands I saw someone who looked like the Human One.  He wore a robe that stretched down to his feet, and he had a gold sash around his chest.  His head and hair were white as white wool—like snow—and his eyes were like a fiery flame.  His feet were like fine brass that has been purified in a furnace, and his voice sounded like rushing water.  He held seven stars in his right hand, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword.  His appearance was like the sun shining with all its power.”[3]  John of Patmos tells us that when he saw Jesus in his vision, he fell down at his feet as if he had just died.

John’s reaction is not surprising.  Who wouldn’t be shocked?  This image of Jesus as the Human One is not the image most of us probably picture when we think of Jesus.  We probably picture Jesus as a kind and loving, sometimes feisty teacher.  Or in this season of Advent, we are looking forward to that cute, cuddly baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger— “the little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” 

But the Human One with eyes like fiery flames and a sword sticking out of his mouth?  Thanks, but no thanks.  Most of us would probably not find comfort in this image of the Divine.  But it ends up that this image of the Human One was comforting to the exiled and oppressed Jewish people in Daniel’s time.  And it was comforting for the early Christians in John of Patmos’ time persecuted by the Roman Empire.  This image was not only comforting, it was empowering.  People were oppressed and suffering.  Some needed a heavenly warrior, someone who would return to earth to take up the sword on their behalf.  They needed the Human One to liberate them and give them hope that God hears their cries and does something about them.  It may be an image that doesn’t speak much to you and me.  But it might, if we were also in desperate need of a savior. 

For sorrowful, oppressed people their savoir should perhaps be intimidating to give hope where there is none.  After all, if you are a small sect up against an Empire, it would help to have the Human One on your side.  So these texts about the Human One in Mark, Daniel, and Revelation are still important for oppressed Christians around the world.  The image of Jesus as the Human One (a strong savior who can accomplish their liberation), offers hope that God will one day rescue them from their oppressors.  

In our scripture from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus instructs the disciples to watch out for the return of the Human One.  Though here’s what’s also important—Jesus tells them that even he doesn’t know the hour that the Human One will appear.  But they should remain alert and keep awake.  Our text for today is one of the last important lessons Jesus teaches his disciples in the Gospel of Mark.  It’s one of the last times Jesus instructs his followers since all too soon he will be gone.  Jesus gives them hope in this Little Apocalypse by telling them that the Human One will return one day to free the people.  Just hold on because the current suffering you are experiencing (or will experience as the case may be) will not last forever.  Jesus says, “What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”[4]

As this is the first Sunday of Advent, we are filled with hope for what is to come.  We look forward to Christmas with hopeful expectation.  Except this year we are experiencing Advent in the midst of a global pandemic.  We are experiencing these holy days during a time when people are getting sick and dying from the coronavirus.  The Little Apocalypse has never been super appealing to me personally on the first Sunday of Advent.  I try to explain the text so that at least it makes sense.  So that we can understand and even appreciate how Christians who are actually oppressed find hope in this story. 

Though reading the Little Apocalypse in 2020 may offer some comfort with these images of good overcoming evil in such a dramatic fashion.  Maybe we can hear apocalyptic literature in a way that we couldn’t before all of this happened.  Because sometimes it does feel like the sun is becoming dark and the stars are falling from the sky and all of creation is a bit shaken.

In the end, Jesus tells us to watch out and stay alert.  The world is shaken right now.  We are shaken.  I am shaken some days and imagine that you are shaken some days too.  This is a time of suffering.  It doesn’t make us have less faith to admit that and be honest that some days right now are terribly difficult.  And, as Christians we are not people who live without hope.  Our faith helps us to see that.  Here’s the hope on this First Sunday of Advent—the Human One will come into our midst once again.  Maybe that will look like a big dramatic scene of good overcoming evil.  Though it seems that the Human One comes to us in vulnerability and not in power.  At least that’s what we’ve experienced thus far anyway.  Jesus our Emmanuel—God-with-us—who will be born into our midst as a helpless infant who relied on creation to care for our maker.  So don’t lose hope, for God is truly with us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 13:26-27, Common English Bible.
[2] Daniel 7:14.
[3] Revelation 1:13-16.
[4] Mark 13:37.