Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, November 29, 2018

New sermon on Mark 13 (the Synoptic Apocalypse) for Pre-Advent and the First Sunday of Advent

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

November 18, 2018 (pre-Advent season)

You’ve just heard the Gospel reading from chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel:

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

Why is our Lord Jesus talking like this? Why isn't he talking about shepherds and lost sheep and good Samaritans and heavenly banquets and little children coming to him?

It gets worse! The reading today stops too soon. You have to continue reading this chapter in Mark’s Gospel to get the full picture. Jesus continues:

For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be….
…in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken….But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand..
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have a chapter like this.[1] These apocalyptic chapters are always read as the Advent season is getting started. Next week feels like an interruption, because it’s Christ the King Sunday, but on the first Sunday of Advent two weeks from today, you’re going to hear Jesus talking exactly like this again, in the Gospel of Luke.

Now when I was in seminary in the early 1970s, an interesting thing was taking place in biblical scholarship. For a couple of centuries, academic biblical scholars had been saying that Jesus couldn’t possibly have talked like that. These chapters were dismissed as inauthentic additions best ignored—“fake news,” if you will. And indeed these passages were ignored in the mainline churches (that means my church and yours, although to be sure they were not ignored in the fundamentalist ones!)

But along about the middle of the 20th century, things began to change in theological and biblical studies, because of three developments:

1)    The first was that two world wars introduced into human history a phenomenon that required the coining of a new word, a word that had to be invented to describe the deliberate destruction of whole people-groups. The word was “genocide.” It was first used to identify the killing of the Armenians, and it then became a word ready to apply to the destruction of the Jews in the Holocaust. Then there was Cambodia, and then Rwanda, and now the situation in Myanmar is being called a genocide of the Rohingya people.

2)    The second thing that happened is linked to the first. Historical events caused writers and historians and other thinkers to see that the apocalyptic language that we find in parts of the Bible was not so far-fetched after all. The development of nuclear weapons made the idea of the end of the world as we know it seem closer than we thought. So the academics started taking another look at these biblical passages, with more respect this time.

3)    So the third thing was that scholars started to pay more attention to the fact that in the two centuries just before Jesus’ time,  the biblical literature began to incorporate a new cosmology which spoke of events set in motion from a sphere outside of human history, but taking place within human history, impinging upon it and upending it from the perspective of the future—not the human future according to human potential, but the human future reoriented to the promises and the purposes of God.

Now I realize that’s a mouthful, but this is not going to be an academic lecture, I think you’ll be glad to hear. Let me illustrate this sequence by quoting from the memoirs  of Mr. Andrew Carnegie, the famous Scottish-born tycoon who made his fortune in America.[2] Raised as a Presbyterian, he became suspicious of religion. When he read Darwin’s theories of evolution, the great philanthropist received what he thought was a revelation.[3] In his memoirs he wrote (this was during the Gilded Age, before the world wars):

…I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth…“All is well since all grows better,” became my motto, my true source of comfort. Man…has risen to the higher forms [and there can be no] conceivable end to [man’s] march to perfection.

I don’t believe anyone can read that with a straight face today. And indeed, as it happens, those were not the last words from Mr. Carnegie. The last paragraph of his autobiography was written as World War I broke out. He reread what he had written earlier, and here’s how he responded to it:

As I read this [what he had previously written] today what a change! The world convulsed by war as never before! Men slaying each other like wild beasts! I dare not relinquish all hope.

The manuscript breaks off abruptly.[4] He never finished the autobiography.

            In a certain way, this illustrates the turn in biblical interpretation that I’m describing. The horrors of the two World Wars caused a widespread change in the way that serious people understood history. For biblical interpreters, it caused a change in the way the apocalyptic passages in the Bible were read. It was noted that Jesus said, “Behold, I have told you all things beforehand.”

Apocalyptic writing came out of a catastrophe. The Hebrew people—the Israelites—were the people of blessing. They were the people favored by God, who had promised them a future of safety and prosperity. But then they were overwhelmed and conquered and forced into exile in the far distant, pagan Babylonian empire. We should understand that humanly speaking, there was no hope for them. It appeared that they had been entirely abandoned by the God who had brought them out of Egypt into the promised land.  Indeed, the God who had seemed so powerful to them was not apparently not powerful after all, compared to the mighty gods of the Mesopotamians, whose gigantic statues loomed over Babylon. Perhaps, in fact, the God whom the Israelites had worshipped did not even exist. This was a crisis. It was not just a historical crisis; it was “a theological emergency.”[5]

It was out of this crisis, this emergency, that the new apocalyptic way of thinking took shape. It started with the second half of the prophecy of Isaiah (chapters 40-55),  which was written during the Babylonian captivity when everything seemed so hopeless,  and it blossomed from there. By the time of Jesus, it was everywhere. It was in the air and the water and the DNA, so to speak. So the scholars who had been so sure that Jesus could never have talked that way began to realize they might have been wrong. Some really important postwar theologians began to pay attention to the whole apocalyptic thing, and a whole new emphasis in theology started to appear.[6] We can give it a name. We can assign a word to it. That word is, as it happens, the very last word in Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography. That word is HOPE. Apocalyptic theology is above all the theology of HOPE. And hope is the polar opposite of optimism. Optimism, as Mr. Carnegie discovered, fails when it is swallowed up in darkness. Hope is founded in something else, something beyond human history with its cycles of optimism and despair.

Many apocalyptic books were written in the years just before the birth of Jesus. The only one of these books that was taken into the Old Testament is the Book of Daniel. Jesus quotes from Daniel several times. We have heard from Daniel today, and you will hear it again on the first Sunday of Advent. In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 21, Jesus uses words and imagery straight out of Daniel 7:

…there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations… men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:25-27) 

He is speaking of himself. He is speaking of his coming again the second time. He is telling us that our great hope is founded not in human history, not in any human development, but in something else, another power, some One else, some One whose reality and sovereign power is independent of human history and shaping it to the divine purpose in spite of all appearances to the contrary.

Yesterday afternoon I was struggling with this sermon, trying to figure out how to bring it home for you so that it’s not just academic information. I was wasting time roaming around Twitter and I found something wonderful. On the Twitter home page of a new “friend,” I found two images juxtaposed against each other. They struck me forcibly as just the right combination for the Advent paradox—the now and the not-yet, suffering and hope, darkness and light. In the small circle on this particular Twitter page we see the self-portrait of the famously tormented artist, Van Gogh, shortly after he mutilated his own ear. His expression is melancholy and haunted. Over against this smaller image, stretched all the way across the page, is the celebrated painting that every one knows, “The Starry Night,” which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Van Gogh painted it while he was a patient in a mental hospital. The immortal painting has unfortunately been trivialized somewhat—you see it everywhere on coffee mugs and paper napkins—but the combination that I saw yesterday morning on my computer screen electrified me. Here is the human being struggling against dark forces that will drive him to suicide. And here is the celestial realm overhead, visually magnified so that it dwarfs the village scene below. It is the heavens that are eternal; the trees and houses on the lower level are, as St. Paul tells us, part of “the form of this world that is passing away” (I Corinthians 7). The links between the eternal heavens and the temporal earth are the church steeple and the slender spires of the cypress trees. As one art critic wrote, “The artist has brought God down into the village.”[7] We are immediately reminded of the book of Revelation, which depicts for us the City of God coming down out of heaven, the creation of a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1-2).

That will be the Second Coming. The First Coming is announced by the archangel Gabriel. God has brought himself down into the village. The angel announces that he will come “to save his people”—not to save us from the Babylonians, but to save us from ourselves. He has come “to save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus Christ  comes “now in the time of this mortal life, in which [he] came to visit us in great humility.”[8]

I have come to know this congregation pretty well over the years. You all look great—well dressed, well fed, well mannered. But I know, and you know,  that there have been terrible events among you: cancer, untimely deaths, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicides. You can see this in the self-portrait of Van Gogh, who was tortured by mental darkness and took his own life. Advent tells us to look directly into the darkness and name it for what it is.

It is a dark time in our country as well. But this is not the end of the story. The upper lights are burning. We cannot see them with our earthly human retinas but we can see them in faith and in hope. The unseen power of the heavens is overhead. Our part is to keep the lower lights burning.[9] Here is the passage from Luke again, the full passage this time—you will hear this on the First Sunday of Advent in two weeks:

Jesus said,

“…there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations… men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

“Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads,

            because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25-27)


[1] John’s Gospel, as always, has its own idiosyncratic perspective. John has the same cosmology as the three Synoptics, but the theology of the Fourth Gospel is usually (if over-simplistically) described as “realized” eschatology. That is to say, whereas the first three (especially Matthew and Mark) have a strongly future-oriented apocalyptic outlook, in John the present power of Jesus and of the world to come in his own person is more typical. John has his own way of presenting the Lordship of Christ over the whole created order and its future.
[2] I have quoted this in more detail in my book The Crucifixion. I think it illustrates the trajectory I’m tracing exceptionally well.
[3] He was also influenced by Herbert Spencer.
[4] Excerpts from Carnegie’s memoirs quoted in “The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, November 22, 1982.
[5] A phrase of the Old Testament theologian John Bright.
[6] Some of the leading figures were Albert Schweizer, Klaus Koch, Ernst Kasemann, Jurgen Moltmann.
[7] This is debated, of course. Some think the stars are frightening, malign. I choose to go with the quotation above.
[8] The Collect for the first Sunday in Advent.
[9] Brightly beams our Father’s mercy,
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam along the wave!
Some poor struggling, fainting seaman
You may rescue, you may save…

Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar,
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.

Repeat refrain:
Let the lower lights be burning….

(Hymn text by Philip P. Bliss, 1871)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Observing Advent

A lot of people who are reading my book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ have had no experience of the Advent season and have been curious as to how I (and my family) actually observe it. So I thought I'd put down a few thoughts about that.

Maybe the first thing that needs to be said is that Advent, more than any other season of the church year, is countercultural. Lent and Holy Week are supremely countercultural also, but our culture is accustomed to Lent, in at least some respects: the hot-cross buns, the ashes, the rush to church in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday after Mardi Gras, the palms. During Lent, the crowds on Fifth Avenue in New York take no notice of the Lenten array in the churches because they aren't expecting anything. But when a tourist steps into St Thomas Fifth Avenue on the week before Christmas and sees no display of red poinsettias, it's an outrage. The purpose of this withholding is to teach us that, in the birth of our Savior, we have received something that is beyond our deserving, beyond our preparations, beyond our human potential, beyond our expectations--that comes to us, in the words of beloved carols, in a "silent night," in the "dark streets," "in the bleak midwinter," in "such a world as this," to "save us all from Satan's power."

It is quite possible to enjoy the commercial season and still observe a rigorous Advent. My personal habits during December have been honed over 80 years. I have a split personality. I get a huge kick out of the Christmas decorations in Manhattan and in my suburban town. I would be disappointed if they were not there. I lay out the Christmas card list and I buy the tree. I shop and plan menus. I put white lights (electric candles) in all our windows on the first Sunday of Advent. We have had an Advent wreath since our children were small (going on 55 years now) even though it is a 19th century custom, not ancient. I bring out certain cherished items: a triptych of the Annunciation, pine-scented candles, dark purple table mats and napkins. I bring in evergreens from our local trees (how I miss the glossy magnolia leaves of my native South!) and fill a bowl with the Christmas cards as they come in (I love to send and receive them). We eat panettone and gingerbread. I buy cranberry bliss bars at Starbucks. I wear a purple sweater. I wrap our outdoor lantern-post with a green garland (but no ribbon). I have a rich collection of Advent music--much Bach, many different Advent carol services at various churches.

But beyond that we do nothing. There are no choruses of angels in our house during Advent. There is  no tree, no wreath on the door, no crèche, no Christmas carols (although we play the Advent portions of Handel's Messiah to a fare-thee-well)no red and no glitter until Christmas Eve. This has always been very important to me. It reminds me day to day during the season that we have no right to expect anything from God. We live in darkness and in the shadow of death and that is our rightful lot since the fall of Adam. That is mythological language, but it tells us the truth about where we are positioned in the cosmos. "The silence of the eternal spaces terrifies me," wrote Blaise Pascal.

During Advent I spend a lot of time reflecting upon the terrifying things in the news, even more than I do during the rest of the year. Real news is not found on television but in articles of analysis in the major newspapers, newsmagazines, and journals. For sermons and for reflection, the news around the world offers more than ample illustrations of the Advent darkness. Sin and Death are not to be the last word, but as we anticipate Christmas we need to look unblinkingly at the way that even our best efforts so frequently go astray, or cause actual harm. Just for instance, we thought we had the Ebola virus under control in Africa, but now it is resurgent, in part because of uncontrollable violence and instability throughout the region. As Advent people, we cannot allow ourselves to indulge in sentimentality. Susan Sontag, Flannery O'Connor, and James Baldwin have written powerfully about the falsity of an imagined state of innocence. No adult has a right to suppose that we are innocent of the evils that afflict the world. We are all part of a web of complicity if not actual participation in evils--the brutal murder of Jamal Kashoggi being the ready example at hand. We are all caught up in the behaviors that contribute to climate change. And so forth.

I give a lot of thought to the Advent Scripture readings: Daniel, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Malachi, the Synoptic apocalypse. We need to reflect upon the fact that the very last verses in the Old Testament remind us that we are rightfully under a curse because of Sin and Death, and its signs are fractures within families. This is what makes the Christian Old Testament different from the Hebrew Scriptures. The content is the same, but the arrangement is completely different. The Hebrew Bible has the prophets in the middle and the Wisdom writings at the end. The Christian Bible has the prophets at the end, and at the end of the prophetic collections are the apocalyptic passages. This is not an accident. The Old Testament is arranged to point to the future inbreaking of a hope that is beyond human hope, beyond human potential, beyond human striving--and that is the movement of God into territory that is occupied by the forces of darkness. Over these forces, unaided human efforts are in vain. It is God alone who saves us. This is not a movement of earth to heaven, but of heaven to earth--utterly gracious because utterly undeserved.

The culture observes Christmas as though it were deserved, expected, domesticated, even routine and manageable.   This is what Christmas customs and rituals celebrate: this is what we expect. We do this every year, don't we? Therefore, Advent is a time to reflect on the sheer gratuitousness of the grace of God. The Latin root of the word is the same: gratuitous, grace--from Latin gratuitus, "given freely, spontaneously, without prior conditions." Today, the word has come to mean "unnecessary" or "uncalled for," for example "gratuitous" nudity in a film. When used theologically, however, it means utterly without conditions or expectations--and most particularly, without deserving. The coming of the Lord as the promised Messiah was withheld by God for centuries, lest the people of Israel should come to think of it as their due.

Therefore, postponing Christmas is an exercise in deeper understanding of what God has done and will do for us in spite of our deserving. When Christmas comes "in a burst," as my mother explained, the explosion of festive decorating enacts the radical nature of God's invading grace and our joyful reception of it. When my sister and I were young, Christmas Eve was the magical time. Our father brought in the tree and we decorated it. He put pine branches over the mirrors and garlanded the banisters of the stairs. It was incredibly exciting (the early scenes of Balanchine's Nutcracker ballet capture something of this).

If a lighted tree sits around your house for a month, what is the thrill? What is the sense of something miraculous, something about to happen?  Withholding this thrill is an Advent discipline. It teaches us to ponder the darkness of our world as it would be without the incarnate presence of the Lord and his heavenly Host. How much more wonderful, then, is the "burst" on Christmas Eve--"Oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant"!

At our house, our Christmas celebrations really begin on Christmas Eve, and we try to keep them going for the Twelve Days of Christmas--Christmas Day through Twelfth Night (January 5). We have people over during the Twelve Days, with our decorations intact. Boxing Day (the Feast of Stephen commemorated in "Good King Wenceslas") is a good day for a gathering, appreciated by Anglophiles. One of our friends from church has a spectacular Twelfth Night party. I know of some young people who have a jolly tree-burning ceremony, derived from medieval customs when greens were burned, on Twelfth Night. Then on the next day, January 6, we try to find a service for the Feast of the Epiphany that really does justice to this important feast of the Gentiles coming to the light of Christ. Such services are hard to find, but oh! how wonderful they are if you come upon one. This season, Epiphany is on a Sunday, so the churches should be doing more than usual.

I have found the observance of Advent and  the Twelve Days of Christmas to be a joy and a comfort throughout all my life. I can't expect others to copy it, not even our own children, but I hope that my reflections on the season will be encouraging to many who are looking for something more profound in the weeks before Christmas Day actually comes.


This is a second draft. So many people have asked for something along these lines that I have tried to put out something quickly. I will be adding to it and revising it in days to come. FR