Bible Study: 1 Advent (B)

November 26, 2014

Ben Maddison, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:35-37)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah, an Old Testament prophet, is the prophet of Advent, proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God, the Messiah, and the joy and hope of Zion. However, the use of Isaiah in the New Testament betrays an underlying truth of the book – as Paul D. Hanson points out in “Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation” (John Know Press, 1995), it was written over several years, had many writers and editors, and it is difficult to understand as a cohesive whole. Today’s scripture comes in what is known as Third Isaiah – the final and latest addition to the canon of Isaiah’s prophecy. Hanson explains that this passage comes after the joy of Zion is delayed, leaving Third Isaiah to reconcile the current experience of the people of Israel with the one promised in earlier times.

When reading this passage, it is important to remember the narrative of Jewish history. God acted mightily to save the Israelites from Egypt, leading them into the Promised Land and giving them the Law. However, the people of Israel had a difficult time responding to God’s self-giving, straying from God time after time – a normal human tendency. Hanson explains that in this passage, the writer recognizes (and blames) the unfaithfulness of the people of God – and himself – for the delayed promises of Second Isaiah. The writer of Isaiah here implores God to “tear open the heavens and come down” (v.1) that the people of God might believe. Verse 9 gets to the heart of the prophet’s message; recognizing the failures and waywardness of his people, the prophet begs God to “not be angry,” to not “remember iniquity forever” – to remember, that despite all of this, that the prophet’s people are the people of God.

For the reader of this passage today, and at the start of Advent, Isaiah is calling us to remember, to hold ourselves accountable, for the ways that we fail to follow God to the fullest. Isaiah reminds God, and reminds us, that we are God’s people, and although we have strayed, and although we fail to love God and our neighbor, that God does “forgive and forget” and that we are still inheritors of the promises of Second Isaiah – that we might see God, that the Messiah will return, and that we will revel in the joy of the coming Zion.

In what ways have you fallen away from God?

How can you live into the reality of being a child of God?

In what ways will Advent be, for you, a time of return and preparation for that which God is calling you to do?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

The psalms were an integral part for the worship of the Jewish people. In Jewish liturgy, both past and present, the role of history – and how God acted in history on behalf of God’s people – was essential to how Jewish worship was understood and practiced. Psalm 80 is the counterpart psalm to Psalm 79, both answering a simple question: How do God’s people return to God after falling away?

In the Berit Olam series’ book on “Psalms” (Liturgical Press, 2001), Konrad Schaefer writes that Psalm 80 is about returning to a normal relationship with God – a returning after a falling away.

Psalm 80 recognizes several things about the relationship between Israel and God. First, it recognizes God’s sovereignty and role in the lives of the Jewish people – God is a shepherd leading a flock.

Second, that flock has become wayward – and they are suffering under the burden of their waywardness. This psalm might remind a reader of the prayer of confession, “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 331). In this psalm, the people of Israel – as a worshiping community – recognize that they have fallen out of right relationship with God, and suffering under this burden, look to be drawn back into the fold of God their Shepherd. There is an urgency in the psalm, a desire to be again – and immediately – under the care and direction of God.

Verses 7 and 19 serve as a refrain and express the longing of the psalm’s writer: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” The writer of the psalm recognizes that it is in the capacity and graciousness of God to be forgiving – to offer restoration to all who seek God’s face. In the face of our own sinfulness, and our own wanderings from the fold of the Shepherd, God is always there, beckoning us back, offering restoration and salvation for all who seek God.

How will you seek to find the face of God?

In what ways is the psalm speaking to you, your church and your community?

In what ways do you see the potential for God’s restoration of those things in your life and in society, that are wayward – those things that don’t resemble the Kingdom of God?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

We often take for granted that the letters of Paul are actually letters. When we hear them read in church, or in private devotions, we often lose the fact that Paul was writing a letter – opening up a dialogue – with a specific people, in a specific church, in specific region, time and context. The First Letter to the Corinthians in no different. Paul was writing to the Corinthians about certain aspects of their church – problems that they faced in their own, Roman, metropolitan context.

The reading today comes from a section of Paul’s letter known as the “thanksgiving.” It was typical – and rhetorically expected – that first-century letters would begin with a salutation and thanksgiving, usually to a Roman deity. However, Raymond F. Collins, in his analysis “First Corinthians” (Liturgical Press, 1999), points out that Paul subverts this tradition by appealing to the work that Christ is doing, and has done, in the midst of the Corinthian church. In this letter, the thanksgiving has a very eschatological edge – meaning that Paul is looking forward, too, and reminding the Corinthians of the promise of the return of Christ. This foreshadows themes found later in the letter.

Twice in the thanksgiving (vv. 7, 8) Paul reminds the Corinthians of the promise that Jesus would return. Paul’s sentiment has the air of a Markean immediacy – as if Paul is convinced that Jesus could return at any moment. It is easy, when the Bible speaks of the return of Christ, to get lost in the uncertainty and mythos surrounding this item of faith.

However, Paul is clear about what this expectation should do for us, as Christians: exercise and hone one’s spiritual gifts, and work to be blameless. This is not a call for the Corinthians to work harder; Paul’s exhortation is matched by his belief that “God is faithful.” Paul reminds us that it is God who called us through the revelation and person of Jesus Christ. In this way, God will not forget or abandon us; God is preparing us, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to be prepared and blameless before the reign of God is fully realized on earth. Paul is calling the Corinthians, and us, to work toward the ends of the Kingdom of God – undergirded by the faithfulness of God through the life and revelation of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

What are your spiritual gifts? Which ones would you like to hone and improve?

How are you working toward the reality of the Kingdom of God in your church and community? How is the Holy Spirit working in those places, and how can you participate in that work?

Mark 13:24-37

Mark, despite its position in the New Testament, is, historically, the first gospel written – the gospel closest to the ministry of Christ. Key themes, often attributed to its early nature, include the “Messianic Secret” (that Jesus’ nature as the Messiah was a secret known only to a select few), rhetorical immediacy of the gospel message (often identified by Mark’s use of the word “immediately”), as well as Mark’s “eschatological immediacy” (Jesus was coming back, and soon, so we all must be ready).

Narratively, this reading comes during the section of Mark’s Holy Week narrative where the story slows down, and Jesus does a lot of talking. This passage concludes what scholars call Jesus’ “Little Apocalypse” – Jesus looking to the future and proclaiming the mysteries of heavenly things. We often think of Revelation or of the TV show “The Walking Dead” when we think of the word “apocalypse,” but as John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington remind us in their analysis “The Gospel of Mark” (Liturgical Press, 2002), in Jesus’s time, and throughout the Bible, the word “apocalypse” describes a genre of literature that tends to be prophetic and forward thinking. This passage is no different.

One of the ways to read this passage – the image of the Coming Son of Man, the warning metaphor of the fig trees and the call to prepare for the return of the Messiah – is to recognize the dual nature of the comments. The writer of Mark is using Jesus to speak to two parties: his disciples (historically), and to all Christians reading the gospel (narratively). Imagine the writer of Mark using Jesus’ apocalypse as a means of breaking the third wall – Jesus is speaking beyond the narrative setting and talking directly to the reader.

Moreover, what is Jesus saying? After affirming the divinity of Jesus as the Son of Man (v. 24-27), Jesus uses the fig tree and the warning about the impending apocalypse to get the reader’s attention. Mark, through Jesus, is calling Christians into a deeper life of faith and call, calling on them to be prepared for the immediate return of Christ, that they might be ready to join in the work of the Kingdom. (Think of Markean themes.)

Verse 33 is a nice summary of this call: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” The passage is calling Christians to live lives with an eye on the future – and an eye on the fulfillment of the work that God started in the revelation of Jesus Christ. This is an important reminder during the Advent season: We are not only looking forward to the commemoration of the birth of Christ, but we are the church expectant, waiting for God’s reconciliatory work to be fulfilled.

Have you considered how the work of God is made manifest in your life?

How are you participating in making the world look more like the Kingdom of Heaven?

Reflect on whether your faith feels important or immediate. How will you try to express or find that during Advent?

 

FROM THE ARCHIVE

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Comments

  1. Nancy J. Hagner says:

    Thanks, Ben, for excellent and helpful analysis!

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