Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Stability in Unstable Times
Today is the First Sunday of Advent, which marks the beginning of a new church year. Generally, we look forward to new beginnings. They represent a break from the past, which we may want to leave far behind. No doubt it’s easy for most of us to identify with this sentiment today. People have called 2020 the longest year. How desperately we want to leave this year far behind us!
New beginnings are often symbolized by the birth of a baby. Appropriately, the beginning of the church year is associated with the birth of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This event is the one we celebrate with great joy on Christmas Day, in which the Advent season culminates.
But this First Sunday of Advent makes sure we understand that this birth was no ordinary event. That is, it is no mere event that happened in the distant past, preserved only in the collective memory of an odd people somehow still inspired by the story in this late modern age. It is only because and as this event opens up a future for us, for the world, that it is worth remembering at all. It is only because and as the appearing of the Savior in our world in the past is a pledge of the second coming of the Savior into our world in the future that it is worth celebrating at all.
That brings us to the theme of today. The First Sunday of Advent does not look back, but forward. It does not look back at the Christ child in the manger, but forward at Christ the King in the clouds of heaven.
In our Old Testament lesson, this “looking forward” finds expression in a passionate outburst. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isa. 64:1, 2). Israel recalled the first time that God entered into her world. She was enslaved then in Egypt. But God met her there, and revealed his intention to free her from her captivity. God then brought her out through awesome deeds that Israel did not expect (Isa. 64:3). The prophet here is referring to the deeds that together make up the event we know as the exodus.
After this event, God revealed himself at Mount Sinai. The Jewish people call it the Great Revelation. There the the mount quaked at this presence (Ex. 19:16-19). There God came down to be among his people. The prophet remembers this day in Israel’s past. He remembers it, and longs for the day when God will enter into her world a second time. Then it will not only be Mount Sinai that trembles at God’s presence, but all the mountains of the earth. Then it will not only be the nation of Israel that trembles at God’s presence, but all the nations of the earth.
What the prophet Isaiah sees only dimly, as through a glass darkly, Jesus Christ sees with crystal clarity. How can it be otherwise? For he is the one the prophet is longing for. Jesus is the Son of Man, a title he applies to himself, as we saw last Sunday, when we celebrated Christ the King. Then we learned that the title comes from a vision given to the prophet Daniel. In his vision Daniel saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. To this Son of Man belongs dominion and glory and kingship. And all peoples, nations and languages will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will never pass away, and his kingship is one that will never be destroyed (Dan. 7:13-14).
In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples that great signs and portents will accompany the revelation of the Son of Man, the manifestation of his rule. If the prophet foresees the quaking of the mountains of the earth, Jesus foresees the quaking of the entire cosmos. The sun and moon will not give their light. The stars will fall from the heavens.
This is the day for which the prophet is longing, as we have already mentioned. Perhaps too we are longing for this day. But, if we are honest, we have to admit that we are ambivalent. On the one hand, it is a day that fills us with anticipation. But it is a day that also causes us to shudder. It is significant that in the Bible “mountain” is a symbol of stability. For example, the Psalmist says: “when you favored me, O Lord, you made my mountain stand firm” (30:7). This should make sense to us. If we have ever stood before a big mountain, it probably never occured to us to imagine anything powerful enough to move it from its place. There is really nothing that can, at least nothing in our experience. To hear of a power so great that it can cause the mountains to quake, not to mention the heavenly bodies—that is unsettling to us.
I don’t know Spanish, but recently I learned the Spanish word “zozobra.” It is the ordinary word for “anxiety,” but the image that it evokes is that of the wobbling of a ship about to capsize. The term became favored among a group of Mexican authors in the mid-twentieth century. They used it to describe the sense of having no stable ground beneath one’s feet.
Jorge Portilla, one of these authors, observes that this sense becomes most acute when we are uncertain about the direction society is going. According to a recent poll, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that our society is going in the wrong direction. We should hardly be surprised, then, if “zozobra” should characterize the experience of so many Americans today.
Portilla notes that “zozobra” finds expression in four typical reactions people have in the face of an unstable society. The first is that people become prone to self-doubt. This makes them reluctant to take action. If your society appears to you to be unstable and going in the wrong direction, then it won’t be easy for you to make major life decisions. The second is that they become prone to cynicism. We all know people who are cynical, especially about government. They are distrustful of people’s motives, especially politicians’. If people appear honest, it must be that they have a hidden agenda. The third is that they indulge in nostalgia. These people fantasize about returning to a time when things made sense. So many who hear about the times of our parents and grandparents wish they could return to those simpler, happier times. Fourth and finally is the one that relates directly to our theme. When the social world is unstable, people feel vulnerable. This gives rise to apocalyptic thinking. They project the insecurities they feel in their social world onto the natural world. That is why hurricanes and earthquakes and pandemics seem to them to be signs of the end. When our social world is shaken, it is easier to assume the shaking of the natural world and thus the end of the age.
Does this spectacle of quaking mountains and falling stars then mean to terrify us, to aggravate our insecurities? That is not at all the conclusion that Jesus wishes to draw from it. He tells us rather not to give it a second thought. It would do us no good anyway. For we don’t know when this day will arrive. Not even the angels in heaven know. In fact, Jesus, the Son of God, includes himself among those who do not know. Only the Father knows.
It is significant that all these things are in the Father’s hands. It does us good to entrust them to the one Jesus calls Father. The world is safe in his hands. Indeed, there is no safer place it can be. When I was a boy, we used to sing a song in Sunday school: “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Then I grew up, became high school age, and studied the Heidelberg Catechism at Oakwood Church in Belding, Michigan, not too far from here. In it I learned another comforting truth about the Father. It is found in answer to question 26, which asks us what we believe about “God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” In it we find that God not only creates all things but also upholds and rules all things by his eternal wisdom and providence. And because this God is Father, I can trust him. I can trust God to provide whatever I need, and turn to my good whatever adversity I experience in this world.
If “zozobra” is the disease that afflicts so many in our society today, I cannot imagine a better cure than trust in the Father, who is all-good and all-powerful. Perhaps Jesus is telling his disciples here about the Father’s knowledge of the time of the end of the world, because he wants to inspire in them trust in the Father. It’s as if he is saying: “Do not shudder with terror; rather, turn your eyes to your Father. You can trust him.” In this connection we are reminded of the words of the Psalmist: “But I trust in you, O Lord. I say, ‘You are my God. My times are in your hands,’” (31:14-15). Trust in the Father is the antidote to instability.
It is only when we are settled, when our minds are put at ease, that we can focus, which is a condition for working optimally. We all know that. When we are anxious, we are prone to poor judgment, which leads to mistakes and even accidents. It is appropriate, then, that our lesson concludes with a small parable of the sort that we have seen before. Jesus compares our situation of living between the first and second appearings of the Savior and Judge of all the nations with the situation of servants who live on an estate. The owner of the estate has gone on a journey and has placed his servants in charge. He has given them tasks to do. They are to go to work! Note that they are not to speculate about when the owner will return. Nor are they to worry about what his return will mean for them when he finally does come home. They have only to concentrate on the tasks that he has set for them.
Granted, they are not to do their tasks mindlessly; they must carry them out with a certain awareness. That is, they are always to be alert, because they do not know when the owner of the estate will come home. But to be watchful, to be alert, to be awake—these do not come from a place of fear, from “zozobra.” They come from a place of quiet expectancy. And it is necessary. Indeed, without this expectancy, how would they find the motivation to continue in their tasks? “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord,… because you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as your reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving,” as the Apostle Paul tells the Colossian believers (3:23-24). How to stay motivated—that is the challenge. Earlier we learned about the spiritual danger we encounter when the delay is long. We lose motivation and fall asleep. That spiritual danger is present here too. “What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake!” (Mark 13:37).
It is on this command that this First Sunday of Advent concludes. Let us pay heed to this command and diligently carry out the responsibilities that the Lord has entrusted to us. And let us always be attentive to opportunities to remind one another by our words and behavior of the Lord’s appearing. This, after all, is what Advent is all about. But let us always be sure we do so with a quiet expectancy, with a peace that comes from trusting that the Father has all things in his good and powerful hands. Then we will be immune from the disease of “zozobra,” which may be just as contagious as the coronavirus. Then we will be models of stability in unstable times. So come, let us enter into the Advent season as the hopeful and confident people that God has called us to be. Amen.