It is impossible to ignore what is going on in the world around us, and as some have speculated as to the stage of the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement in last year’s election, they have tossed around terms like, “beginning of the end,” and “end of the beginning,” for the purpose of trying to guess which it is.
And I have somewhat the same question with respect to what is happening with my University of Illinois football team. This is the first weekend in three months that I have not been focused on one of their games. It has been a rough year: they won only two of twelve games, the first two, and those while Patricia and I were in China.
By the way, I hope this clears up any illusion you might have that I chose to attend Illinois because of its football prowess; a football power Illinois is not. But my pondering is whether this 2-10 season marked the end of its current age of decline, and whether it is thus also holds out hope of the beginning of something better.
That is not an unreasonable possibility; my sophomore year at Illinois was the first year, and one of only two years in its history, that it did not win a single football game, and lest you think that this year’s record should be enough to discourage me about next year, during my senior year — two years after that winless season — Illinois won the Rose Bowl.
That sophomore year also saw my first introduction to biblical study. Since it is a state school, Illinois did not offer religion classes, but one could take up to four credit hours of for-credit-but-with-no-grade-point impact classes offered at one of the campus religious institutions, and that same year I took a course titled, at least it was the title of the book we used as a text, “Through the Gospels to Jesus,” taught by the pastor at the Disciples of Christ Church at the edge of the Engineering campus.
It was in this course that I first became exposed to the concept of the synoptic, which simply means, “seen together,” gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke, — and how they appear to have been written, with Mark’s being the first written and the writers of Matthew and Luke both using Mark, and, as well as their own sources, using the hypothesized, but rather soundly so, at least I buy into the hypothesis, using the hypothesized lost source that we call “Q,” from which come most of the sayings of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke, such as those in the “Sermon on the Mount.”
Each of these three synoptic gospels forms the basis for a church year’s Scripture readings, and the church year that begins today uses Mark, which during Advent represents a special challenge to the preacher, because it is completely silent on Jesus’ birth.
That course’s encounter with Mark’s gospel led directly to my first exposure to one of those fancy theological words, eschatology, a concept that characterizes the Gospel according to Mark, most definitely including the passage we read today. Eschatology is essentially the concept or expectation of an end time, an eschaton, whether, as one source says, the end time of history, or the end of the current age.
What has this to do with the season we begin today, with Advent? Advent can be compared to a period of pregnancy in that we are anxiously awaiting a birth, yet as those who are parents know, when their first child was born, that birth itself represented the end of an age. What had been the current age of sleeping uninterrupted through the night ended abruptly with the birth of a child; the birth marked a sort of eschaton, Yet, in the season of Advent, it still seems strange to deal with an eschatology about an end time rather than to deal with a beginning, yet, well, at a minimum, concern about an end time is the concern of both the writer of Mark in today’s passage and the concern of the apostle Paul, from one of whose early letters we shall take today’s benediction and blessing. As those of you who have been with us the past month as we read from his first letter and first written book of the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, know, Paul expected the imminent occurrence of the ultimate eschaton; Paul expected Jesus to return, and the “present age” — more than that, the world — to end in a short period of time, to end within the life of at least some of those to whom he spoke and wrote, and while it is unclear whether the writer of Mark shared that exact expectation, I do not believe he differed by much.
For Paul felt that he and his contemporaries, and by logical extension, we here today, were and are living in a between time, an already — not yet situation: Jesus has already come the first time, and this changed the world, his coming marked a sort of eschaton, the end of what the world had been before Him. But it was not yet the eschaton, the end time of the world. Even Christina Rossetti’s poem we sang, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” has Mark’s and Paul’s final eschaton idea: “Heaven and earth shall flee away, when he comes to reign.”
I don’t know whether anyone here is expecting the end of the world at the end of Advent, or at any point within any of our lives, yet, as we mark the beginning of Advent, we are certainly anticipating Advent’s, end and with it the beginning of . . . the beginning of . . . or is it the ending of? . . and, in either case, of what?
For what are you and I waiting during Advent? “Christmas,” most certainly, but will the end of Advent mark an eschaton of some sort for us? Will it mark a new beginning of some sort (as I hope next season will mark a new beginning for Illinois football).
I want to try to explore that question of, “For what are we waiting, a beginning or an ending or both?” if not in all three of the sermons that I shall offer between now and Christmas, at least through next week. For if Advent is a time of expectation, of pregnancy, if I might use that term, exactly what might be forming during that pregnancy? What might be ending or beginning, when Advent ends with the arrival, the celebration of the arrival, of God in human form?
. . . and must we wait, or can what has been our “current age” experience its eschaton and our new life begin now!
Where if anywhere do Advent and the Christmas event figure into the timeline of our individual and collective lives? Let us see together if we can come up with some ideas that will help us on our spiritual journey to Bethlehem, and as we begin, let us take spiritual nourishment for the journey from the meal that, as I have said before quoting from, of all unlikely people, the German composer, Richard Wagner, “May this meal be for us what it was for our Lord, the source of nourishment to prepare us for the task, for the spiritual journey, for the Advent waiting, that lies ahead.”
We do not go forth to die, as did he, but to live more faithful lives during Advent and in what lies ahead long after Advent has passed. For we are reminded that, on the night before he died . . .