This week’s lessons

Welcome to Advent, and year B in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). We have a lot of changes from Ordinary Time that we’ve been in since our class started in August. Before we dive into the readings for this week, let’s get oriented to where we are.

Last week ended Year A in the RCL’s three-year cycle through the Bible. You’ll remember that we spent a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew, and that our Old Testament readings were chiefly about the Patriarchs and Exodus.

This Sunday we start Year B. Our Gospel readings will mostly come from Mark, although we will have other Gospel readings as well. We will talk about those as we get to them.

Our Ordinary Time readings will be about the kings (especially King David), but we won’t be in Ordinary Time until Pentecost in May. Until then our first reading will correspond to the Gospel reading. (So will the Psalm and second reading.)  For the first few weeks of this year we will be in the book of Isaiah.

So, we are in Year B. We are also in the season of Advent, the first season of the church calendar. When you see the paraments on the altar, they will be blue. This is the only time of year we have blue on the altar, so it’s easy to remember. But what exactly is Advent?

First I’ll just say what it isn’t. It isn’t “pre-Christmas” or “Christmas lite” at all. Advent is the four weeks before Christmas when we look forward to Jesus’ coming, and not merely his coming as a baby. It’s a time of shadows and quiet, of looking at ourselves and preparing our hearts for the NEXT time Jesus comes. We are to use Advent to reflect on what Jesus’ coming into the world will do, not merely what it did do. That’s why, when we read some of the lessons during this season, they will seem a little strange. They aren’t about a baby who WAS born. They are about a king who WILL come.

Last year my kids went to Austria on a school choir and band trip. They had been chosen to participate in an Advent choral festival that the city of Vienna holds every year. It was a truly amazing opportunity, but it was also interesting because the list of songs they could sing was, to our American and Protestant eyes, very limited. No “First Noel,” “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” There was a Latin song about Emmanuel’s coming. The songs were mostly pensive and even penitent. What a sharp contrast to the bustling Christmas markets just outside, but what a truly wonderful antidote to a month that can feel too filled with expectations and demands and forced happiness. I hope that sometime during the month ahead you can sit with some of the readings and just ponder the mysteries of them.

Now that we’ve talked a bit about Advent, let’s talk about the readings for this week. Typically we read the first reading first, like you might expect. But for now I’d like to begin with the Gospel reading for the week. Then we will use the other readings to open up the Gospel.

Mark 13:24-37

My goal during these lessons is to orient us in the readings, in the hopes that context will help enlighten your hearing of the lessons, and make your time at worship even more meaningful. So let’s get oriented to the book of Mark first.

Mark is the shortest of the three synoptic Gospels, and is widely held to be the oldest. Beyond that, though, we don’t really know much about Mark. He might have been an assistant to Peter, but we aren’t really sure. It’s even unclear if he was Jewish and writing to fellow Jewish believers, or if he was a Gentile writing to Gentile Christians. Either way, we can learn a ton from his Gospel.

Remember that the last several weeks’ readings in the book of Matthew took place during the week before the Crucifixion. In particular Matthew 24 and 25 record Jesus’ conversation with His disciples about His return. Today’s reading from Mark covers exactly the same time period, and Jesus is (again) talking to His disciples. As a matter of fact, we know from Mark 13:3 that Jesus was talking to Peter, James, John, and Andrew specifically. He even was sitting on the Mount of Olives as he spoke these words, looking directly at the Temple! Mark really set the scene for us.

Our passage begins with “those days”–but what days? Jesus had just foretold the destruction of the Temple. His disciples asked, “When, Lord?” and Jesus answer starts earlier in the chapter, foretelling a lot of destruction. The period “those days” refers to the period before his return. Some people say this is the time of the Tribulation.

Today’s passage is broken into three pieces:

  • 24-27:  What will happen. Jesus describes the failure of the laws of nature as the universe collapses. Think of that!
  • 28-31:  Know the signs. We all know how to read different signs in our lives. For instance, right now I have to watch our new dog. If she even approaches a door, it means she has to go out RIGHT THEN. Trust me, I have to be vigilant for that sign! Jesus is telling us to learn and understand the signs he’s given earlier in Chapter 13.
  • 32-37:  Be alert! It’s not enough to know the signs. You have to be ready to apply them.

Go back and read v. 26. We know now how Jesus left the earth in His ascension. But the disciples didn’t when Jesus spoke these words–it hadn’t happened yet! And yet, Jesus describes His return in exactly the way that he leaves in Acts 1. I like the idea of Jesus coming back in the same way He left us.

Old Testament Reading:  Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah was written while Jerusalem was under threat from the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. These threats took place over several hundred years, so it’s likely there are three authors of Isaiah. We’ll have opportunities to talk about the book of  Isaiah later so we will stop here with a review. Know for now that Isaiah articulates loss, especially in chapters 1-39, and hope, especially in chapters 40-66.

This reading finds us almost at the end of Isaiah, where the hope is for restoration after the Babylonian exile. But it also articulates hope in a Savior who will restore us to wholeness, as well.

For our reading today, listen in the early verses for a similar apocalyptic vision as we heard in the opening lines of the Matthew reading. And then, the penitence. We are your people, Lord, and we need you to rescue us. Don’t do it because we are good. Do it because we are Yours.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Again, a plea for restoration.

New Testament Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Corinth was a city known far and wide for its “anything goes” attitude towards life. Paul had served as pastor to this congregation for a year and a half, teaching them what it meant to live out the Gospel. But after he had left, they had let the culture around them infiltrate their behavior as Christians, and it wasn’t going well. Paul wrote this first letter to help get them back on the right track, reminding them of all they had learned while he was with them.

I love the greetings Paul uses in his letters. There’s no doubt, before he gets to the hard things he needs to say, that he is saying it out of love and affection. Our reading today contains a portion of that greeting (v. 3).

He moves on to say that the congregation has been given every spiritual gift, that they are “not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v.7) What are the spiritual gifts for? They are to be used in the waiting period–in other words, right now! Our gifts are to help us to learn the signs and to stay alert and watchful.

Paul ends with reassurance that we will have strength as well as the spiritual gifts so we will be “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We can count on this because, as Paul says, “God is faithful.”

I love how this folds into the Gospel–Jesus tells us what to do, that we need to stay alert. And here is Paul reminding us that we have not only the strength but the gifts to carry out the Gospel until Jesus returns.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! I hope you gained something. Our class meets most Sundays at 9 at Word of God Lutheran Church in Peachtree City, Georgia. Everyone is welcome.

We will be back in Mark next week for the 2nd Sunday in Advent.