This Sunday marks the transition from Year A to Year B in our lectionary. We've spent most of the last liturgical year (Advent through the Season after Pentecost) in Matthew's gospel account. I make it no secret that his is not my favorite. In part, that's because Matthew is harsher, rougher, than his other three counterparts, but mainly it's because the other three have charming qualities about them that Matthew seems to lack. Mark is direct and sparse, leaving the biggest conclusions up to the reader. Luke is compassionate and poetic, offering some of our favorite underdog stories that are found no where else. John is...John, far-reaching and perhaps overstated. Matthew is none of those things. Matthew is just Matthew.
After three weeks of judgment parables from Matthew 25, I'm ready for a change. I'm ready for a different tone. I'm ready for Mark, which is my favorite account. I'm ready for Advent. I'm ready for...
More judgment? Sigh. Yes, of course. The last three weeks have featured parables about the coming of the Son of Man, who will judge the world, and this Sunday's lesson from Mark 13 is largely more of the same. Go back and read Matthew 24 and then compare it with Mark 13. Both are private words spoken only to the disciples. Both begin with a foreboding description of destruction. Both end with parables that urge the disciples to be prepared for the coming judgment. I'm starting to wonder whether we've changed anything at all. Instead of going forward, we've actually gone back.
Keep watch. Be on your guard. You do not know when the time will come. These are the words of Advent. They have also undergirded the gospel readings we have heard over the last several weeks. Are we supposed to hear them any differently during Advent? Does the season change the ability of our hearts and minds to hear them? As we await both the coming of the Son of Man and the commemoration of the coming of the Son of God in Bethlehem, do we encounter these words of judgment from a different perspective?
While it's a mistake to ignore Advent and make these next four Sundays merely Christmas-prep, I also think it's a mistake to think that the changing season doesn't shift how we hear the announcement of the judge's coming. This is a season of joyful expectancy--not fearful waiting. No matter how hard the preacher tries to help a congregation hear Jesus' words of sheep and goats with joy, that can be an impossible task. Advent, however, opens up new possibility. I'm reading the words of Isaiah 64 as a timely and desperate plea for God's intervention. That helps me hear Mark 13 as a promise of salvation. The biblical context might be the same, but the liturgical setting has shifted. May we hear the announcement of judgment with joy and not fear. Perhaps the proper preface says it best:
Because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.