I can just imagine that some priests may take the readings for the First Sunday of Advent and weave them into a call to go to Confession during Advent. The promise of “salvation” and “redemption” for those who admit their guilt and sin and call upon the name of the Lord, from the Old Testament readings, may be presented as a carrot, while the Gospel reading about being watchful may be deployed as a stick, warning listeners about the peril of hellfire for those who suddenly meet their end without being sacramentally “prepared.” But is this a fair reading of these passages?
The common exegetical violence done to these passages begins with the heavy redacting of the Old Testament texts. The lectionary text from Isaiah chapters 63 and 64 seems to implore a fatherly God to rescue the Israelites from their Babylonian exile, who promise to be more obedient and respectful children if God will get them out of this predicament that they must have brought upon themselves in their rebelliousness. But if you read the whole of these chapters, it is clear that the Israelites are imploring God to visit violent vengeance on their oppressors. The reference to “bloody rags” or “polluted garments” isn’t a confession of personal wrong-doing, but a complaint that their status has been reduced to the helplessness and lack of honor of menstruating women in their culture. There is no acceptance of personal responsibility for any sinfulness; rather they blame God for hardening their hearts and causing them to stray (Isaiah 63:17). And calling God “redeemer” isn’t a pretty picture we might construct from listening to Handel’s Messiah; it’s the bloody role of an avenger, as my fellow Patheos author, Bill Harvelle, recently explained. The full text of Psalm 80 is not explicitly violent, but its cry for God to notice the shame and distress of His chosen tribe and rescue them is essentially the same. Nowhere in these passages are specific wrongdoings confessed.
The second reading from First Corinthians turns away from prayers for vengeance, but it still suggests nothing about personal responsibility or confession. “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 1:8). St. Paul suggested in the opening of this Epistle that God had already turned his face and made the Corinthian believers favored “good children.” “The day of our Lord Jesus Christ” to Paul did not mean a personal judgment day, but God’s rule replacing Roman and other oppressive rulers over the Israelites. Paul was talking about assurance that Jesus’s followers would be part of the victorious side whenever Jesus returned to vindicate them.
Finally, we come to the Gospel passage from Mark 13, a chapter which in some Bible translations is given the opening header “Destruction of the Temple Foretold.” The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD was part of an earth-shaking episode of genocide against the Jewish people, and an event that dashed the hopes Paul had stoked of a restoration of righteous self-governance to his people. Jesus followers had to re-tool their expectations and understanding of the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection after this catastrophe. The transcription of the Gospels we know today as Mark, Matthew, and Luke arose from this development. The circulating oral and written tradition contained Jesus’s warning to remain watchful, for an autocratic master who returned from a long journey to find his slave asleep might do God-knows-what to the poor unsuspecting slave. Perhaps Jesus had been trying to help his followers escape the brutal siege of Jerusalem by staying awake? But there is no suggestion in the selected reading, nor in the verses that precede it, that this watchfulness is needed because God might suddenly visit judgment and punishment upon an individual.
So what can we learn from these readings? Perhaps that even the people of God regularly have mistaken notions about who God is and how God operates. The idea that obedience-in, blessings-out, or disobedience-in, misery-out is God’s modus operandi was thoroughly debunked by the life and death of Jesus, the perfectly-obedient son who nonetheless suffered the most tortuous and ignominious of deaths. Neither did a satisfying come-back sequel materialize in the lifetime of the apostles. The loss of loved ones and a key symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites forced the budding “Christian” community to reevaluate what Jesus had been trying to teach them, 40 years after the fact.
Maybe what Jesus is asking us to be watchful for today is signs of God doing something new and unexpected in our world. Maybe what we’re challenged to give up is self-assurance. Maybe we’re asked to get ready for vulnerability overcoming retribution. Maybe a God who would respond to our cries of distress by becoming a helpless infant isn’t a God who actually hardens hearts or destroys enemies. Maybe the voice we should be seeking most this Advent season isn’t a priest assuring us that we’re on the path to heaven, but the still small voice of the Spirit that whispers “the kingdom of God is already here” whenever we love our neighbor as ourselves.