Next in this week’s reading for Advent, we encounter the imagery of the fig tree to represent the changes that the Jesus community was witnessing and being impacted by. These changes were like the buds on a fig tree, signs that the political, economic, religious and social seasons were changing. The Jesus community had just witnessed the stressful events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and in the wake of the tragic events that followed it. Their whole world was either in the process of being turned upside down or just had been.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
It is in this context that Mark’s author encourages their fellow Jesus community to be on watch, alert and ready for what was to come next, and to hope that what would come next would be the return of their Jesus. Consider this passage from Paul:
“Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
It is helpful to remember that our reading this week was possibly written as far as two decades after Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. A lot had happened in this region of the world between the era of Jesus ministry and then, and the area looked very different during the late 60s and early 70s C.E. than it did during the late 20s and early 30s C.E. It was important to encourage Jesus followers to hang in there, not to lose hope, and keep following the teachings of Jesus as they looked for the advent God’s just future to arrive any time.
There are also portions of Mark where Jesus announces God’s just future had already arrived as in the very first chapter of Mark:
“The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God has come! Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
But again, that was in the late 20s or early 30s. In the context of thinking about Advent, if Mark was written around Jerusalem’s destruction in the late 60’s or early 70s, it would’ve been a hard or even impossible sell to say God’s just future had come. The Jesus community of that era could much more easily attach their hopes on the future than to the tensions and tragedies before their very eyes.
What implications might this forward look of hope offer us today?
(Read Part 3)