Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
6 December 2020
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
If you have ever read the Gospel of Mark from the beginning to the end, and this is a good one to start with because it’s the shortest of the four gospels, you will have noticed that Mark has two endings, one shorter and one longer one (most Bibles mark it as such).
That these are in fact two different endings is supported by ancient manuscripts of which the older ones only know the first ending but the (slightly) newer ones also have the second ending.
It is assumed that when the Gospel of Mark was first read, many found the shorter ending unsatisfactory, for it barely tells of the resurrection, and the risen Lord does not appear to anyone. So the second ending gives us – in short form – a few of the resurrection appearances of the other Gospels and ends with a brief telling of Jesus’ ascension, followed by a verse about the disciples telling the Good News everywhere. That last verse is reminiscent of the great commission in Matthew where Jesus instructs his disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey his commandments.
And while the last editors of Mark were obviously familiar with at least Matthew and Luke, their point was not to rehash those two, but to make sure Mark had a proper ending and that the Good News of Jesus was proclaimed.
They wrote the longer ending because the original ending of the Gospel of Mark is this: on resurrection morning Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb to embalm the body of Jesus, as a last act of their love. While they are still wondering about who would roll away the stone for them, they come to the grave which is open and God’s messenger greets them. The messenger says, ‘Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised; he’s no longer here. You can see for yourselves that the grave is empty. Now go on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.’
The last verse of this original ending of Mark is this: They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they said nothing to anyone.1
You see that this wouldn’t have seemed like a good ending to at least some readers, and ever since people have wondered why Mark would end his telling of the Good News of Jesus on such a sad and depressing note. After all, does he not start the telling of the Good News by making clear right from the outset that Jesus is the Christ, that he is the Messiah, the Redeemer Israel had been waiting for, and that Jesus is the Son of God (as today’s reading proclaims)? So how could Mark end in such sad fashion?
It is certainly possible that Mark finished by speaking of the church’s fear and silence – which we probably all know something about – after all religion and politics are things you aren’t supposed to talk about, even though they are perhaps the most important things there are – because he wanted his readers to see that fear may lead to silence, not the silence of wonder but the silence of intimidation, and that if they gave in to their fear, no one might ever know the thing that changed their lives and the cosmos.
And yet I think that those who added to the Gospel of Mark, didn’t realize that the original editor had something else in mind: The end should take the reader right back to the beginning. Mark’s Gospel is like a book you want to read over and over again.
But the reason readers are to go back to the beginning is because that is where Jesus is to be found: Among them. Yes, Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, but that does not mean that Jesus is not present in the world, with his disciples, with the church.
We may make the same mistake when we look at apocalyptic texts, like last Sunday’s reading from chapter 13 as all about the Second Coming, rather than Jesus being here, ruling us and ruling among us.
In some ways it is easier to imagine Jesus at the second coming because we would presume to have time then, not needing to rearrange our lives too soon. We could carry on as if faith was all about ascribing to certain propositions about God without any immediate effect on today, save perhaps for Jesus healing us when we’re sick. Not that Jesus couldn’t or wouldn’t, but that’s not all Jesus is about.
In Mark’s telling of Jesus we learn that at his baptism by John (which today’s reading is leading towards), is the moment of Jesus inauguration, the moment God’s reign has begun. When Jesus is baptised, the heavens are torn asunder.
Mark Blount speaks of God’s invasion in Jesus. “Into this context, Jesus invades. Into the midst of this context, God invades Jesus (1:10). Mark is provocatively intentional with his vocabulary when he tells us that, at Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends into him, possesses him. At 3:20-22, Jesus’ opponents rightly recognize that Jesus is possessed by something inhuman; they blaspheme, according to Jesus, because they proclaim the invasive force to be of Satan not of God.”2
Now, you know me well enough to know that I wouldn’t say that Jesus is possessed by something inhuman, he is possessed by God in whose image we are made, because he is God. I would rather say that Jesus reveals to us what it means to be human and enables us to be human, by allowing us to be reconciled to God and to be restored in God’s image.
But what becomes clear is that Jesus is not absent but present and his reign is among us. We are not just waiting for him to come. Yes, we wait for is the consummation of all things through the One who is all in all. But we also know that he is already here.
Thanks be to God.
1Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message
2Brian K. Blount, Invasion of the Dead – Preaching Resurrection, Louisville, KY: 2014 Westminster John Knox, page 85