The Sunday Sermon: First Sunday in Advent – December 3, 2017
Scripture: Mark 13:24-27
Jesus: Son of Man
And so it begins, again. Advent. What a quaint idea it has become. Preparing … really? Waiting … are you serious? Delaying?
Still, here we are again as a Christian faith community following our church calendars, lighting the candles in our wreath, and pulling out all our seasonal traditions, trying once again to provide some contemplative space, some quiet place for “Advent.” In the real world, preparation for Christmas begins in earnest shortly after Halloween. The church and our quaint practices come a little late to the party.
Still, we’re doing all we can to counter the noise outside these walls, if only for an hour a week. We’re entering in silence again this year. Using the preparation of our sanctuary tree to contemplate how our own lives need to be “prepared.” We’re lighting our Advent candles one by one, ticking off the Sundays before Christmas day. Our liturgy, our music, anthems and offertories are seasonal.
And so are our sermons.
We’re going to explore, in our limited hours together, what it is and who it is we’re doing this all for, all this waiting and all this preparing. I think I say it every year on the first Sunday in Advent, but I’ll say it again with honest hope: Maybe this year we’ll get it.
Maybe … Pray with me …
We prepare and wait for the coming of something that, we say, changes our very lives. We prepare and wait for a “Way” and a “Truth” that, we say, we will follow and that we, ourselves, will offer to the world. This “something,” this Way and this Truth, we say, came in human form. That is radically unique in the world religions. The primary revelation of the reality we most commonly “God” is a human being for Christians.
But who was he, who is he?
He goes by many names, as you know, and many of the most provocative ones are given to him after his death and the experience of his Resurrection. But, many names intended then, and now, were intended to reflect what he meant to and did for the men and women that knew him best and for us, still, two thousand years later: Rabbi, Healer, Prophet; Good Shepherd, Great Physician, True Vine; Lamb of God, King of Kings, Risen Lord; the Way, the Truth, the Life; Savior, Messiah, Christ; to name just a few.
Some of the names, the titles, the “designations,” are most often, if not always, saved for this Season of Advent. Again, there are many, but to name a few: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace; Branch of David, Son of the Most High, Son of God; Emmanuel – God with us, Jesus.
Shawn and I will be delivering the sermons on our Sunday mornings together this Advent in Pewee Valley. Ashia and Christiaan and our Youth will be preparing and leading the early evening Christmas Eve service. We will all be trying (again) to better understand what these names meant so that we may understand better what this human being meant, so that we may understand better what our lives are supposed to mean in this world because of him.
This morning, as I trust you already know by the sermon title, we’ll explore a name I haven’t yet spoken: Son of Man. Listen for the Word of God.
Read Mark 13:24-27 …
When I was much younger, but already a teenager, this title “Son of Man” was more intriguing to me than even “Son of God.” “Son of Man” seemed to include me. In a way I’m sure I couldn’t have articulated at the time, I felt more connected to Jesus whenever this title was used for him. Well into my own adulthood, “Son of God” most immediately designated Jesus as divine and “Son of Man,” whenever I heard or used it indicated that he was human. This interpretation I found out, for better or worse, is most inadequate. Who is the “Son of Man?”
Like so many other Jewish images, “Son of Man” had been defined in Jewish history long before it was applied to Jesus of Nazareth. It was a dominant and prominent concept in apocalyptic writing. Son of Man occurs more than seventy-five times in the New Testament alone, including its presence in this morning’s Advent lectionary reading from what is known as the “Little Apocalypse” in the Gospel of Mark. It is a title that came to be associated with a day of judgment. But it doesn’t appear to have started out that way.
It first shows up first in the writings of Ezekiel in the early years of the sixth century B.C.E. Ezekiel was the prophet carried into the exile by the Babylonians in 596 B.C.E. His use of this title seems to mean little more than name by which God addressed the prophet. You may remember: Son of Man, stand upon your feet and I will speak to you 2:1; Son of Man, can these bones live? 37:3 It next appears in the Psalms, most of which were written during the exile or after, and meant something similar, pretty simply “humankind.” Son of Man was a poetic (and chauvinistic!) parallelism for “humans” and “humanity” in ancient writings and poetry.
When the ancient Israelites began to return from their Babylonian exile and as they attempted to rebuild their nation, their temple, and their city wall, the prophetic voice, which had given guidance to Kings and peasants alike for millenia, was replaced by the Torah, the law. “If we just follow the law we will be righteous and maybe none of this will happen again.”
Moses, as the purported author of those first five books began to take on more importance than even the prophets. A new deliverer, a human deliverer, one like the Moses of old who talked intimately with God, who freed his people from oppression, and whose death was shrouded in mystery, began to creep into the imaginations of this oppressed people.
Though they had returned to their homes after the great exile, the ancient Israelites were always in the middle of Empires clashing. In the years between 200 B.C.E. and 135 C.E., the Jewish plight was the most severe in their history, so far. They were “at home, but they were a conquered people, as they’d been for centuries, now under the Macedonian Empire. After the death of Alexander the Great the empire was divided up among his generals and Greek culture, language, and religion was forced on all conquered peoples. The tiny land of the Jews proved to be the most resistant to this assimilation. When Antiochus IV, known as Epiphanes came to the throne in 175 B.C.E., the Jews encountered the cruelest king they could imagine. Jewish worship was destroyed, Jewish customs were violated, Jewish holy places were removed, and Jewish resistors were executed. It was in this painful and tragic environment that apocalyptic writing flourished, and it was in the Book of Daniel that the image and figure of the “Son of Man” emerged again with a new meaning.
Daniel’s vision begins with “four great beasts” arising from a stormy sea. The first three beasts were “like a lion … like a bear … (and) like a leopard.” The fourth beast was almost indescribable, “different from all the beasts that preceded it,” possessing great iron teeth and ten horns. The four beasts represented the Babylonian, Medean, Persian, and Macedonian Empires, the succession of dominant powers under which Israel had suffered, with the last being the current and most fearsome of them all.
In Daniel’s vision God, as the Ancient One, accompanied by a heavenly tribunal, enters the scene, opens the record books, judges, condemns, and slays the final, grotesque beast. Then, instead of multiple “ones like a beast,” there appears a single “one” who is “like a son of man,” being carried of the clouds of heaven (clouds being always the means of transportation between earth and heaven) into the presence of God. To this figure was given dominion, glory, and kingdom. All other nations were to serve the just rule of this one whose throne would last forever, never passing away.
The “Son of Man” – the “one in human likeness” – was Israel, another metaphor for the suffering servant, the remnant who would accomplish the messianic purpose of Isaiah 2 where swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, where nation does not lift up sword against nation, and where none shall learn war any more.
Like the servant in Isaiah, the “Son of Man” became a title used for the expected messiah who would reproduce the miracles of the exodus, provide bread in the wilderness, and restore Israel. When the early Christians, and when we today call Jesus “Son of Man” we are relating him to the one who, in ancient mythology, sits at the right hand of the Ancient One to be God’s judgment on this world, to lead us out of the wilderness, to be the bread of life, and to begin God’s Kingdom on earth.
That’s a far cry from my simple teenage imagination. And had my Pastor, Reverend Lee Lawhead, preached to me a history such as I just preached to you, I would have glossed over somewhere around “the Babylonian exile,” (too!). But it’s good to know, it’s important to know where this image, this designation, this title – one of many for the human named Jesus – comes from, meant, and so “can mean” for us. And once we’ve asked and answered at least some of the etymological historical questions, we can more confidently and critically ask this Advent, “Really? What, or who, are we waiting for?”
“Son of man” is most directly translated as “one in human likeness,” or more directly from the Hebrew as “a human being.” Might Advent be, at least in part, about the arrival of humanity, true humanity, humanity most fully revealed in the one we call Christ? Might we be the ones we’re waiting for? Worldly empires, exiles and re-entries barely hold our interest. And, beasts, heavenly tribunals, and chariots made of clouds confuse us. But humanity, “ones in human likeness,” “Sons and daughters of human beings?” The possibilities, the potential of understanding ourselves as the expected ones? That makes our minds race and our hearts pound.
As Christianity, and you and I as individual Christians, spend this time – Advent – emphasizing and preparing for the Second over the First Coming, and as we look forward to an apocalypse instead of backward to an incarnation, we find ourselves waiting for God to act when God is waiting for us to act. That understanding leaves us with these conclusions: The Second Coming, that which we are waiting for, is not an event that we should expect to happen soon. The Second Coming is not an event that we should expect to happen violently. The Second Coming will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with the Divine Presence already here.
We’re exploring, in our limited hours together, what it is and who it is we’re doing this all for, all this waiting and all this preparing. In the image of the “Son of Man,” we just may be closer than we think to finding out. I say it every year on the first Sunday in Advent, but I’ll say it again with honest hope: Maybe this year we’ll get it. Maybe this year Christ will truly come again in the human likenesses of you and me.
Might it be so? Let’s wait and see Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / December 3, 2017