It’s one of the most puzzling, difficult claims in the Bible, especially for Christians, and we get to hear it every First Sunday of Advent, which is also the First Sunday of the liturgical Christian New Year. Woo hoo, the new leg of the faith journey sure gets off with a bang each and every time!
I’m talking about Jesus’ insistence that His “Second Coming” will take place before His original generation of followers has died. Every First Sunday of Advent the gospel lectionary text is one of Jesus’ ‘apocalyptic speeches’ containing the good and sure news that the world will end before the end of the first century CE.
This years “First Sunday” gospel text was Mark 13:24-37. It includes Jesus bold assertion that “…this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” These referred-to “things” include “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory, …send(ing) out the angels, and gather(ing) his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (13:30)
Ya know, that could put a dent in one’s merry Christmas (and of course austere Advent) spirit as they prepare to raise the roof in praise for the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, King of King, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace and Hope of the World only to be made aware, right off the bat, that when the Son of God grows up He’s going to be, well, …wrong.
Christian theologians and writers from the earliest times have struggled to know what to do with Jesus’ apparent miscalculation. As the second generation of believers came on the scene it looks like the gospels were expanded to include Jesus’ teaching there may be a delay in His return and all must faithfully wait and pray.
In fact, but a few lines after his stunning (mis)prediction in Mark, Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (13:32)
Maybe Jesus is here…hedging His bets??
Beloved Christian thinker and writer C.S. Lewis, in one of his latest works, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays (1960) wrestled with all of this and concluded, “The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side … the facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself ignorant [by claiming a wrong time of return], and within a moment showed that he really was so [by not knowing the day or time]. To believe in the Incarnation, to believe that he is God, makes it hard to understand how he could be ignorant; but also makes it certain that, if he said he could be ignorant, then ignorant he could really be. For a God who can be ignorant is less baffling than a God who falsely professes ignorance” (p. 97)
Of course, it ruffles the feathers of MANY that God (Jesus) could be suggested to be ignorant, even if it comes from the pen of one of the faith’s most beloved thinkers and writers. Mr. Lewis did acknowledge in any case, Mark 13:30 is “certainly the most embarrassing verse of the Bible.” (ibid)
With that in mind, might/how might our understanding of this “most embarrassing” text be aided if we look at it through comic lenses?
For one thing, from the comic perspective, a Jesus flub (and there is more than one, imho) is always a good thing! It “lowers” Jesus' otherwise extremely high status and brings Him more integrally into the universe of clowns, crazies, children and crones with which the Bible, from a comic perspective, is filled. If Jesus is right all the time, He remains distant to us; Jesus' flaws bring Him, and the God He fully embodies, close, and colorfully so.
Plus, we learn more from a Son of Man who is, surprisingly, a lot like us. God never stops loving Jesus one iota whether He misspeaks or not (and then hedges His bets!); maybe that’s supposed to teach us that God loves us in spite of and through our mistakes and misinterpretations. Especially as we then seek to ameliorate them when we realize we’ve been off-base.
In addition, it could very well be that although Jesus was convinced His Second Coming would be super-dramatic like all the predicted Messianic Second Comings of His day were imagined to be, maybe His return – the real deal – was something quite different and unexpected. As pal, former President of Claremont School of Theology and President of Common Cause, the late Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, once told me, “Maybe Jesus’ resurrection was really His Second Coming.”
Maybe His return – God’s return - after dying on the unimaginably horrible and shameful cross, was the act that broke the Empire’s evil hold on life and, subversively, ushered in God’s Realm. Jesus may not – like we may not – have thought that was big deal enough, so He/we found/find all sorts of reasons why the Second Coming with all the bells and whistles is still on its way.
We can, however, joyfully and knowingly laugh as we hear Jesus’ gaffe at Mark 13:30 much like we’d joyfully and knowingly laugh if we heard the guy who invented Post-it notes go on and on about how next time he WILL invent the permanent adhesive he’d been tasked to create.
Finally (or in addition to the addition), by becoming aware right off the bat -- on the First Sunday of Advent/the Christian New Year -- that the One who we follow and through whom we find salvation is the Son of God, but not foolproof, adds to His mystery. Yes, Jesus’ flub makes Him more like us but also less like the fantasy of how God-With-Us should look and act. It becomes more imperative than ever that we drop our assumptions about the Divine and be open to the unexpected.
Like an audience who’s heard the set up for a joke and awaits the punch line, knowing it’s going to startle, amuse, delight and engender the beloved community that laughter always does – that’s how Advent, from the comic lens, should prepare us for Christ’s coming. Thankfully, Mark 13:30 sure gets the ball rolling!