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NOVEMBER 30, 2008: FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Readings: 

Isaiah 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

Both Paul and Mark work from a premise most Christians today don’t hold: that Jesus is returning in the Parousia during our lifetime. At the same time, both presume something all Christians through the centuries should believe, yet find difficult to accept: that God has gifted us with specific gifts and talents in order to build up the Body of Christ, no matter when Jesus returns.

Throughout history, followers of Yahweh have been convinced that God expects them to do certain things and not others. Five hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Third-Isaiah, like Paul and Mark, expects a moment of judgment. Though not on the level of Jesus’ Parousia, the prophet is convinced Yahweh will do something dramatic to demonstrate his presence among his people. When that salvific event takes place, Yahweh’s people will stand out in contrast to others by the actions they perform. The worst thing that could happen at that point of history would be that Israelites will be doing the same things non-believers are doing.

“Would that you would meet us doing right,” the prophet pleads, “that we were mindful of you in our ways! . . . We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon your name, who cause themselves to cling to you.”

Though Paul agrees with Third-Isaiah’s warning, as a follower of Jesus he adds another dimension to what God expects of us. As I mentioned above, the Apostle is convinced that Jesus’ Spirit has gifted us with specific talents and abilities. The problem he faces in Corinth is that some have used their gifts not to build up the community but to tear it apart. Within a few chapters he’ll specifically confront those who have dismembered the Body of Christ with their “gift of speech and knowledge.”

Paul never “prays for vocations.” He’s convinced what the community needs from God the community already has. “The witness I have to Christ has been so confirmed among you that you lack no spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Apostle would be amazed that when our children are confirmed they’re taught to memorize not his “gifts of the Holy Spirit” which we find in I Corinthians 12, but the gifts of the perfect Jewish king which we find in Isaiah 11. Instead of prophecy, healing and administration, they’re expected to learn about piety, counsel and fear of the Lord. Makes us wonder if we really know what gifts the Spirit is providing us.

In Paul’s view of the church, all his I Corinthians 12 spiritual gifts are already present in every local community. Leaders simply are expected to have the gift of first recognizing others’ gifts, then employing their talents and abilities for the good of all. That seems to be one of the reasons Mark’s Jesus makes an issue of watchfulness. Though the evangelist still expects Jesus’ Parousia in his lifetime, in his “apocalyptic” chapter 13, he also talks about the risen Jesus’ knack of coming into our lives on a daily basis. Mark warns, “Do not let him come suddenly and catch you asleep. What I say to you, I say to all: Be on guard!”

Integrating Paul and Mark’s insights, we better understand how God works in our lives. Instead of prayerfully demanding God provide us the gifts we think we need, in the way we need them, we’re to be alert to a God who constantly showers us with the gifts he thinks we need, in the way he believes we need them.

St. Louis University Scripture professor Frank Cleary once remarked in class that we often find ourselves praying fervently for rain while we’re standing in the middle of a downpour holding an umbrella over our heads. Perhaps we should pray more fervently for leaders who will help us fold up our umbrellas.