Mark 13: 24 “But in those days, following that distress, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. 28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
And so it is the season of Advent, the First Sunday even. As we read this passage at the Sermon Roundtable Breakfast last Tuesday, someone asked, “So is Advent about celebrating that the Lord has come, or that the Lord shall come?” The answer?
Yes. The Lord has come; the Lord shall come. Happy Advent, past and future!
But you wouldn’t know that from all the department store Nativity scenes or the Christmas cards we get. We get and send beautiful Christmas cards with sweet, peaceful manger scenes by famous painters like Bruegels or Rembrandt, and I love them all. But never have I seen a Christmas card with Michelangelo’s painting of The Last Judgment. We’re all into the mangers and wise men, sheep and shepherds of Christ’s first Advent. But when it comes to separating the sheep from the goats at the his Second Advent, that one doesn’t get its own holiday shopping sprees.
And yet Advent is about both: Christ has come, and Christ shall come again. Some people were ready for his first Advent: some were not. Christ wants his disciples to be ready for his second Advent, and for what comes before then. And that’s what makes today’s gospel text both fruitful and difficult. Just what does come next? These words of Jesus are about events that happened already, long ago, and they are about events that are yet to happen. Knowing which words are about the future, and which are about the past though, is not easy.
Thirty years ago I was much more certain about how to interpret Mark 13. As a young, new Christian, reading such books about Bible prophecy as The Late Great Planet Earth, I understood this passage to be entirely about the impending return of Christ, the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of the new one. According to such books, it should be any day now, now that Arab countries have attacked Israel. That was in 1973. Oh, the European Union just got another member nation: that makes 10, like the 10 horns of the beast in Revelation. Well, that was eight or nine member countries ago. Oh, and now the Russians have invaded Afghanistan. They must be Gog and Magog in Ezekiel’s prophecies. That was 1980. And now they’re gone from there.
Over time the meaning of this passage has opened up for me in some ways that make it both more powerful for me, and more complex every time I read it. I still believe that Jesus says much here about the direction of time and history, and how a disciple of Jesus should always stand ready for his return, and the final curtain call of history. I still believe that God has the last word in time and history, and that his final word is Jesus.
But I also believe that, when Jesus spoke the words we heard today, Jesus had something more immediate in mind, something more current to that year than the Arab oil embargo of 1973, or whether or not the magnetic bars on our debit cards are the mark of the beast. I get more sure, every time I reread this passage, that he was mostly talking about something that would and did happen in the lifetimes of his disciples and his audience, for he said, “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened,” in verse 30.
That verse in particular has always made me scratch my head: “this generation shall not pass away until these things have happened.” Hmm. Yet the people of that generation who heard Jesus say those words are long dead, and we’re still trying to figure out when these events would come to pass. But now I’m following the lead of the most convincing Bible scholar I’ve read of late, Bishop N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop from the United Kingdom. Bishop Wright says that most of this passage is about something that did indeed transpire in the time of that very generation which heard these very words: the Roman siege and sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the utter destruction of the Jewish temple. After all, Jesus’ words today come on the heels of his warning to his disciples, that soon not one stone of this big beautiful temple you are admiring will be left atop another. It happened, just as he said, forty years later.
Twenty centuries later, we do still fit into this passage. We are the angels. That’s right, the angels in verse 27, who “will gather the elect gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” Because “angel” in the Bible just means “messenger.” Sometimes its clear from the context that we’re talking heavenly messengers; sometimes, the messenger is human. So, I’m sticking my neck out to join the small but growing minority of Bible interpretors who say that we, the church, are the messengers in verse 27 whom God is sending to gather his elect from all over the world, by means of the gospel. As Jesus says, the messengers go forth after the destruction of Jerusalem, and of the Temple, for that tragic event cut the church loose from its apron strings to Zion and the Temple. It released us to go out to the four corners of Creation with the gospel to gather the elect, as we are doing even now. But who knew that it would take us angels over 2,000 years and counting?
Again, Jesus is not answering the question, Will he return on May 22 or October 16, 2011, according to the Family Radio Network, or Will the world end in 2012 when the Mayan calendar ends? More likely, that calendar just starts over.
Jesus has just said that the Temple is doomed. Once the shocked disciples pull their jaws up off the ground, they ask him, When will this happen? Its not quite the “Awesome Deeds” they were expecting.
But that’s the question Jesus is answering in today’s Bible passage: How much longer will this temple stand? Not long, Jesus said. When you see the sun and the moon darken, the stars falling from the sky, you’ll know its destruction is at hand. But in the language of the biblical prophets, sun, moon and stars are symbols of all the grand and glorious things and kings and powers and institutions that people depend upon, as though they were the sun, moon and stars. What you thought were permanent, unshakable institutions of Jewish life and society, Jesus is saying, shall darken and fall on the day when the Romans batter down the gates of Zion and torch the temple, as they did just 40 years later. And Jesus could see it coming, because he is the Son of God, yes. But I also think that anyone with his values and vision could see that Rome and Jerusalem were on a terrible collision course toward war, hurtling toward each other like trains down the parallel tracks of repression and rebellion.
Or we could say that they were sleep-walking toward the precipice of war.
Because we humans are vulnerable to spiritual sleeping sickness. The world and its fears, fashions and illusions have numbing, sleep-inducing effects on the soul—morally and spiritually speaking. That’s what Christian, the pilgrim in John Bunyan’s 16th Century classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, discovered on his way to the Celestial City. One warm, sunny afternoon, as he ascended a long hill, he chose to rest a moment in the shade. But rest turned to a nap, which turned to a long, deep sleep. He awoke just before sunset, in a country where, as the darkness approached, brigands and wild beasts were seeking their prey. He jumped up in a panic, berating himself for having slept so long, and set off again toward the Palace Beautiful, to find shelter for the night. Soon, he realized that he had lost his guidebook, and could only go so far without it. So he had to search all the way back, in the growing gloom, to where he had napped, before he found it. His relief gave way to fear as he said, “I have trod the same road three times which I should have trod but once! How far might I have been by now upon my way…Oh sinful sleep! For your sake, I must walk without the sun,” while the beasts of the darkness prowled about, drawing near.
John Bunyan, a spiritual master, was telling us by this story to never ever underestimate the capacity of the human spirit for sloth, sleep, denial, deadness, numbness and dreamy, fuzzy, wishful, magical thinking. Like when people in First Century Palestine denied and ignored the looming threat of war, even while they stoked the fires of war. Or the ways that so many Americans in the 1980’s drank and drugged and disco-danced ourselves into denial of the danger of nuclear war even while we stockpiled new generations of nuclear weapons.
We can so easily sleep, deluding ourselves into thinking that with the right techniques and technology, with enough money and know-how, we can abuse nature, exploit and scapegoat people, engage in violence, spend or accumulate money that only exists in theory, engage in pornography and risky sexual behavior, but this time without the logical consequences applying to us.
Prosperity, affluence, privilege and power can numb and deaden us to the hunger and suffering of the poor and the needy. And poverty, hunger and oppression can numb and deaden their victims to the grace of God, the goodness of life and “the better angels of our nature.” The sheer busy-ness, distractions and enticements of the world can drown out the call to seek God, and to seek God’s elect across the world and around the corner.
Left to ourselves, we become spiritually and morally like people sitting with their legs crossed, that have fallen asleep and gone numb, to the point of paralysis. Stretch them out and there’s a briefly painful experience as life and strength return to those limbs with the free flow of blood restored. Then the paralysis and pain give way to life, to possibilities and powers of movement.
So it is with every experience of repentance and spiritual awakening: they are briefly painful, but restorative of life. The gospel, that Christ has come, and that Christ shall come again, has such a reviving effect, forcing us to examine our values and our actions, to repent of things we have done and time we have wasted in worldly torpor, to awaken in soul and spirit, thus turning our paralysis into power and practice. Advent is a yearly reminder that into our world of darkness, denial and deadness, a light has dawned, the Morning Star that is Christ, as the prophet Micah called him,”The Sun of Righteousness, risen with healing in rays.”
The main thing Jesus is telling us in this passage is not to fall asleep at the wheel of our mission, but to stay alert and awake. “Do not let [the returning Master] find you sleeping.” Jesus said. If you wish to carry home something today from these words of Jesus, don’t waste time wondering and worrying about the day and hour of Christ’s return. Don’t give the likes of Family Radio network the time of day should they say, “Recalculating!–He’s coming next May 21.” I would hope that we were awake and ready for his return today. I’m hoping it is today.
And that’s the main point of Jesus’ words to his disciples then and today, in verse 36: Watch! Stay awake; or Stay alert! Whether we’re staying alert to the movements of history, like the then-impending war with Rome, or the changes coming upon us today, through climate change, immigration and globalization. Wake up to the needs of the poor and those without gospel hope. Wake up to the movements of God in our souls, and to the impending return of Jesus. Wake up! And stay awake!
The Christian life is an awakening to wakefulness. The Christian life is about learning to stay awake and alert while the world is distracted and asleep, staying alert to the movement of God in our lives and our times. That’s why my spiritual director often asks me, “What do you perceive God doing in your life right now?” He doesn’t let me off the hook with, “I don’t know.” Think of Sunday worship and our daily prayers and Bible study as our wake-up routine. The call to worship is our wake-up call. The Word of God is our alarm, awakening us to Awesome Deeds of God that we otherwise would not expect.
Christ has come; Christ is coming. Is either Advent good news or bad news? It depends upon if we wish to Wake up! And stay awake.
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