This does seem like a strange text to begin the season of Advent with. It almost seems like we are beginning at the end. Jesus foretelling the end of days when God’s kingdom shall come to fruition, and we will see “’the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”
We don’t start this year with: angels making dramatic announcements; Shepherds watching over their sheep on a cold Palestinian night; not even with an unexpected pregnancy or a star shining brightly in the sky. In fact, in this text, the stars are falling from the sky, and the images Mark paints for us are, on a whole, terrifying.
Yet there is something about this text that is perfect for the start of Advent. The season of “Advent is a season of waiting, a time to be marked by urgent anticipation, by a longing for the fulfillment of what has been promised” (Powell). For Mark, “the primary advent of Jesus had already happened and… all of our waiting and watching should be shaped by that” (Lose).
We are a faithful people who anxiously wait in anticipation for the return of our Lord, and what better way to remind ourselves of that waiting, than by engaging in a season that reminds us of the coming of our Lord?
Now, this passage from Mark is a bit confusing if we look at it closely. It really seems to be divided into two juxtaposing pieces.
Piece one from verses 24 through 31:
“’But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’ Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Notice how this portion of the text has an urgency about it. Christ’s return is painted as imminent, something that is just around the corner, ready to take place now.
But then we come to the last six verses, and we shift.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
So… the Master’s return is not right around the corner. Instead, it is a return that we must wait for, not knowing when it will be. But instead of the urgency in the first eight verses, we have here this feeling of settling in, fortifying our position, and preparing for a long wait.
So is Mark messing with us? Is he trying to play both sides of the field in order to be right no matter what happens? What Mark is doing here is weaving together two distinctly different ideas about Christ’s return that were prevalent in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. By portraying both an imminent eschatology and a future eschatology, Mark is showing a recognition “that neither tradition had the last word on Christ’s return… No one knows, and that includes Paul… and Mark… and us. For this reason, we are always waiting, always watching, always preparing for Christ’s return” (Lose).
It isn’t because he simply couldn’t decide which one he believed in more, therefore he put both in and hoped no one would notice! Instead, Mark very rightly notes that there are a lot of ideas about how this world will come to a close, and how the only word that matters, is God’s.
David Lose points out that in the parable that closes this morning’s reading,
“there is an interesting foreshadowing of the Passion these verses immediately precede. Notice that Jesus warns that the servants do not know whether the master will come back to his house in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. Now notice the way in which Mark divides the scenes leading up to the crucifixion: 1) Last Supper, beginning, ‘When it was evening he came with the twelve…’ (14:17). 2) Jesus’ prayer and betrayal: ‘And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy’ (14:40) because it was the middle of the night. 3) At the close of Jesus’ trial, Peter denies Jesus for the third time just as ‘the cock crowed for the second time’ (14:71-72a). 4) And then Jesus is delivered to Pilate for trial ‘As soon as it was morning’ (15:1)” (Lose).
Mark does not depict Jesus’ return with the heavens shaking and the sun darkened for narrative effect. Mark depicts his return as “[occurring] precisely at the moment when he is nailed to the cross and our breath is taken away as we see God’s love poured out for us and all the world… [so] that whenever Jesus may come again… all of our anticipation and preparation of Jesus’ second advent should be shaped by his first advent in the form of a vulnerable infant and as a man hanging on a tree” (Lose).
Really, it seems that Mark is inviting us to look for the returning Christ in those people and places that are most vulnerable.
This morning, I have moved the baptismal font to a central location, where it will stay throughout the Advent season. Each week, a new object will be placed in the bowl to help us connect with Christ in the weeks leading up to his birth.
Today, we have lit candles, which represent our waiting and watching. To echo the gospel writer: Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Advent comes at a time of year when the light each day is growing shorter and shorter, and the need for light becomes more apparent. Even during the cold days of winter, we sometimes need the flames, not only to be able to see, but to keep us warm.
The lights we have before us this morning not only remind us of the need for watchfulness but because they are placed in the baptismal font, they remind us of our own baptisms. In our baptism, we are signed and sealed as God’s own, which is both a blessing and a burden.
It is a blessing because we know that we are God’s children, loved by Him for eternity. Yet it is a burden, because especially in this hectic season of consumerism and greed and desire, we are called to be above our culture, to shine as a light for others, to draw them into Christ’s love, and that is an awesome responsibility.
But the light shines in you, and through you. Let your light shine into the dark places, where the vulnerable live in fear. Let your light shine in a way that invites them forward from their fears. Let your light shine for the world to see, that through you, the risen Christ may be proclaimed.
Lose, David. “Advent 1 B: Preaching a Participatory Advent.” In the Meantime RSS. N.p., 24 Nov. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2015 <http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/advent-1-b/>.
Powell, Mark Allan. “Commentary on Mark 13:24-37.” Mark 13:24-37 Commentary. Luther Seminary, 30 Nov. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2265>.