Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 3, 2017
Mark 13:24-37 Commentary
Long about the time most people are switching all of their Christmas lights on to celebrate the holiday, the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent brings us straight to a text that points forward to a great and coming day when all the lights will go . . . out.
Try turning this into a fireside Christmas story and see if the children’s eyes glisten in wonder! It’s the kind of thing you might expect The Onion or Saturday Night Live to make a parody out of as some holiday Scrooge-type terrifies children with tales of apocalyptic darkness as the sun goes supernova and the moon winks out as a result. It could give whole new meaning to the phrase “Be good for goodness sake”!
So why do it this way? Why darken the Advent landscape before we really get going here? The reason is plain enough to understand, even if it is quite counter-cultural. Because let’s face it: if the church cannot proclaim and look forward to the second advent of Christ, then in all honesty there is precious little sense in making much ado about his first advent in Bethlehem. If Jesus is not coming back to make all things new and bring in the kingdom he talked about all through his ministry, then any celebration of his birth really would be on a par with fantasies about Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or the generic “holiday spirit” with which people try to get infused every December. If Jesus is not the Lord of lords who can come back at the end of history, then “Silent Night” has all the charm—and all the meaning—of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”
But another reason for the church to ponder the day when the cosmic lights go out is because there is something about that prospect of darkness that makes people long for—and appreciate all-the-more—the One we proclaim to be the Light of the World. If even we in the church cannot move past the cozy sentimentality and twinkling lights of the season where the rest of society places all its emphasis, then we cannot appreciate the reasons why God went to the extreme lengths he did to bring the Son of God to this world in flesh. If the whole world just generally resembled the little fantasy kingdoms in the mall (and that most of us try to approximate in our own front yards each December), then the world would not need saving and God would not have needed to go to the bloody lengths he did to make that salvation a reality.
It may be bracing for the church to kick off Advent with an apocalyptic passage like Mark 13 but among other things, such a passage reminds us, and our culture, that the stakes in the Advent of Christ are exceedingly high. The Christ of God did not arrive in this world long ago to help people be a little nicer, to encourage a few weeks’ worth of charitable giving to the United Way or the local soup kitchen, or any other such short-term, local goal. No, the Christ of God came to make straight every crooked way, to right every wrong, to upend every injustice, and to reconcile all things—ALL things—to himself.
Compared to all that, all of our little Christmas lights combined really do look pretty dim after all.
Is there any significance to the rooster? In the New Testament, the Greek word for rooster crops up in only two places. The most famous instance involves Peter on the night when Jesus is arrested–all four gospels include that story. In Mark that takes place in the very next chapter. Aside from that, however, there is only one other place in the New Testament where any mention is made of a rooster, and it’s Mark 13:35. The precise Greek word in verse 35 for the rooster’s crow is found nowhere else in the Bible.
Is there a connection? Possibly. In the verses of this lection, Jesus urged Peter and the others to be vigilant, watchful, to live every moment as though it could be the last. Along the way, Jesus said that for all anyone knew, a moment of apocalyptic unveiling could happen sometime when the rooster crows at 1:30 in the morning. And maybe Peter heard all that and just maybe he did with those words what we often do: namely, he figured that if such a thing ever happened, it would be a long time off and maybe he’d not even be around anymore when the end would finally come.
But then, within maybe just 48 hours, a rooster crowed at 1:30 in the morning and the full truth of Jesus came crashing down around Peter’s ears. Peter did not need to live to see the final day of judgment. That moment, that cry of that rooster was his apocalypse, his encounter with the living God. What he perhaps thought was a long ways off when Jesus first talked about turned it out to be far closer, far more pressingly urgent than he guessed. As it turns out, any and every crying of the rooster is a moment potentially full of God.
In a sermon on this first Sunday in Advent, maybe we preachers can challenge people to ponder the ultimate moments in their own lives when the fullness of the kingdom is revealed to be closer than they think.
In one of his sermons, Fred Craddock told a story about something that happened many years ago while he was driving by himself cross-country. He had stopped at a small diner somewhere in the South to refresh himself with an early breakfast and some coffee. He had been driving through the night and now it was getting close to dawn. So before he got too sleepy, he stopped for a while.
As he waited for his breakfast order to come, Craddock spied a black man who had just come in and had sat down on a stool up by the lunch counter. The diner’s manager then began to treat the black man with a contempt that was clearly borne of deep-seated racism. The manager was rude, insulting, demeaning toward his black guest. As he sat in his booth a little ways away from the counter, Craddock wrestled with saying something to chide this manager for his shameful, racist conduct. Eventually the black man quickly slurped down some coffee and then fled the diner. Craddock meanwhile remained silent. “I didn’t say anything,” he confessed. “I quietly paid my bill, left the diner, and headed back to my car. But as I walked through the parking lot, somewhere in the distance, I heard a rooster crow.”
With that poignant, final image, Craddock evoked an entire cloud of denial, betrayal, shame, and regret. The rooster’s crow following the disciple Peter’s triple denial of Jesus has become one of the more famous images from the gospels. Of course, even so, not everyone knows it. I once heard Craddock say that one Sunday he was a guest preacher at a church and he preached that same sermon. After the service, a man came up to him in the narthex, shook Craddock’s hand vigorously, and said, “Thank you, pastor, for that powerful sermon. That really hit home! Oh, but by the way, what was that business with the rooster?”
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