Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 3, 2023

Mark 13:24-37 Commentary

Advent comes in with an apocalyptic bang! This series of verses has come to be known as Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” a snapshot of the turning point that ends this world and begins the new. I must confess that I can easily get lost in the devastating or destructive depictions in apocalyptic literature to the point that I miss entirely God’s word of hope. These are texts that must be read slowly and thoroughly and carefully—just not literally.

Or, just not literally in a way that makes logical sense to us. Our opening verses prove the point: neither the sun or moon emit their light, the stars fall from the heavens, but without these basic biological and chemical processes, life on earth ceases to exist. And yet! It’s also the picture of the city of God in Revelation 22.5, “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord will be their light…” None of us knows how to make literal sense of the image because it is so far from the reality in which God has designed and placed us.

And yet, we can understand its meaning. This world and its way ceases as the powers in the heavens are shaken, letting loose the return of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man coming on the clouds with his angels, gathering his children to him. We are rescued by God from a world that we cannot survive as the Creator re-creates all reality.

The imagery of danger and woe can be piled on in the text, but it only takes one sentence to turn the story. This is advent hope.

Having given us the metanarrative arc of creation’s forthcoming history in this word picture, Jesus hones in on another image to imbibe hope, that of the fig tree budding with leaves. As a lover of figs myself, I can especially relate to this image. Here in British Columbia, fig trees sprout and grow their leaves for what is an excruciating long time compared to when their fruit is actually ripe for enjoyment. I find the leaves to be quite lovely to look at, but I’m always looking through the leaves for signs of fruit—especially because you have to beat the local racoons to the ripe ones.

I think this is exactly the sense Jesus means to evoke. When the fig tree starts to sprout its leaves, we know good things are on the way—“Jesus is near, at the very gates!” It is exciting and hopeful, we are mouth-watering in anticipation. We don’t know when the figs will turn ripe, but we have to pay attention and be ready to strike or risk losing out. Advent is an active waiting.

Which brings us to the third image Jesus uses to set the tone for his beloveds as they await his return and endure suffering and hardship. He likens us to servants who don’t slack off while their master is away, but keep at their work, anticipating that their master may return at any moment. These servants want to be “caught” doing their job well.

Jesus emphasizes that, in the end, not knowing when is no excuse. It really makes it hard for us to procrastinate, doesn’t it? Each time Jesus talks about us not knowing, he uses the perfect tense—our not knowing when has consequences for what we do right now. Jesus’s four commands spell out that consequence: “beware, keep alert” (v 33), “keep awake” (v 35), “and what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (v 37). So no procrastination and no sleeping on the job (i.e., another way of avoiding the work).

But what is this job? What does it mean to keep awake? The spiritual theological reading of the text throughout the history of the church draws from the word awake’s definition as “watchful.” Advent people are watchful.

We are watchful for what is happening around us—like watching for the fig leaves to give way to yummy figs. We are watchful for signs of the turning of the light as the world’s lights end and Jesus comes in power as the light of the world.

But we are also watchful towards ourselves: watchful for the encroachment of sin, of malaise, of temptation and negative forces on one side and of the positive on the other, noting our obedience to God, blessings from God, and signs of the Holy Spirit at work in us and our lives.

From the Didache to English Puritans and beyond, the spiritual discipline of watchfulness the church of the past has given us a gift. In The Arte of Happiness (1619), lay English Puritan Francis Rous, for instance, describes watchfulness as a way of being that is like standing on a tower so that we can warn ourselves of enemies approaching—but also makes us able to welcome true friends. Being watchful allows us to protect our souls from becoming prey to sin, leads us to a establish right relationships with earthly things, and helps us be ready to entertain angels. (Remember how our verses opened with God using his angels to gather his elect?!?)

Rous also reminds us that we are to watch over our souls the way that God watches over us. In other words, we image God by tending and caring for our souls, just as the Holy Spirit does so for us. We partner with the Spirit’s tending and caring by mimicking God’s watchfulness. Like Jesus teaches, we anticipate the future and live as much of its reality in the here and now as we can. This is what it means to be awake in peace, hope, love, and joy. This is what it means to live with Advent faith.

Textual Point

How do we hold verses 30 and 32 together? Jesus says that people from “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” and that “no one knows” the day or the hour except the Father. Some point to the idea that Mark’s audience would have experienced the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and persecution, and they may have read that experience into the signs of verses 24-27. Others wonder if “generation” refers to all humanity. Scientist and Theologian John Polkinghorne writes along similar lines in his commentary on this text: our sense of time is so out of proportion for what is being described that we can hardly put the two together.

Illustration Idea

The FX comedy What We Do in the Shadows is about four vampires who live on modern-day Staten Island. (They’ve been vampires for centuries, so their clothes and manner of dress is from bygone eras.) The first half of season one is all about the Baron (head vampire) coming to visit them from the Old World (Europe) and at first, they can’t figure out why he wants to see them. But then, they remember that he told each of them conquer the New World (North America). Having forgotten that they were supposed to be doing that, they try to get started on a world domination plan while the Baron sleeps in the attic. It’s the opposite of the servants in our passage, and a play on the “Quick! The boss is coming, look busy!” that, obviously, backfires with comedic effect. The stakes are also quite high; they fear that the Baron will destroy them for not being obedient.

If vampires aren’t your thing as a sermon illustration, I get it—maybe try playing with the “Quick! Look busy!” motif—kids who are supposed to be cleaning their rooms… employees on the job site… the classroom where a teacher has stepped out for a moment…


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