Advent 1B: When the Rooster Crows
In one of his sermons, the great preacher 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 serivce, 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?”
Well, what indeed!?
This morning I’d like us, in a different vein, to ponder the same question: what is that business with the rooster? In the New Testament, the Greek word for rooster crops up in only two stories. As I just mentioned, the most famous instance involves Peter on the night when Jesus is arrested–all four gospels include that story. 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. Thus, if you think about it, you can’t help but wonder if Mark’s inclusion of the rooster in chapter 13 is a loaded reference to something.
After all, in the very next chapter, Mark will mention a rooster again in connection with that story surrounding Peter. Mark himself must have known that he had these two rather unusual references to a rooster nearly back-to-back in his gospel. Was there a reason for this? Suppose that one of you wrote me a long letter in which early on in the letter you used the word “mendacity.” Suppose further that this was a word I had never, ever heard you use before. Well, I’d surely take note of that, and would take note once again if a bit later in the letter you threw the word “mendacity” in again. I’d know you would be aware of having used that unusual word twice, and so I’d ponder what was behind it.
So also in Mark. In chapters 13 and 14 there are two rooster references almost back-to-back. Is there a connection? To answer that, we should start by wondering why any writer in the Bible made reference to roosters. The reason is obvious: the rooster’s crowing during the night was a standard way to mark time back then. Although they are a bit unpredictable, roosters can be remarkably consistent. Roosters generally were known to crow at around 11:30pm, 1:30am, and once again at the crack of dawn. So those three different sets of crowings became a way to tell time in an age when no other clock existed.
In Mark 13, when telling the disciples that they don’t know the exact time of when he will return in glory, Jesus says that it could be anytime. But here Jesus refers to four possible times: evening, midnight, the time of the rooster’s crow, and dawn. But I just told you that near as we can tell, ancient people pegged the rooster’s crow to three times: around midnight, 1:30am, and dawn. So given its place in that sequence of four times listed in verse 35, it looks as though when Jesus mentions the rooster’s crow, he is referring specifically to the 1:30am/second crowing. That’s very interesting in that, as Mark 14 will make clear, that is the exact same time mentioned in connection with Peter’s denials: the second crowing.
But big deal, you may be thinking. Maybe this is just a coincidence. But I disagree, and there is something in Mark 13:30 that inclines me in that direction. Because there Jesus says that the coming of the Son of Man in glory, along with the cosmic signs that would accompany Jesus’ return, would take place before the disciples’ generation passed away.
As some of you know, that verse has become quite controversial. Some well-known theologians have claimed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet but a rather misguided one at that. Jesus, they claim, truly expected history to end in his lifetime. Jesus never envisioned the prolonged era of the church that has actually happened. Jesus expected to bring in a new order of the universe but instead he ended up dying in despair. Things did not pan out the way Jesus thought.
Needless to say, the Reformed tradition does not buy that. And anyway, in verse 32 Jesus goes on to admit that no one, including he himself, knows when that hour of second coming will arrive. So if we bring verses 30 and 32 together, then we have good reason to interpret verse 30 a bit differently. Jesus cannot say in one breath that he knows the world would end within the lifetime of the disciples and then say in the next breath that as a matter of fact he doesn’t know when the world will end.
So then what did he mean in verse 30? One possible answer has to do with the concept of “the already and the not yet.” In Christ Jesus, and through his death, resurrection, and ascension, the kingdom of God has already come, has already broken in on history. As believers, we are citizens of this kingdom already. So even though the world did not literally end during the lifetime of the disciples, the world did in a real sense begin anew only a few short days after Jesus said these words. During World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once did a clever play on words. Following a British victory, someone asked Churchill if he thought this was the beginning of the end. Churchill said no, but he did think it was the end of the beginning. But even that represented real progress!
The resurrection of Jesus was, in one sense, both the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. It was a wonderful, climactic conclusion to the plan of salvation that God began already in the Garden of Eden and in the call of Abraham. But if Jesus’ resurrection was the end of that ancient beginning, it was simultaneously the beginning of the final end, paving the way for that time when God will make all things new.
We are situated in between the two Advents of the Christ: the Advent that was long ago in Bethlehem and the Advent that is yet to be. In this meantime, Jesus urges us to be watchful. We need always to be living in the kingdom ways Jesus showed us. Because not only is Jesus’ final Advent always potentially imminent, the fact is that even short of that grand event, we already live every moment in the presence of Jesus.
The Season of Advent is not just about either looking to the distant past or looking to a potentially distant future. Advent is about today as well. That’s why I’ve been making such a big deal about the rooster’s crowing in Mark 13 and 14. In the verses we read this morning, 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.
When does the rooster crow in your life? Oh, I don’t mean any literal rooster but there are lots of rooster-crow equivalents out there. Maybe it’s the dream that makes you sit bolt upright in bed in the dead of night–the dream that seemed more vivid than some stuff that happens while you are awake, the dream that is so startling it makes you re-assess the whole direction of your life. Maybe it’s a cell phone call from your mother who quietly but surely says something that lets you know you’re not walking the path your Godly Christian parents marked out for you. Maybe it’s the sudden loss of a job or the wonderful birth of a child. Maybe it’s the death of a loved one or that one hymn we sang in church that seemed to have been chosen just for you, and you can’t help but wonder what that may mean.
Maybe your life’s rooster crow was that moment, as with Fred Craddock, when you limply went along to get along and then felt terrible that you could not find enough resolve within yourself to stand up for what you know to be right. Maybe the rooster crows through the voice of the stranger you sit next to on the airplane, the one who maybe asks you a question about your Christian faith but you find you don’t have much to say (and you wonder to yourself why, after all these years, you still can barely articulate what should be the bedrock belief of your life). Maybe the rooster crows when the grim-faced doctor says, “I have some news for you,” and suddenly all of life becomes ever-so-finite and closed-in.
However the rooster crows, we do face these ultimate moments of revelation, of apocalyptic unveiling. Something happens, someone says something, and suddenly we wonder how close we really are to God, how serious we really are about this Christianity thing, how consistently we try to be Christ-like after all. Something happens, someone says something, and we realize that all the fullness of God’s kingdom really is on just the other side of the door but we have cause to wonder whether we’re ready for that kingdom to burst in on us and be our all in all even already right now.
As we today enter Advent, we are called to holy seriousness. As we look back and look forward in time, we bring our gaze also back to this present moment to see if we are living like we really believe the gospel. Today we listen for the rooster’s cry in our own lives, for that moment of truth, that moment of confrontation. Because if you look closely at that crowing rooster, you may discover that it’s really a dove in disguise. And it’s really not a dove, either, but the very Spirit of God brooding over the troubled waters of your life. He is calling. Listen. Amen.
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