The First Sunday of Advent
‘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.
‘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.'
There is a clever and fascinating graphic at Molecular Expressions. It begins with an image of what the earth would look like at a distance of 10,000 light years. And then in magnifications of 10 times it slowly zooms in on an oak tree in Tallahassee, Florida. It continues down on in to the level 100 attometers, where one could "look" at quarks. An attometer is 10-16 metres.
In the safety and comfort of the library or lounge room, we might wonder what our significance is in such a huge cosmos. As we see the complexity of the molecular and subatomic world, we may wonder how all this complexity can give rise to us. What is all this?
Mark's gospel is not speaking to these questions in Chapter 13. It is speaking to the questions which arise when we are being shot at, or are starving, or are grinding out an existence in an unjust society. The questions are much less speculative; more immediate. How long, O God? Who will save us? Will you? Can you? When will this all end?
In our comfortable modern situation in the West our answer to questions of pain and evil has often been based in the assumption that things will get better. Democracy will spread and prevail; medicine will improve; technology will advance. We have been to the moon, Mars is next, and maybe in the time to come we will reach the stars. So our comfortable modern answer is that things are getting better, and our understanding is growing. Whatever the ills of our world, it will get better.
The other answer to Mark's questions, much older, is that there will be a time of reckoning. For some this is a final disaster; nuclear winter, climate collapse, something like that. This is the cynical flavour of the apocalyptic answer; it will all end badly. The hopeful flavour of apocalypse, is that although things are inescapably, hopelessly bad, in God's own time, finally God will intervene and set things right. It will be alright in the end.
So in the Book of Daniel 7:13-14 the writer speaks of his visions:
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a son of man (a human being)
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
Mark is clearly referring to this reading from the history of Jesus people. He has Jesus essentially saying, "I am this one. There will be a reckoning, things will be set right." And we see also in Chapter 13, "Be alert and be careful, no one knows the day or the hour when this will happen. Don't be caught napping!"
There is no proof that this will ever literally happen. There has not been a day like this before by which we can judge the likelihood of chapter 13 occurring. It's not like Christmas day. There has been a Christmas day every year for centuries, and therefore we can be fairly sure there will be one this year!
Instead, this proclamation is a hope and expectation, which is based on a sense of all that is right and good. It is based on Mark's sense that God is good and providential. It makes sense, but it is a symbol, an idea, and its reality may not be like the idea.
So be careful, no one knows the day or the hour. Don't be misled. Don't literalise the timing of God into calendar time.
Whenever people have literalised this event, reckoning and calculating into our calendar time, they have been wrong. We literalise the event, and place it into historical and calendar time, because we are sitting in the comfort of people who can use the internet, and look at photos from electron microscopes and satellites. We have forgotten, perhaps never known, the pain of poverty. We are like affluent citizens who criticise a starving person who steals a loaf of bread. We live in a different world, and should be very careful how we interpret or criticise the symbols of that other world.
This chapter is not talking about an event in our calendars. It is talking about the significance of Jesus' death.
Look at the story of the master going away in verse 34. A man (anthropos) goes away, in the original Greek, but when he returns he is a Master (kurios), the Lord of the house. This lord may come in the evening, or at midnight, or cockcrow, or morning. These are the four watches of a Roman guard detail. Each one corresponds with a significant event in the story of Jesus' death. Evening is the time of the last supper. Midnight is the general time of Peter's denial (14:30). Cockcrow is the specific time of his denial (14:30, 72). The following morning, Jesus was handed over to the Romans (15:1). The lord will come and be made manifest in the cross. (I am indebted to John Petty for this.)
The reading is not about chronological or calendar time. It only says time in English. The Greek for our English time, that would be chronos, but the Greek actually says kairos, which means the time of God. As John Petty puts it, "God's time is not at the end of the age. That is mere chronological time. God's time can be, and is, every moment of every hour."
So when people tell us the end is near they are making what the philosophers call a category mistake. They're thinking about calendar time, not God's kairos time.
One night in our suburb, a young girl was knifed in a local park. She staggered out to a nearby house and bled to death on the doorstep. In the morning, my friend Peter left his house next door, and for one terrible, horrible moment, thought her body was that of one of his own daughters. Here, in calendar time, was an evil tragic event. We can find no justification for it, no answers, and no meaning. It was also a moment, an event, in God's time. Peter could have retreated into drink or shifted house, but instead he listened. He re-assessed his life. He made a significant turn and change in the way he was living. The tragedy was not lessened by this. It is not excused or explained by his reaction. But in a moment of God's time, he listened. He was awake when the Master came.
So in the Gospel narrative, Mark Chapter 13 is "the final opening paragraph in the long introduction to the death of Jesus." It says, "Be alert. See the significance of the death of this Jesus. See what it means for you."
And it says, "Watch is happening in the world. In all the pain and mess, be alert for the moments when God comes and speaks to you. Don't be caught napping. The Lord will come!"
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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