2017 December Issue
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Sermon Ideas For Mark 13:24-37 Part 6

The passage is about discerning time in its spiritual dimensions: kairos as over against chronos. To assist his disciples in discerning spiritual time, Jesus tells a parable about a Fig Tree. Indications of changing seasons are seen in the fig tree's softening branches and sprouting leaves. In this way, the tree "anticipates" summer's approach.

The story of the fig tree is a beautiful metaphor. As the fig tree "anticipates" spring and summer, so women and men "anticipate" the Advent of Christ by the life that begins to quicken within their souls and spirits. There is a "quickening" of the spirit. There are signs of new life seen in a "softening" of the human heart in compassionate regard for others. There is in the church a new vitality.

Words sung to Beethoven's Ode to Joy from the ninth symphony were written by Henry Van Dyke in 1907:

Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,

God of glory, Lord of love;

Hearts unfold like flowers before thee,

Opening to the sun above.

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness,

Drive the dark of doubt away

Giver of Immortal gladness,

 Fill us with the light of day.

An anonymous fourteenth century poem is titled, Moon-like is all Other Love. It proclaims the inconstancy of all other human loves:

Moon-like is all other love:

First crescent, then decreasing, gains;

Flower that buds, and soon goes off;

A day that fleets away in rain.1

In contrast to all human devotions, God's love is that which has power to make everything new:

For ever springing, ever new,

For ever the full orb, it is

A thing not thinned, from which accrue

Always new sweets, new centuries.2

This text rings with the glad affirmation of the new life that arises within Christian individuals and communities. The proper signs of the end time are commonly taken to be catastrophes such as those recounted in the apocalyptic portions of the Bible. Here, however, the truest and most substantial signs of the second Advent are not so much the dire portents in heaven and earth, but this new life which quickens the Christian community, stirs to life the body awakening as if from sleep. This is the lesson of the fig tree.

An early ninth century Byzantium writer, Saint Theodore of Studium writes a poem about a doorkeeper:

Be diligent, my child, and wait in fear

On this thy task, Here is God's entrance-gate.

The doorkeeper in the parable Jesus tells in this chapter in Mark has been entrusted with a high calling. In the words of the poem, this doorkeeper's task is to watch over the threshold across which God will enter to reclaim the household. A doorkeeper will be alert to all signs of the approach of the master of the house. This doorkeeper will have known this master well enough to know what particular signs to look for. The doorkeeper will listen carefully to the talk out on the street for any indication of the master's movements.

Franz Kafka weaves a strange, short narrative drama about a man in futile quest of the law. The short narrative is titled, Before the Law. The law is fervently sought as one might seek the key to life's deepest myster ies. When finally the seeker comes to the place where the law is kept he runs into a guard or a doorkeeper. Admittance inside to the law is denied the one who seeks it.

This story is clouded in all the ambiguities characteristic of this pessimistic writer. All the appeals of the man to enter the room are denied by the doorkeeper. So, languishing just outside the door, the man is left, his hope fading. There is no lack of effort or desire that brings about this failure. The reasons for failure are hidden. His life and waiting are drained of hope.

At the end of the frustrated searcher's life, the Doorkeeper finally sadistically reveals, "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."

The tragic irony of this story is how close the seeker of the law came to fulfilling his quest. But, either because of the inscrutable cruelty of the doorkeeper or his own failure of nerve, his life ends in failure. The cruel end here is like the punishment brought upon the Greek god Tantalus for giving Ambrosia to mortals. Tantalus is placed chin deep in water near branches heavy with ripe fruit overhead. Whenever Tantalus reaches down to drink, or up to retrieve the fruit, that which he seeks to possess recedes just beyond his grasp.

Christians are doorkeepers. Who knows when or how the master may return? The door is kept open when the gospel is clearly proclaimed and its imperatives dutifully observed. A hope made inscrutable because of petty wars of pride in the church might be like a door shut in the presence of some earnest seeker of truth. Prejudice might shut the church in, leaving the door permanently closed. Perhaps at some late hour, God might come, desiring glad return to God's own house, but dismay to find the door shut and the doorkeeper asleep.

Joel Whiteside

NOTES

1. Donald Davie Ed., The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 7.

2. Ibid.

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