Sermon Ideas For Mark 13:24-37 Part 1
We flip our calendars to December and suddenly find ourselves in Advent. A time of expectation, of promises kept after centuries of waiting, of Emmanuel, God-with-us. We flip through our bibles for the Mark 13 gospel lesson and suddenly find ourselves in a maelstrom. Images leap out from the page: wars and rumors of war, children having parents put to death, a desolating sacrilege, and stars falling from heaven. When confronted with scripture of such intensity, one possible response is to distance ourselves from it, joining the theologians who give this chapter the diminutive title of the "little apocalypse," to blunt its jagged edges through numbing discussions of prescientific world views and eschatology theories. The lectionary even gets into the act by avoiding most of the "tribulation verses" so that our attention will remain focused on the Advent theme of watchfulness. Being prepared, however, only makes sense if we take seriously the threat of being found unprepared when the Master returns. The days of a darkened sun and falling stars must be considered.
Theologians have pointed out that we already live in the end time, in the sense that the end of the world is now possible through human agency: nuclear catastrophe, ecological or biological catastrophe, insidious economic catastrophes. It is sobering to realize that eschatological language is no longer as extreme and unimaginable as it once was. We have seen Hiroshima and the Holocaust. We must first consider where God was in those apocalypses before we can explore where God is in Mark 13. Hopefully this process will also yield a greater sense of urgency to heed Christ's admonition for vigilance.
Another theological response to this passage is to weaken its message by dissecting it into small pieces and distracting ourselves with minutiae. How are we to understand the doctrine of election in light of the angelic ingathering mentioned in v.27? Can the fig tree analogy be "decoded" to give precise details about the end time events? Is Jesus' statement in v.30 inaccurate? How do we reconcile the words of one called the first-born of all creation (Col 1:15) with the profession of limited knowledge found in v.32? We can try finding shelter from the scriptural storm through sidebar discussions on Arianism and Gnosticism, or how this passage is aimed at the persecuted Marcan community with their growing impatience await ing the coming day of the Lord. But to do so is only to disregard Jesus' first words in his response to the disciples' question about the end of the age, when he said "Take heed that no one leads you astray" (v.5).
Jesus' eschatology is intimately connected to his overall teaching and miracle-working ministry. The language he uses is not intended as a scare tactic but rather as a sobering call to faithful living and vigilance. It should be read in conjunction with his parables on the kingdom of God, his healing of the man with an unclean spirit in the Capernaum synagogue (Mk 1:21-27), his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, and his words about not drinking of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new in the kingdom of God (Mk 14:25). Also, the details about what this passage says about Jesus (the Son of man reference in v.26, the limited knowledge attributed to Jesus in v.32) should not distract us from what this passage actually says. The message of Jesus' first sermon, how "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mk 1:15), is still the theme of this apocalyptic message.
The topic of vigilance is often seen as the most accessible homiletic material which can be gleaned from this passage. Mark even provides a sermon illustration in the short closing parable (vv.34-36). At first glance, Jesus' exhortation seems to be aimed at individuals, tempting preachers to list off ways in which we each must be more vigilant in performing the tasks assigned to us by our Lord. Yet the corporate character of this passage should not be overlooked. For the coming of the Son of man will be witnessed by all (v.26); the elect of verse 27 is a corporate body, not simply an aggregation of righteous individuals; and an entire generation is named as the witnesses of these eschatological events (v.30). Most importantly, the workers in the absent master's home have their own assignments, however their primary identity is a corporate one, as all stewards of one household. Holding fast to this distinction is crucial if Jesus' words are not misdirected into a catechism of works righteousness. The one whose power is sufficient to shake the heavens is the sole source of salvation and redeeming grace. That is why the closing imperative for us is to watch, not to work.
Much of the language of this passage is similar to the Old Testament in character, so it is appropriate to combine it in worship with the lessons from Isaiah 64 and Psalm 80. The plural subject of the other scriptures helps reinforce the corporate focus of the Marcan passage. The confession that "we are the clay, and thou art our potter" (Is 64:8) reminds us that God alone is our source of salvation in all times of tribulation.
Randall K. Bush First Presbyterian Church Racine, WI
Jurgen Moltmann, "Christianity in the Third Millennium," Theology Today (April 1994), pp. 75-76. Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, p. 42.
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