Sermon Briefs: Mark 13:24-37
W. E. Orchard preached a sermon entitled Christ Coming as a Thief in the Night.1 Responding to the "recent tendency of Gospel Criticism to emphasize the apocalyptic and eschatological elements in the teaching of Jesus," Orchard set out to show the need for a revised picture of Jesus.
The sermon seems at first to be simply a lengthy scholarly treatise. Yet it ends with a challenging pastoral word for Orchard's listeners.
In an attempt to recover the outlook and meaning of Jesus, Orchard reviews the then current interpretations of Christ's apocalyptic. He discards the views that Jesus might be mistaken in his understanding of how things would happen or that a corruption of his teaching has taken place. Orchard favors the view that Jesus' language about the future is allegorical or symbolic. Had Jesus intended to give unmistakable signs of his coming, the exhortation to watch would have been unnecessary. The term "thief" implies not only that Christ will come, but that he will depart before the householder awakes. Whatever the events leading to the coming of the Kingdom it will seem to break in suddenly, an act of God. The response of human beings is to provide the faith to welcome the Son of Man.
Orchard summarizes Jesus' view as one in which the kingdom of God is "ever ready to break in upon the world." The coming of God's kingdom is not dependent only upon the will of God, but also on the faith of human beings. He points out that though the incarnation transcended the anticipations of the prophecies, much of the world slept through it. He asserts that God has drawn near to humankind many times in historical events such as the Crusades, the Franciscan revival and the Protestant Reformation. Yet many slept. Orchard reminds his listeners that Christ comes too soon for most of us. It is not a thief, but Christ, who finds us sleeping. Therefore, we are to watch.
In his sermon entitled My Lord What a Morning, When the Stars Begin to Fall!,2 David Jacobsen calls us to watch "like a waitress."
Jacobsen begins his sermon with the fear of judgment. Outlining some of the ways we live in a "tumble-down world," he says that we expect reckoning for our world.
But it is Jesus, "Mr. Mercy himself," who is coming to judge. Jesus' end-time appearance leaves us shocked since we expect judgment. Instead, Jesus the Judge comes to save.
Jacobson says we should have seen it coming. We already have caught a glimpse of "...God's new creation emerging out of the rubble of our world." One example is the collapse of the Berlin wall when people danced among the wreckage. The spiritual used as a title for the sermon is a call to sing a different tune in the midst of chaos and to look for God's new creation.
The key is to watch like a waitress for the new creation. Waitresses keep their eyes peeled for customers. While they wait, however, they are filling salt shakers and folding napkins. He reminds listeners not to watch for a blazing-eyed Judge. Rather, we are to "keep our eyes peeled for a new world full of Christ's tender mercies."
Charlene Zuill, a United Methodist pastor, speaks about a watching which strengthens discipleship in a sermon, Back to the Future Again.3
Zuill explains the apocalyptic text for the first Sunday of Advent. She says we are a community which celebrates what has already happened to us in the birth of Christ. We are also a community of the "not yet." The text is a reminder that Advent is the beginning of the future. It is the "time of year to look back to the future again."
The sermon begins with a group of first semester college students who hope that the second coming of Christ will happen in time to avoid the final exams. Sometimes we wish that Christ's return might rescue us from such circumstances. Zuill then moves to the fascination people have with the end times. Her fascination grew from early experiences of hearing her mother sing the songs of the African American slave tradition as well as her attendance at an after-school children's Bible study. As a child she couldn't wait for Jesus to come again.
Zuill then moves to the anxiety many of us experience when we think about the end times. She reports the anxiety she developed as she grew older. In Junior High School, she wore a button which pictured two bare feet dangling, with the words "The Great Snatch!" below. The button became a conversation piece and an opportunity to witness. At the same time it helped her to remain excited about Christ's return in spite of anxiety.
Zuill informs her listeners that Jesus used the images of cosmic upheaval and the parable of the fig tree to reassure the disciples and to move them from anxiety and curiosity to hope. "Jesus tells them that these events will occur in their generation so they can lead eager and expectant lives."
The injunction to watch alleviates the worries about "when." The second parable does not simply call the disciples to watch. The slaves are left with responsibility. She challenges listeners to watch in a way which strengthens discipleship: to resolve to be aware of the already and to expect the not yet. In addition, they are to look for those who have lost hope and expect nothing, and to tell them that "It's time to go back to the future again."
Janice W. Hearn St. Andrew Presbyterian Church Aptos, CA
1. W.E. Orchard, D.D. Advent Sermons: Discourses on the First and Second Coming of Christ (London: James Clarke & Co., 1914), pp. 172-185. 2. David Schnasa Jacobsen, "My Lord, What a Morning, When the Stars Begin to Fall!" Sermon published in Biblical Preaching Journal, Volume 6, Number 4, Fall 1993, pp. 28-29. 3. Charlene Zuill, "Back to the Future Again," a sermon preached at First United Methodist Church, San Diego, CA, December 28, 1993.
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