Preaching: Mark 13:24-37
This text describes the climax of history from the point of view of first century Christian apocalyptic theology. According to that viewpoint, history is divided into a present, evil era, and a coming age in which all of God’s purposes will be manifest. The transition from the older order to the new is a cosmic cataclysm, preceded by a protracted period of intense suffering (sometimes called the tribulation). At a specific moment, the present broken world collapses. Jesus returns in power and glory, and defeats Satan and the demons. Jesus completely, and permanently, establishes God’s rule in a renewed cosmos. All forms of suffering and oppression are ended; life continues as an eternal community of shalom in which God’s purposes permeate all relationships and events.
One sermon might deal with the fact that many Christians, especially in congregations that have used the lectionary only a few years, are puzzled by why this apocalyptic text begins Advent. Why do we begin our preparation for the birth of a baby at Christmas by focusing on the return of Jesus in a mind boggling scene? Shouldn’t we be singing Christmas carols and running the children’s bathrobes through the Purex in order to get them ready for the Christmas pageant?
The preacher could use the First Sunday of Advent to explain the purpose of the Christian year and the lectionary with its annual retelling of the story of salvation. The preacher could particularly focus on the relationship of Advent to both incarnation and eschatological hope. As a part of remembering the first coming of Jesus, we remember that God’s redeeming work will not be completed until the second coming. We remember that the Christian community is called to witness during this long period between the advents. Advent is a season of preparation, not just to celebrate Christmas, not just for the second coming, but also to gather the spiritual resources that are necessary to sustain the church for witness through the long season awaiting the completion of all God’s purposes.
The preacher might develop a related sermon around the importance of eschatological hope. Since almost 2,000 years have passed and Jesus has not returned, it is easy for Christians to live as if the present world is all that we can expect. Many in the church have functionally conceded that God will not (or cannot) do anything to improve the life of the cosmos. Many preachers, under the influence of the current therapeutic culture, have reduced the Christian message to one of helping people cope with the troubles of the world.
This text is a visionary reminder that God is more than a cosmic therapist who wants to help people make their way through present difficulties. God ultimately purposes to remake this world so that its very structures no longer allow brokenness, oppression, pain, and death. While the Christian preacher needs to help people understand how God is with them in trials, the preacher also needs to help people look for the coming of a new world. Christians should not settle for therapy when they can anticipate a new universe in which every relationship mediates love, community, peace, and freedom.
The sermon could point out that this passage functions as a principle of social criticism. The destruction of the old eon (symbolized by the fall of the heavenly luminaries) indicates that God will not tolerate situations that deny God’s purposes. The text allows the preacher and the congregation to see, in advance, the fate of all settings that defy God’s aims. The congregation can rejoice now in the fact that they lose their power and are replaced by God’s direct rule.
This text reminds us in stunning imagery that the gospel is not an additive to the world (in the way that one adds STP to one’s oil). The gospel transforms the world and its life supports. The sun, the moon, the stars, and the powers in the heavens represent the support structures of the old world. They are obviated and replaced by new life forces.
The text might also lead to a sermon on the subtleties of idolatry. In some religious circles in the ancient world, sun, moon, and stars were regarded as astral deities. They are very beautiful. Many people believed that these deities were responsible for the trustworthiness of life. Our text exposes sun, moon, and stars as false sources of ultimate security. The preacher might lead the congregation to meditate on how we, too, turn to penultimate sources of security, only to find that they fail.
Another possibility for the preacher is to use this text as a jumping off point for a sermon that reflects with the congregation on what they can believe to be the ultimate possibilities for human and cosmic history. This passage offers a very specific picture of what the congregation might anticipate as the consummation of history. Do we believe that God will resolve history in the ways depicted in this text? Some theologians do not want to take the text as a prediction of a literal future event, but they continue to assert that God will eventually bring a consummation-point of history. They do not speculate about the timetable or methods, but they have confidence in a telos. Still other Christians do not believe that God will intervene in history in a specific moment to close this age and open the next. They think that God is constantly at work trying to help remake history. They do not believe that God will ultimately settle for the brokenness of the world, but they do not think that God will (or can) act in a singular moment to remake it. For them, eschatology is a process within history that is guaranteed by God’s irrepressible will. Which of these forms of eschatology (or some other form) seems most consistent with the gospel, and most credible, today?
Ronald J. Allen
Christian Theological Seminary
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