Sermon Briefs: Mark 13:24-37 Part 2
The well-known contemporary preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "The problem with preaching Advent texts is that they presume an urgency about the Lord's coming that few of us still feel.… And yet our creeds assert that Christ will come again, dramatically, to judge the living and the dead.… Mark offers an unnerving glimpse of what the sky will look like on that day. The sun will be dark and the moon will not shine. Stars will fall from heaven to make the eclipse complete and then—when all the lights have been turned out—the Son of Man will come in clouds with great power and glory. He will have angels with him, who will scatter in all directions together the elect, whom they will sweep from the ends of the earth to the heart of heaven. The vividness of the vision is underscored by Jesus' own sense of its imminence.…
"I do not know how literalists handle this apparent mistake in Jesus' prophecy, but it works to strengthen his likeness to us. He thought God would act sooner. So did we. As human beings, we all presumed too much. Even the Son of Man cannot read the mind of the Almighty…. Our ignorance of God's timetable does not excuse us from diligence, however. If anything, it increases our need to stay awake. Since we do not know when the end time will come, we cannot afford to grow drowsy…. On this first Sunday of Advent, we are clearly warned what will happen to those who fall asleep. Those who succumb to boredom will miss the master when he comes. And when they wake, they may find that they have napped their lives away."1
In another article called The Great Tribulation, speaking again of remaining alert, Taylor writes, "The way things are shaping up where most of us live, the Great Tribulation is not likely to be a massive persecution of the Christian faith, but a massive dismissal of it as an irritant or an embarrassment or, worse, as something that does not even register on people's screens anymore, as outdated as alchemy or the map of a flat world…. The thing is, I think, to find the light now—to walk around in it and soak it up and shine it around so that others may see. Then, when the darkness comes—in whatever form—we will be ready."2
Similarly, Lamar Williamson, Jr. writes, "The regularity of Christmas makes genuine expectancy difficult, at least for adults. Perhaps facing the unexpectedness of the ultimate divine invasion can lift believers above institutionalized expectations to a more vital watchfulness. Mark 13 speaks to those who expect too much and to those who expect too little. It is especially pertinent for those who have forgotten to expect anything at all."3
It is not easy to remain alert. Joseph Wood Krutch, once said, "It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things that is along truly living—the faculty of wonder tires easily.... Really to see something once or twice a week is alomost inevitably to have to try to make oneself a poet."4
Karl Barth reminds us that we do not stay awake by our own energies. "[Christians] do not waken themselves and get up. They are roused, and they are thus caused to get up and set in this countermovement [i.e. the rule of God]"5
Gretchen Wolff Pritchard in a message called Who's Coming?, asks, "What does it take to stir us out of our selfish lethargy and get us busy about God's work of peace and justice? Does God, or God's messenger, have to threaten and terrify us?... The truth is that God's coming in judgment is inseparable from God's coming in grace…. Jesus tells us again and again to wake up. It is both the judgment and the grace of God's coming that God wants us, ourselves, alive and awake: not ranks of neutral automatons blandly leading unexceptional lives, but fully and loudly our unique individual selves."6
Penelope Duckworth, in a message called The Abomination of Desolation, reminds us that apocalyptic writings emerge in times of crisis. "These ever-present forces are the well-springs of prophecy, poetry and art. But, in times of great stress, they emerge in bold and raw forms to enact perceived contemporary events on a cosmic scale. While the apocalypse is a strange form, we must not dismiss its power or influence, or even its truth." She quotes Albert Schweitzer who wrote, "The late-Jewish Messianic worldview is the crater from which burst forth the flame of the eternal religion of love."
Duckworth asks, "How can we understand apocalypse in this last decade of the twentieth century? Does it have meaning for our lives? I think it does. First of all, it speaks to our anxieties about the future. No San Francisco Bay area resident can fail to see the similarities between first-century images of flight and the fires that raged recently in the Oakland hills…. More than historical catastrophes, these passages speak to us of the last things—of the end of the world. They attempt to answer the anxious questions: Toward what end are we heading? Who or what will have the final word?
"The answer is always the same. God is in charge. Trust God through hell and back. Difficult times are to be expected, but the ultimate victory belongs to God…. Those who have trusted in God will be saved. I'm not suggesting that we simply trust and wait. Jesus taught us to live fully—to serve God and no other master; to turn to our neighbors with responsive love; and to trust that our acts of obedience justice and love will be part of God's plan.
"I am suggesting that we pay careful attention to one of the last questions in our catechism. The question asks about our Christian hope. The response reads, `The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world.' The catechism then asks what we mean by the coming of Christ in glory, and the response is, `We mean that Christ will come, not in weakness but in power, and will make all things new.' So be it. Even if our knees are quaking, let us lend our voice to the ancient prayer and say our own `Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.'"7
Norman DePuy writes, "The faithful who are alert to the signs and promises, as Jesus called us to be, are different from those who have given up because they have not rational certitude. Our views of learning, acting and planning for the future are permeated by a good agnosticism. Agnosticism can be a positive openness: it is the seedbed of possibility and hope, a chief ingredient of faith. Jesus insists that the signs must be seen and heard, but that closure is with God and God alone.
"Jesus is calling for the very opposite of resignation. Signs are the stuff of hope, they are mother's milk to people who are open, who can live without closure, who don't particularly worry about control but live in the promises of a faithful God. Hope, like faith, thrives only in light, in open spaces, in the presence of alertness, vision and commitment….
"Our definition of `soon' as promised in the reading from Mark, does not tie God's hands, a God for whom a day is a thousand years, a thousand years as a day. Our concept of time does not become a mandate for Almighty God."8
And finally, Fred Craddock comments, "To [Mark's] church and to all the faithful everywhere . . . the word of our text is both encouraging and demanding…. To keep awake is to be faithful in our work, as though we were already in the presence of the One for whose coming our hearts are eager."9
Barbara D. Henderson
1. Barbara Brown Taylor, "Come Lord Jesus," Journal for Preachers, Volume XX, No. 1, p.3-9.
2. Barbara Brown Taylor, "The Great Tribulation," The Christian Century, August 12-19, 1998, p. 758.
3. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Interpretation: Mark (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983).
4. Joseph Wood Krutch, The Desert Year (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985), p. 37-38.
5. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957), Vol. VI/2.
6. Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, "Who's Coming?" The Christian Century, December 17-24, 1993, p.1155.
7. Penelope Duckworth, "The Abomination of Desolation," The Christian Ministry, March-April 1993, p.23-25.
8. Norman DePuy, "Close, But No Cigar," The Christian Century, December 23, 1991, p. 963.
9. Fred B. Craddock in Craddock. John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year, Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993.
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