TITLE: Live Ready!
SERMON IN A SENTENCE: Christ calls us to live faithfully so that we are ready for whatever and whenever -- the Second Coming, our death, or just the ups and downs of life.
SCRIPTURE: Mark 13:24-37
This chapter is often called The Little Apocalypse, based on its similarity to the Great Apocalypse of the Revelation of John.
Apocalypse means an unveiling or a revelation
Chapter 13 begins with a comment by one of the disciples about the temple: "Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" (v. 1). Jesus responds by predicting the destruction of the temple (v. 2). The temple has been the center of Jewish worship and life, but it will not be so for long. The new center of worship and life will be the Son of Man.
Peter, James, John and Andrew (the inner circle plus Andrew) ask, "When this will be and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Jesus responds with a lengthy discourse. He deals with the "when" question by saying, "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come" (vv. 32-33). He deals with the "signs" question by telling of false messiahs and false prophets (v. 6, 22) wars and rumors of wars (v. 7), earthquakes and famines (v. 8), persecution (v. 9), betrayal by family members (v. 12), the desolating sacrilege (v. 14), the darkening of the sun and moon (v. 24), and the falling of the stars (v. 25).
Jesus will mention the destruction of the temple twice again -- at his trial (13:2) and at the cross (15:29). The prediction of the temple's destruction marks "the end of the Jerusalem ministry and the final disqualification of the Temple as focal point of the Kingdom of God" (Williamson, 236).
At the time of the writing of this Gospel, Christians were experiencing persecution. "Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. Civil strife had outlived Roman patience, and the threats begun by Emperor Caligula (AD 39-40) are now (AD 70) carried out. (Christians were estranged from their families by faith issues. False messiahs were sowing confusion.) The faithful are torn between giving themselves up to despair or reaching for any flicker of hope" (Craddock, 7).
In response, chapter 13 presents Jesus' promise that time is moving toward the coming of the Son of Man, who will gather all the people together and make all things right.
The church today is divided between Christians who await expectantly the return of the Son of Man and Christians who ignore this aspect of Jesus' teaching altogether. Christians are often embarrassed by bumper stickers that warn that a car will be driverless in the event of the Rapture. We are also embarrassed by cartoon images of wacko men (they always seem to be men) carrying signs that proclaim, "REPENT!" Nevertheless, we need to take Jesus' words in Mark 13 as seriously as we take Jesus' words anywhere else. The promise is that God has prepared something wonderful beyond our world and time. Is that any more difficult to believe than the resurrection?
Christians who ignore the coming of Christ "have allowed the buoyancy to drop out of their religion.... (Mankind) has exchanged his august faith in God's coming action for a faith in the kind of plastic heaven that comes out of a factory.... What a trade! Heaven for earth! God for gadgets, the coming of Christ in the life of the world for the coming of a salesman's paradise!" (Luccock, 863-864).
VERSES 24-27: THEN THEY WILL SEE THE SON OF MAN
24"But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
The Old Testament provides much of the imagery for these verses. Examples include:
"The earth quakes before them,
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining" (Joel 2:10).
".then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you" (Deut. 30:3)
"For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light" (Isaiah 13:10).
"All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall wither
like a leaf withering on a vine,
or fruit withering on a fig tree" (Isaiah 34:4).
"As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being (Aramaic: like a Son of man)
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him" (Daniel 7:13).
"The reason for this density of biblical references is not hard to locate: the author draws on traditional apocalyptic imagery to underscore the crisis that impends when the Son of Man returns.. The Son of Man prophecy itself comes from Dan. 7:13, and is repeated in Mark 14:62, in Jesus' trial before the chief priest" (Brueggemann, 8-9).
"In Mark's day... stars were thought to be heavenly powers that influenced human affairs. At the end of time all such powers, real and imagined, will be obliterated. The picture is one of total cosmic collapse. Darkness and chaos will envelop everything, just as before time (Gen 1:2)" (Edwards 403). "Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory" (v. 27). The cosmic powers will be gone, and Godly power will reign.
While the imagery is frightening, it is intended to be encouraging to Christians who are living in frightening times. It acknowledges the reality of their suffering and sacrifice, and promises that:
-- The Holy Spirit will give them the right words to say (v. 11).
-- "The one who endures to the end will be saved" (v. 13).
-- The Son of Man will "gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven" (v. 27). Jews believed that God would gather the faithful to Jerusalem from the nations to which they had dispersed (see Deut 30:4; Isa 11:11; 43:6). Their scattering represents "the loss of national unity...as a consequence of their infidelity to God; (their being gathered together again) announces the salvation of Israel through a return to spiritual and national unity" (Lane, 476). Now, with Jerusalem and the temple gone, the Son of Man gathers the faithful to himself -- becomes the new temple of God.
While this is encouraging, it is also demanding. Jesus places a high premium on faithful discipleship in the midst of terrible trials. He calls for us endure and to be watchful.
VERSES 28-31: MY WORDS WILL NOT PASS AWAY
28"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
This is the first of two mini-parables included in our Gospel lesson. The second mini-parable is the man going on a journey (vv. 34-36).
The disciples asked for a sign (v. 4), and Jesus finally answers their request. Most of the trees in that part of the world are evergreen, but the olive and the fig are deciduous. The olive tree blossoms early, so it is not a trustworthy harbinger of summer. The fig tree, however, blossoms late, so its blossoms promise that summer is just around the corner. If this scene takes place near Passover, as seems likely, Jesus could be pointing to a blossoming fig as he says these words.
Earlier, Jesus cursed a fig tree (11:12-14), cleansed the temple (11:15-19), and gave the disciples a lesson about the power of faith from the withered fig tree (11:20-24). The fig tree in chapter 13, however, does not wither, but blossoms -- a hopeful sign. We might think of the withered tree as the withered temple religion that will soon be destroyed, but the blossoming fig is the Son of Man, who brings new life to the faithful (Jensen).
While Jesus' comments about the fig tree sound cryptic, he simply assures us that, as we see these signs taking place, "we are assured that the day of salvation for the elect is near" (Perkins, 693).
V. 30 has generated a great deal of discussion. "For truly I tell you" indicates the seriousness of the words that follow. "...this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place." It seems that Jesus is saying that the Son of Man will return within the next few years or, at most, the next few decades. That is troubling, because the Son of Man did not come in the expected way and time, and has still not come two thousand years later. There have been a number of attempts to resolve this problem:
-- Some scholars suggest that "this generation" means Jewish people or humanity in general, but most reject this proposition. For one thing, it stretches "this generation" beyond its apparent meaning. For another, it leads to a trite conclusion -- that humanity will still be present when the Son of Man comes.
-- Some scholars suggest that "all these things" refers to the destruction of the temple rather than the coming of the Son of Man. If so, the prophecy was fulfilled. The temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.
-- Geddert says that we should read v. 30 as follows: "Within the present generation, all the events that are guaranteed to precede the arrival of the Son of Man (including the desecration and destruction of the temple) will be fulfilled. If ordinary history should go on after that (and of this there is no guarantee), then at every minute we must reckon with the possible arrival of the Son of Man. He is at the very gates." In other words, he accepts the idea that "all these things" refers to the fall of Jerusalem and the temple. He then suggests that, once the temple was destroyed, the Second Coming became imminent, in the sense that there would be no further cues or warnings. Christ can come anytime.
-- Hare comments, "The nonfulfillment of the prophecy... must be taken as a sign of grace. God's patience has extended the time during which the gospel may be proclaimed and people may repent" (Hare, 178).
-- Jensen says, "...many of 'these things that would take place' actually happen to Jesus himself. Jesus himself appears before the Sanhedrin and the governor. Judas, an insider and 'brother,' hands Jesus over to death. The sun is turned to darkness while Jesus hangs on the cross" (Jensen).
The one thing that we can say with certainty is that there is no scholarly consensus on this matter. It would be good for the preacher to have an opinion in case he/she is asked, but no purpose is likely to be served by belaboring this issue in a sermon.
"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (v. 31). This is derived from Isa 51:6 ("for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment,") and 40:8 ("but the word of our God will stand forever"). It is a bold claim, but one that has withstood the test of history. Kingdoms rise and wane -- knowledge expands exponentially -- tyrants use carrots to entice Christians away from their Lord and sticks to persecute those who won't be enticed -- but people from all walks of life and in every land (and on the sea and in the air) still look to Jesus as Lord.
VERSES 32-37: KEEP AWAKE!
32"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time (Greek: kairos -- crucial time, decisive moment) will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake -- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake (Greek: gregoreite -- keep awake, watch, be vigilant)."
In v. 30, Jesus seems to claim that the Son of Man will come soon, but in v. 32, he says that the Son does not know the day or hour. Some believe that this is inconsistent, but it is possible for a person to know a general time frame but not an exact day or hour.
"Beware, keep alert" (v. 33). "Someone has said that the worst 'ism' in the world is not fascism or communism but somnambulism" (Luccock, 865). In the Roman army, a guard could be executed for falling asleep on guard duty. While that sounds (and is) harsh, it reflects a harsh reality. A sleeping guard allows the enemy freedom to breach defenses and to kill everyone. Our spiritual alertness is just that important. We live in a world full of soul-killing temptations and distractions. We are subject daily to advertising that tries to persuade us to trivialize our lives -- to friends who demand the loyalty that we owe to Jesus -- to entertainments that glamorize alcohol, illicit sex, and a thousand tempters. Even coaches, who at one time emphasized spiritual values, schedule practices on Sunday mornings, requiring youngsters to choose between sports and faith. The list of tempters is endless. When we succumb to these tempters, we (and our family and friends) suffer the consequences of our sin. "Beware, keep alert," Jesus warns. Good advice!
"...for you do not know when the time (Greek: kairos) will come" (v. 33). The Greek language has another word for time, chronos, which has to do with chronological time, time keeping, and that sort of thing. Kairos is a very different concept -- that of crucial time or a decisive moment -- a pivotal point in history or a person's life. It is one thing to be a few minutes late for chronos time, but it is quite another matter to be late for kairos time. To be late for chronos time might require re-shuffling one's schedule a bit. To be late for kairos time is to miss one's ship. There might never be another ship!
As noted above, vv. 34-36 constitute a mini-parable about a master going away and charging his doorkeeper to be on the watch. "Notice the power of 'as if.' It is as if a householder goes away (though God has not gone away). It is as if he leaves his slave in charge (though we are not really in charge). But we are responsible.... We are stewards.... Apocalyptic hope should inspire us to work and to declare that the glory of Christ is the hope of the world, and that the duty of believers is to live out that hope, wide-awake" (Bartlett).
"...for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn" (v. 35). These are the four Roman watches of the night: Evening watch (6:00 - 9:00 p.m.); midnight watch (9:00 - midnight); cockcrow watch (midnight - 3:00 a.m.); and dawn watch (3:00 - 6:00 a.m.). Note that they are all nighttime watches. We expect the master to return during the day, when traveling is easier, but you never know!
Grant interprets the nighttime watches as possibly meaning that the church will still find itself suffering persecution when the Son of Man returns (Grant, 865). However, night is also the time when we tend to be least alert, so the message might be that we need to be fully ready even in our least ready moments. It is a serious call to serious discipleship.
Is Christ calling us never to sleep? Hardly! Our bodies require sleep, because that is the way that God created us. Keeping awake in this Gospel means serving God faithfully day by day. We can expect all manner of distractions -- temptation, hardship, boredom, persecution. Our task is not to allow ourselves to be distracted. Our task is to remain rock-steady faithful.
"Mark structures his passion narrative around these four watches" (Geddert).
-- "When it was evening" (14:17), Jesus and his disciples gathered in the upper room.
-- Midnight is the only watch not specifically named in the passion narrative, but Gethsemane is located between the upper room (evening) and Peter's denial (cockcrow), so midnight is implied.
-- Peter denied Jesus at cockcrow (14:72).
-- "As soon as it was morning" (15:1), the chief priests and scribes handed Jesus over to Pilate.
Jesus charges disciples to "keep alert" (v. 33), lest the master of the house "may find you asleep" (v. 36).
"Watch! The keyword (gregorein) in the subunit (13:34, 35, 37) is also a keyword in the Gethsemane pericope (see 14:34, 37, 38)" (Donahue & Harrington, 378). In Gethsemane, Jesus will reprimand the disciples five times for failure to watch (14:34, 37, 38, 40, 41).
It is difficult to stay awake -- to stay alert -- when nothing is happening. A few years ago, when my son was first learning to drive, he thought that driving was the most exciting thing in the world. I told him, however, that the time would come when driving would seem routine. I told him that, hard as it might be for him to imagine, the time would come when he would have to be careful not to fall asleep at the wheel. Now that he has been driving for awhile, he knows what I was talking about. He has not fallen asleep at the wheel, but he has had to stop to rest or to get a cup of coffee. Sometimes it is hard to stay awake.
I can also remember young soldiers pulling guard at night in Vietnam. I felt sorry for them. They sat for long stretches of time, trying to see into the darkness, watching for an enemy that seldom came. They had to stay awake -- to stay alert -- to watch -- but it was hard. It wasn't that they wanted anything exciting to happen, because that could be deadly -- but the boredom was deadly too.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus calls us to stay awake -- to stay alert -- to keep watching. First, he pictures the day when he will return in glory. Then he says:
"It is like a man going on a journey,
when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work,
and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.
Therefore, keep awake --
for you do not know when the master of the house will come,
in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly."
The implication is that, if we are found asleep, we will be in serious trouble.
But how can a person stay awake all the time? God made us so that we need sleep. Most of us need eight hours of sleep every night, and some of us need a nap now and then as well. There may even be a person here or there who will need a little nap to get through this sermon. Would Christ be so cruel as to condemn us for succumbing to the sleepiness that is built into our bodies and souls? Surely not! Christ surely does not require that which we are not capable of giving.
No, Jesus is not telling us that we are required to stay awake 24 hours a day. In the Gospel of Mark, wakefulness is a metaphor for faithfulness. This little parable about a master going on a journey and telling his doorkeeper to keep watch is really a call to us to be faithful while we await Jesus' return -- to live faith-filled lives. Jesus knew that he would be going away after the resurrection, and he wanted to encourage us to remain faithful, even though the days might grow long -- and the nights even longer.
It was difficult for those first disciples to stay alert, because they expected Jesus to return any day -- but it had already been 35 or 40 years and Jesus had not yet come back. How could they remain expectant day by day? How could they stay prepared? How could they be faithful?
It is even more difficult today. It has been two thousand years now, and Jesus has not yet returned. How can we remain expectant day by day? How can we stay prepared? How can we be faithful?
Which raises the question, Expectant for what? Prepared for what? Faithful to what?
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus was calling his disciples to prepare themselves for his coming. He was calling them to faithful discipleship so that, when he returned, they would not be found wanting.
That is a message that Christians today find difficult to hear. Talk of the Second Coming has, unfortunately, been pre-empted by people who set our teeth on edge. For instance, there are the Christians who drive around with bumper stickers that say "DANGER: In the event of the Rapture, this car will be driverless!" The thing that bothers me about those stickers is their air of superiority -- the message that "I'm O.K. with God but you are not." My guess is that Christians who put those bumper stickers on their cars are trying, in some backhanded way, to proclaim the Gospel. Unfortunately, I think that they drive more people away than they attract.
And then there are the fire-and-brimstone television preachers.
And then there is the occasional wacko who insists that the world will come to an end on such and such a day.
BUT! As one of my old profs used to say, "This is a teaching point!" -- which meant that we were likely to see it on the test. BUT! Teaching point! Jesus himself said, "Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come." What was he talking about? He was talking about his Second Coming. He was talking about that time when everything will finally come into focus -- and the focal point will be Christ -- and the angels will "gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven."
Now if anyone else had said that, I might be a little less impressed. But I have to confess that, when Jesus says something, I sit up a little straighter and listen a little harder. If we can't believe what Jesus says, then we might as well pack it up and go home. If we can't believe what Jesus says, nothing that we are doing here makes much sense.
And Jesus says, "Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come."
He is warning his disciples -- and that includes us -- that he will return -- and that we cannot know when -- that it could happen at any time -- and that it makes a great difference whether or not we are prepared.
And being prepared, in Mark's Gospel, is a metaphor for being faithful -- for living faith-filled lives. Will Christ, when he comes, find us to have been faithful -- doing his work -- doing his will. I hope so.
I must admit that it is difficult to get excited about the Second Coming, because it has been so long since Jesus' First Coming. But I submit to you today that, whether Jesus comes again in our lifetime or not, we would do well to be prepared. Whether or not we are alive to see the end of the world, as we know it, we will see the end of our own lives. We need to be spiritually prepared for the Second Coming, but we also need to be spiritually prepared for our own death.
Fred Craddock, that great teacher of preachers, as a young man was the pastor of a small church in Oklahoma. One day he got a call from the hospital -- from a woman who was a patient there. The woman belonged to the church where Craddock was pastor, but she had not been to church in quite some time. Craddock wouldn't have known that she was in the hospital, because they weren't that close -- but she called to ask for a visit. She told him that she would be having surgery the next day. It was clear from the tone of her voice that she was afraid -- really afraid -- on the verge of panic.
Craddock dropped everything, and went to see the woman. When he got there, he noted the stack of junk magazines on her nightstand -- movie magazines featuring articles on Liz -- and Eddie -- and Burton -- keep in mind that this was many years ago. There was no Bible to be seen -- nothing substantial anywhere -- nothing at all. Craddock thought to himself: There isn't a spiritual calorie in the whole bunch! No wonder she has no resources to deal with the storms of life.
You see, this woman was facing the possibility, however remote, that she might die the next day -- and she knew that she was not ready. She had fewer than 24 hours to get ready, and she didn't know where to start. No wonder she was panicked! How do you get ready for death on short notice? It is certainly possible to get ready -- but it is much better to live ready! Some people won't have 24 hours to get ready! Some people get no time at all.
Jesus says, "Keep alert! Keep awake!" -- by which he means that we need to live faithfully -- full of faith -- day-by-day. Then we will be ready for whatever comes -- even our own death.
So we need to be ready for the Second Coming, and we need to be ready for death. We also need to be ready for life. As someone has said, "Life is what happens while we are making other plans." Someone else captured the same idea when they said, "To give God a good laugh, just tell him your plans."
I don't mean to suggest that life never goes according to plan. Most of us, at least to some extent, plan our work and work our plan. Very often, we decide to be a butcher, or a baker, or a candlestick maker -- and that is exactly what we become. But sometimes it doesn't work out. And sometimes it works out for a while, and then we discover that we hate being a butcher, or a baker, or a candlestick maker. Or maybe the company for which we work goes out of business -- or is acquired -- or downsizes -- or whatever. Then, at age thirty -- or forty -- or fifty -- or sixty -- we find ourselves back at the drawing board trying to decide what we want to be when we grow up.
And, of course, life holds other surprises as well -- health -- accidents -- economic downturns -- and a host of others.
The point is not that life is miserable. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. The point is that it takes a good deal of strength to cope with the things that life throws at us. Perhaps I should say that it takes spiritual maturity. If we don't have our feet planted pretty solidly, life's curve balls will knock us out of the box.
And it isn't just the bad things -- the disappointments -- the frustrations -- that threaten to undo us. We need strength -- spiritual maturity -- to deal with the good things too. It takes spiritual maturity to keep a marriage going. It takes spiritual maturity to deal with a child who keeps us awake at night. It takes spiritual maturity to deal with financial success. I don't have statistics on this, but I would venture that as many people are undone by success as by failure. Just look at the Enron scandal. High-flying, fast-living, quick-rich power-people were everyone's envy one day and jailbait the next.
A cartoon shows two men suffering the torments of hell. One says to the other, "My motto was, 'Go with the Flow,' but I had no idea the flow would end up here."
It takes strength -- spiritual maturity -- to swim against the current -- but that is what we need to do sometimes. And when the time comes that we need to swim against the current, it is too late to start trying to build up our strength. At that point, we either have it or we don't.
Jesus says, Beware, keep alert! Keep awake! Live faithfully! Live a faith-filled life! Then you will be ready! Ready for Christ! Ready for heaven! Ready for death! Ready for life!
Let us make ourselves ready.
I believe God wants us to be successful... and yet success is not always obvious. The Chinese bamboo tree does absolutely nothing -- or so it seems -- for the first four years. Then suddenly, sometime during the fifth year, it shoots up ninety feet in sixty days. Would you say that bamboo tree grew in six weeks, or in five years? I think our lives are akin to the Chinese bamboo tree. Sometimes we put forth effort, put forth effort, and put forth effort... and nothing seems to happen. But if you do the right things long enough, you'll receive the rewards of your efforts.
-- S. Truett Cathy