Let’s start with a typical story about a pastor and a rabbi. A pastor and a rabbi were standing by the side of the road holding up signs. The rabbi’s sign read, “The End is Near!”
The pastor, on the other side of the road, held up a sign which read, “Turn before it’s too late!” They planned to hold up their signs to each passing car.
“Get a job,” The first driver yelled at them when he saw the sign.
The second driver, immediately behind the first, yelled, “Leave us alone you religious freaks!”
Shortly, from around the curve, the two clergy heard screeching tires and a splash followed by more screeching tires and another splash. The rabbi looked over at the pastor and said, “Do you think we should try a different sign?”
The pastor responded thoughtfully, “Perhaps our signs ought to say simply, “Bridge Out.”
They weren’t doing a very good job of conveying a warning of something unexpected or of giving the “heads up” message.
In our Advent wilderness, watching and waiting, we are learning again to expect the unexpected. Just about everything we planned to do this year has not happened or has had to be done in a different way. And now it’s Advent. How do we do Advent in an unprecedented way? Advent is usually a familiar bridge to a deeper relationship to God and now it’s different. Let’s look at the advice from Mark 13 verses 24-36.
Mark 13 is sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse,” but there’s nothing little about it. This isn’t just earthshaking. It’s cosmic. And Mark is writing about 65-70 AD, about 30 years after Jesus’ time on earth. So Mark has the advantage of hindsight.
Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus spends the first days of his final week in Jerusalem fielding loaded questions from the religious teachers in the temple (Mark 11:27-12:44). Such interrogation is scarcely surprising given his dramatic table-toppling, business-disrupting entrance (Chapter 11:15-16). Jesus has challenged a corrupt temple system that is failing miserably to be a sacred and safe “house of prayer for all nations.”
Today’s focal passage comprises the concluding segment of Jesus’ extended teaching about impending cataclysmic events portending the end of the present world order. He describes the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple, intensified warfare, natural disasters, persecutions of God’s people, betrayals of familial trust and false teachers.
Such a hell-in-a-hand basket world view was typical of Jewish apocalyptic thinking rife in Jesus’ day, born out of centuries of imperial conquest. As Babylonian armies in 6th century, BCE bulldozed the glorious temple built by Solomon, and Hellenistic forces in the second century desecrated the second (rebuilt) temple, it is no great leap to envision Rome’s demolition of the Herodian temple which in fact happened about 70 CE, some forty years after Jesus’ death and only shortly after Mark wrote his gospel between 65 and 70 AD. Mark’s audience was feeling the heat of the terrible scenario that Jesus foresaw.
Sun and moon darkened, stars falling from the sky, Jesus revealed in glory, angels sweeping across the earth to gather the faithful together. This is quite a picture of the end of the world that Jesus paints.
But all is not lost. Prophetic warnings of unspeakable suffering in the Bible ultimately give way to to hope…hope of salvation, hope of restoration, hope of new creation and hope of eternal life. Mark’s faithful readers throughout history gratefully affirm Jesus’ redemptive ministry and resurrection on the third day following his death, but his first disciples couldn’t readily understand what he was talking about and his present disciples can’t help but wonder if and when the final advent will come. When will this day, this month, this year be over with? Even Jesus does not know when the world will end. There were things that Jesus left without questioning in the hands of God and perhaps we too would be wise to avoid speculating on when this pandemic will be over for good.
Jesus offers two mini parables to address the issue of when will our struggles be over with. First, he uses the analogy of a fig tree, just starting to leaf out, signaling that “summer is near”, “the kingdom of God has come near.” The fig tree is a symbol of God’s people. Jesus does not come within “this generation” to rescue God’s people from Rome’s rampage in 70 AD, but the amassing Roman legions make Jesus’ ultimate “gate”-way advent all the more urgent. About the day he will return, he says, “no one knows”. Even Jesus didn’t know when the end of the world would come. He left that up to God.
The second parable (Mark 13:32-37) tells his disciples how to deal with uncertain times. As a traveling estate owners put their servants to work and assign a trusted keeper at the door or gate of their property while they are away, so Jesus entrusts us with the world of God’s realm while we await his advent. The servants are told to keep alert and awake. And he says it to all people “Keep awake.”
Can you imagine the image of Christ as a person on a journey, who has left us servants in charge, each with a responsibility for a portion of the household. This has all kinds of implications for the church. In partnership with God we work together in the shared tending to God’s work of healing, sharing, helping, loving, proclaiming, forgiving, and holding fast while the Lord is away. How will the story end? Will we be sleeping servants or watchful workers? How will things turn out?
Jesus makes it clear: no matter what happens, nobody on earth knows when the world will end, not scientists, not teachers, not preachers. Life is unpredictable. Terrible things will always happen in this world. I do not say that to make you afraid but rather , we need to know that regardless of what comes, God will never leave you nor forsake you. That is our hope. Even if the whole world should pass away, God will still be with you.
Do you remember the movie Ben Hur?. Charlton Heston was in the movie and he had to learn how to drive a chariot pulled by horses, and in one dramatic scene there was a chariot race and Heston was very nervous about the scene. He told the director, “ I think I can drive the chariot all right but I’m not sure I can actually win the race.”
The director responded, “You just stay in the race and I’ll make sure you win.”
That’s Jesus message to us in every troubled time. “You just stay in the race.” Don’t numb your mind or fill it with needless worry, anxiety, or addictions. No one knows what the future holds, but we know who holds the fortune. God holds the the future and we are God’s own children. Stay awake. Do not be afraid.
I think there’s wisdom in the song Day by Day from the musical, GODSPELL.
Let’s use it as our prayer today and throughout our time of waiting in Advent, one day at a time.
Day by day, day by day, Oh Dear Lord, three things I pray, to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day by day.