Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13: 24-37
With all there is to get ready for Christmas, both in secular and sacred terms, we might think that nobody needs to tell us to “keep awake.” After all this is the busiest season of the year for many - where we focus on planning for family events and buying gifts. Worrying about decorations - even trying to compete with the neighbour over who has the best light display… For many it strikes me this may instead be the season to pass out the sleeping pills or the chamomile tea, to a revved-up,overcaffeinated culture of busy-ness.
But let us be clear that while the world’s busyness may seem to be pointed toward Christmas, it is seldom pointed toward the coming of Jesus Christ. As Advent progresses, the number of shopping days left before the big day can offer us a countdown that stresses us out and keeps us up late - we get worked up worrying about the worldly expectations of what Christmas is supposed to be like.
Like people who have lived next to an airport or near train tracks for years,we no longer hear the sound of the plane or train. After years in church, we get used to the noise of Advent, to the coming of Christ, so much so that we no longer notice it. Or if we do, it has ceased to jolt us awake and has become instead a low,dull rumble.
We may not be physically asleep; quite the opposite. But in our wakefulness to worldly ways, we fall asleep to the spiritual season, and so we need a wake-up call - and that is exactly what we get from the Gospel of Mark today.
Firstly lets get a fuller picture of the context of our Gospel reading. Today’s Gospel passage is from a chapter often referred to as“the little apocalypse.” The material in Mark 13 is a narrative break in the Gospel, it is set between Jesus’ teaching on the temple mount (chapter 12) and the passion narrative (chapters 14–16). In the opening verses of chapter 13, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple and then, crossing over to the Mount of Olives, he begins to talk with Peter, James, John, and Andrew about the end of the age. Mark 13:5–23 comprises a series of warnings regarding false indicators of the end. But also draws on old testament prophecy to point us to the true picture - in verse 14 Jesus quotes the prophet Daniel when referencing the ‘abomination that causes desolation’. Jesus admonishes his disciples to watch and wait, for the end will come and they must be alert. Our Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Advent is the second half of this chapter, it follows directly from these warnings. It easily divides into three sections:24–27; 28–31; and 32–36.
In the first section (24-27), Jesus shifts our attention from false prophets and deceptive omens to the actual signs of the times. With apocalyptic imagery again taken from the Old Testament - this time from Isaiah (13:10; 34:4); Joel (2:10; 3:4; 4:15);Ezekiel (32:7, 8); and again from Daniel (7:13), Jesus pointing to these prophecies from the Old Testament which use metaphor pointing to disturbances in the cosmic order to herald a significant event is no mistake. We often forget the Old Testament points us to Christ as we focus on the new - but the Old Testament still has much to reveal to us - even about the coming of our saviour. It is not unusual in apocalyptic writing to call on cosmic imagery to describe the indescribable; in this instance it is the coming of the Son of Man that is spotlighted.
The “Son of Man coming in clouds” (13:26)is a reference from Daniel 7:13, and the “desolating sacrilege” that we talked about earlier (13:14) is referenced in Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11 (cf. 1 Macc. 1:54; 2 Macc.6:1–6). Mark instructs us to pay attention to Daniel (“let the reader understand,” v. 14). What we have in Mark 13 is a basic apocalyptic scenario which draws on imagery lifted from Old Testament prophecy and applied to new situations. The basic message of the vision is this: The rebellion against God is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. Things will get worse before they get better. But hold fast and keep alert because just when you are sure you cannot take any more, God will intervene - The Son of man will return.
The second section of our passage (28-31) gives us the lesson from the fig tree - Jesus uses this as an encouragement - when we see the signs that He has pointed us to then we should not be afraid but take comfort, for just as the new shoots on the fig tree point to the end of the dark cold winter, so to do these signs point to the end of darkness and the impending return of the Son of Man. The difficult verse in this section for many is that Jesus seems to indicate that all these things will happen before the passing away of the generation in which he was living. However a couple of things need to be said about this verse - The greek is not as clear as many modern translations would have us believe. Internationally renowned biblical Greek scholar William Mounce translates this as this generation will not pass away until all these things begin to take place… This is a much better rendering of the original Greek. Also worth noting is that γενεά - or generation - can also be a reference to the nation of Israel - not just to the generation alive at the time…
Our final section of today’s reading is a parable that comes with a warning for us all - it’s that jolt to action that wakes us up that we talked about earlier. Jesus uses the parable of the master going away on a journey - we as the church are the servants left behind and are called to remain alert as we await the masters return. We don’t know the time of the masters coming so we need to be in a constant state of readiness - we need to be going about our responsibilities. That means that in this period of waiting and expectation, when it is so easy to get caught up with what everyone else is doing, to get caught up in the expectations of the world we need to keep our focus on Christ, we need to be vigilant in our preparation, lest the master return and find that we have fallen asleep on the job. It is a very important message for us as we begin this season of Advent.
It is so easy for us to just get caught up with everything that happens around this time of year, to focus on the worldly temptations. Advent is about drawing us back to our primary calling. It is about pausing and taking the time to re-evaluate our priorities. Rather than being a season of panicked shopping, and preparation for Christmas - it is a time when we are reminded that we must be vigilant, we must remain spiritually awake, as we approach the day we remember that God became a human being, and remember that he will come again.
Brothers and sisters, don’t let this season be just a changing of the altar front to purple. Remember as our Gospel points us to today that Jesus has come, and he will come again. Use this time to re-invigorate your spiritual life. Traditionally Advent was a time of prayer and fasting in the church, a time when the faithful put aside the concerns of everyday life and instead focussed on the Kingdom of God. It was a time of spiritual rejuvenation - a time to re-awaken our spirits which had become drowsy living through the everyday. It was a time when the church renewed its commitment to those who have little - to those for whom this time of year is not stressful because they are planning family events or buying presents, but because they have no family, or can’t afford to buy presents…
I have spoken to you over the past few months in my preaching about our call as Christians in Dubbo to be beacons of light to the community, to be those whose faith is seen as well as heard. Let us this Advent commit ourselves to this, let us kickstart weary spirits and re-engage in our calling as disciples - followers - of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
The Lord be with you.