Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)
The Coming of 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,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then 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 Lesson of the Fig Tree
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. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The Necessity for Watchfulness
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 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. 35 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, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent which comes from the Latin word adventus (a translation of the Greek word parousia) which refers to the coming of Christ and can be understood three ways — past, present and future. In the past, Christ was born in flesh and blood and walked among us. In the present, he has come into our hearts and is present with us. In the future, he will come again to bring about the redemption and restoration of all things. Having not been born into the Church of Ireland, the process of learning about the seasons in the liturgical calendar has been fascinating. In my past life in evangelicalism, there was no lectionary to guide us nor did I know anything about the liturgical journey I would experience in Anglicanism. This week, in hundreds of thousands of churches around the world, the colours will change like leaves on a tree but, instead of going from green to autumnal oranges and reds, the vestments that our clergy wear and our church decorations will change from green to purple. Purple is the colour of advent and it signifies waiting.
Advent is the first season of the liturgical year so our year begins with anticipation, which helps us to understand how the people of Israel felt as they longed for their Messiah to arrive and to deliver them. Advent reminds us of what we are waiting for and how to wait for it … but this week’s lectionary reading doesn’t necessarily make this clear at first glance. In fact, these verses have often been used to mislead people and terrify them rather encourage and prepare them.
Our passage begins at verse 24 with a horrifying prediction of what was to come. It sounds more like nuclear armageddon than the return of a good and loving God … and that makes sense because, according to most theologians, this has already come to pass. They argue that Jesus was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem that was to happen in 70 AD, a pivotal moment in the history of his people when the place around which Judaism orbited was desecrated and then destroyed. As NT Wright puts it,
‘This is not a prediction of the “end of the world”, though many in Jerusalem at the time must have wished it was … No; but it was the end of their world, the close of the way of life that had failed, by the combination of injustice towards those inside and revolutionary violence towards those outside, to obey God’s call to be the light of the world.'
Sadly, this verse and other parts of this passage have been ripped out of context and cobbled together with others from throughout the Old and New Testaments to create formulas and predictions about Jesus’ return. This is particularly tragic considering the climax of this passage is Jesus saying that nobody knows except the Father. Not Jesus. Not the angels. Not us as people. And we’re not supposed to.
What we’re supposed to do is stay awake.
To slumber or sleep is to wait passively. To rest while others experience unrest and distress. To close our eyes and attention to the world around us that has been entrusted to us.
To be awake is to wait actively. To fight the temptation to turn off our senses and tune out other voices. To look to the horizon in hope of the coming dawn. To be awake and alive to the world we are called to serve.
Being Advent people means that we are people of faith as defined by the author of the book of Hebrews who writes that ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we have not seen.’
Advent waiting is a balance of hurt and hope. What hurts is the absence of what we hope for. What makes us hopeful is the promise that this world will not hurt forever.
As I read this passage, I can’t help but be reminded of another moment that Jesus asked people to stay awake. It was on the night he was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemene near the Mount of Olives, the very same place that he speaks these words in Mark. He had taken some of his disciples into the garden in order to pray and prepare himself for what was to come. He asked of them just one thing.
‘I am deeply grieved, even to death. Remain here and stay awake with me.’ (Matthew 26:38)
While he prayed, sobbed and sweat drops of blood in anguish, his disciples slept.
And while our world cries out, sobs and prays, we can choose to sleepwalk through the time we have been given or we can be awake and alive to their voices and to God’s.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.