Advent 1B – Mark 13:24-37
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Mark 13:26
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. Mark 13:27
The Thanksgiving holiday is a time for family gatherings, and I have fond memories of many family get-togethers that occurred throughout my life. As I recall sitting around the table at past Thanksgivings with family members now departed, I can still see the carefully prepared dining room, feel the texture of the white table-cloth used only on special occasions, smell the roasting turkey, taste the cranberry sauce and hear my grandparents’ voices around the table. Those occasions have imprinted themselves on my consciousness.
I like family reunions, even where I don’t really know my family! My mother-in-law lives in another part of the country. She has many brothers and sisters and they’ve all stayed close over the years. With cousins, nephews, in-laws and so forth, she has a huge number of kinfolk. Her family reunions are great. Her brother has the largest barbecue trailer that I’ve ever seen and he cooks chicken that melts in your mouth. I’ve lived in towns with fewer people than come to the reunion, and I’m constantly meeting people I don’t know. I’m an introvert so I don’t spend hours in conversation with my unfamiliar kin, but something in me appreciates that we’re connected.
My most meaningful reunions, however, have not been dinner parties. Suffering through the long months of the separation that war brings to soldiers, enduring the interminable start-and-stop process of redeployment, and finally falling into the arms of my wife and children: these occasions, too, are imprinted forever on my brain. I’ve never experienced anything greater than coming home from war to the family I love, and there has been nothing harder to bear than living with uncertainty about whether I would ever see my family again.
Those who heard Mark’s gospel read aloud knew something of what it meant to long for reunion. Local persecutions had begun. Christians and Jews had been chased out from their homes and scattered. The call of the mission field drew many to the road. The Christian family grew ever larger, yet individuals and groups of Christians remained physically isolated (and occasionally doctrinally isolated) from their brothers and sisters. Some were separated by death from those they loved. Most Christians felt somewhat ill-at-ease in the world whose values were so foreign to the kingdom, and they longed for the consummation of ingathering.
It’s interesting that the only effect Mark relates concerning Jesus’ appearing is this ingathering of his own. There is no mention of the punishment of the wicked, the vindication of righteousness or the global dominion of the God.
We customarily sing “Come Ye Thankful People Come” at Thanksgiving, but this is really a song about God’s ingathering of the righteous at the end of time. It echoes the prayers of those who long for the promised ingathering of God’s people in the Kingdom of God:
Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, in Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels come,
Raise the glorious harvest home.
We wait for that day in hope and anticipation, and Jesus speaks about that as well.
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. Mark 13:28
Let me use another illustration from Thanksgiving. The turkey goes in the oven on Thanksgiving morning, and then the waiting begins. Eventually the smell of roasting poultry will start to fill the house, but the bird will not yet be ready to eat. We’ll check the temperature and find that it’s barely reached the 100’s. In what seems like an eternity later, we’ll check again 110, then later 115, still later 120. We had hoped we’d be at the table by now. Won’t this turkey ever get done? The mouth-watering aroma is a sure sign that our hopes will be fulfilled, but the timing is uncertain and the anticipation is simultaneously painful and delicious.
Like the aroma of our turkey and the swelling buds of a fig tree, Jesus’ mighty acts and sacrificial life are indicators that something good is coming. The events of Jesus’ own ministry are signs that the promise inaugurated with the call of Abraham and Sarah will certainly be fulfilled, but the timing is unclear. We wait in both joyous hope and agonizing hunger.
What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ Mark 13:37
Mark 13 ends with the command, “Watch.” Other translations say, “Be alert” or “Stay awake.” The word is gregoreuo. It’s a present active imperative verb, which indicates an ongoing, continuous action. “Keep watch.” Just exactly what does Mark intend for us to do? In the first chapter of Acts, angels speak the assembly of disciples at Jesus’ ascension. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven?” (Acts 1:11a). Luke apparently thought watchfulness didn’t include sky-gazing, and there’s no indication that Mark thought differently on the matter.
There are some clues in Mark as to what he thinks Christians ought to be doing while the master of the house is away. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus proclaims, “And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations.” (Mark 13:10). The gospel begins with Jesus calling disciples to “Repent” and “Believe” (Mark 1:15). Both of these verbs are also present active imperatives. “Continue to repent. Never stop believing.” When calling Simon and Andrew he says, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Living in personal allegiance to Jesus, trusting in God’s actions, transforming one’s life to be in conformity to Jesus’ life and teaching, making disciples and proclaiming the gospel throughout the world: these appear to be some of the ongoing activities that Mark envisions for Christian disciples.
Perhaps that’s all the parable means. The servants are entrusted with ongoing work while the master of the house is away, and they’re expected to keep at it. But what about that door keeper? What’s his role in the parable? He’s the one told to keep watch and his post suggests one other ongoing responsibility for Christians: guarding the household of faith, protecting the master’s people and the master’s property against loss. Perhaps the doorkeeper in the parable hints in the direction of defending the faith and shepherding the faithful.
Jesus commands all his followers to “watch.” As we live our daily lives, we are to remember that we are waiting for the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. That sense of expectation gives focus to our lives, provides motivation and direction to our activities and puts the things of the world in their proper perspective. It is the Lord Jesus who will ultimately judge how we spend our days here. It is the values of his kingdom that will ultimately win the day. We’ve been entrusted with our work in his absence; let’s keep our eyes open as we work, so that we don’t lose focus on the things that are truly important.
I’ve not said much at all about Christmas. To enter into Advent, the first thing we have to do is turn off the Christmas switch
We’re in a rush to get there. One radio station started playing non-stop Christmas hymns during the first week of November. Now that Thanksgiving is past, everything will be Christmas, Christmas, Christmas until the 25th of December. Advent is not in such a rush. It invites us to identify first of all with those who sat in the darkness of the ruins, both past and present. And it invites us to look forward to the consummation of our hope, and to shape our lives accordingly.
But in looking both back and forward, Advent does nudge us toward the feast of the Incarnation, in which God has begun to fulfill the plea of Isaiah and the prophets, and left us longing for the consummation.
If we don’t begin to understand the depth of those hopes, we won’t really understand Christmas day. Advent reminds us of what it means for us to long for the Lord’s coming. Christmas proclaims, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.” In the words of Philip Brooks great hymn, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”.