November 30, 2014
“Get your affairs in order.” Those are words that I imagine most of us would dread hearing. “Get your affairs in order,” usually means that the end of your life is imminent, so do whatever you have to do to prepare. Settle whatever must be settled. Finish what must be finished. Get your affairs in order. A few years ago I heard a news story about a man who heard that dreaded phrase. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and according to his doctors, he had only months to live. The man decided that if this was it, he wasn’t going to sit around passively waiting for death to arrive. However, he also didn’t seem to understand what it meant to get his affairs in order either. It seems he went with the “you can’t take it with you,” philosophy. He stopped paying his mortgage. He emptied his bank account. I don’t remember if he traveled, gambled, or just had a field day at Target, but he spent every penny he had.
The man was misdiagnosed. He was not, in fact, dying. He did have an illness, but it turned out to be curable. He could live for many more years to come. While you and I might find this incredible, miraculous news, I doubt that this gentleman was as happy to learn he would live as we would be in the same situation. The last part of the story was that he was suing the medical establishment who misdiagnosed him. Great, he was going to live, but he thought he was going to die. Now, he was completely broke. I do not know the outcome, but one lesson learned is that even professionals make mistakes. A second lesson could be that “getting your affairs in order” is not necessarily synonymous with “blow it all.” Perhaps the greatest lesson from this is none of us knows when the end will come; whether it’s our own end or the end of everything.
That seems to be the basic gist of our passage from Mark’s gospel on this first Sunday of Advent. No one knows when the end will come. That is Jesus’ message to the disciples. You can try to read the signs, those in the heavens and those all around you, but you still don’t know. Not even the Son knows the day or time, only the Father. So you must keep awake.
Chapter 13 in the gospel of Mark is known as “The Little Apocalypse.” If you read through the chapter carefully, it seems that Mark had two understandings of the end times. One is that they were imminent. The second is that they were still in the distant future. Scholars believe that Mark had access to two different accounts of the eschaton, so he wove them together. I imagine that this confluence of stories confused his original audience as much as it confuses us – well, me. Those who were witnesses to Jesus certainly believed that the end times were imminent, but history shows that their belief that Jesus would return in their lifetime did not happen. So what does this mean and when will he return?
I struggle with apocalyptic stories such as this one. Not only because the very idea of the end of the world is something that scares me, but also because this kind of story always falls on the first Sunday of Advent. Even after all these years of preaching, and knowing that we will hear apocalyptic stories on this particular Sunday, I am still jarred by them. Especially in light of the fact that the theme of this first Sunday is hope. Where can we possibly find a word of hope in a passage that speaks of the end of the world – as we know it.
Another factor in this chapter from Mark’s gospel is that is not only about eschatology, it is also about farewell. It is Jesus’ farewell to his disciples. The chapter marks a turning point in the story of Jesus. His ministry is coming to an end. Chapter 14 begins with the plot to kill him. From this point on Jesus is moving inexorably to his passion, his death on the cross. So in one sense these are his parting words. Jesus wants them to have some idea of what lies ahead for them. He wants them to know that he will return to them. But while there may be many signs, no one knows when his return, when God’s full glory will overcome them, so they need to stay awake. As one commentator put it, they need to “wait impatiently,” for Jesus’ second coming.
Here’s my real struggle with passages such as this one. What does it mean to profess that Jesus will come again? We believe it. It is in our creed. Today, we celebrate the sacrament of communion with one another, and at the end of that I will proclaim Christ’s return in glory. I take this seriously, and yet I tend to scoff at the people who try to predict the end of the world. I don’t agree with their understanding of the rapture, and to be quite honest, I don’t spend my days thinking too hard about what my profession of Jesus’ second coming actually means. I should, but I don’t. According to The Rapture Index, a website devoted to the end times, the rapture index at this moment is high. It’s 183. It’s too complicated to try and explain how the folks behind this index arrive at this particular number. But according to them, an index of 160 and above means “fasten your seatbelts.” We should be ready for the rapture, because it could happen anytime now.
Yet, this is exactly the kind of prediction I dismiss, and it is the kind of prophecy Jesus speaks against? No one knows. Yes, there will be signs, but no one on this earth knows. That includes Jesus. So you have to keep watch, be ready and stay awake!
I guess I could just leave it at that. What we must take from this passage, especially as we prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus into the world, is that we are called to stay awake. We are exhorted to be in a state of constant vigilance and diligent watchfulness. We have no idea when Jesus will come again. We must watch for the signs Jesus speaks of, but even then we won’t know. So keep awake.
However, before I offer my final amen on these words from the gospel, I am struck by something in this passage that I never noticed before. In the very last verses, in the story of the man going on a journey and leaving his slaves in charge, there is a foreshadowing of the passion to come. In verse 35, Mark refers to the four watches of the night. The first watch is in the evening, the second, midnight, the third at cockcrow, and the fourth at dawn. Jesus shares his last supper with the disciples in the evening. He prays in the garden at Gethsemane and begs the disciples to stay awake with him, but it is the middle of the night. Just as Jesus predicted, Peter denies him by the second cockcrow. When morning comes, Jesus is betrayed and arrested.
Why is this significant outside of a literary device to alert us to Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion? It seems to me that in the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when even the sun’s rays were overcome and the world was cast into darkness and the curtain of the temple was ripped in two, that the fullness of God’s love for his broken creation burst forth and washed over the entire world. It was an ending, but it was also a beginning.
That doesn’t make his death any less horrific, but this end and this beginning reminds us that when God was born into our midst, God cast his lot with every aspect of being human. God suffered the pangs of birth. God suffered the pains of death. So when we hear these words of the end times, perhaps it’s not so much about chaos and destruction, but about the boundaries between God and us being finally and completely and forever more struck down. Are these times that Jesus tells his disciples of cataclysmic? Yes. But I don’t think it’s a warning of just a terrible end. I think that it is ultimately a prediction of a good end; a good end that opens wide the gates to a new and glorious beginning.
Isn’t this what we prepare for? Isn’t this what we wait and long and hope for? We prepare and keep watch for the return of a God who loves us enough to be born among us, to die for us, to live again so that we can fully be the people we were created to be.
A fellow pastor related a story about Martin Luther. When asked what he would do if he found out the world was ending the next day, he replied, “I would plant a tree.” Luther saw the end of this world as a reason to hope, to trust that the tree he planted would not be wiped out but have time and space to grow and thrive. May we share his hope that the second coming, the return of Christ into the world, is a good end that makes way for an even more wonderful beginning. Let us prepare for that good end with hope in our hearts. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.