Commentary for this text is forthcoming.
Jesus’ teaching in Mark 13 serves to prepare readers and hearers for what lies ahead in the story as well as what lies ahead in the more distant future.
After Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:2), Peter, James, John, and Andrew inquire, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:3-4) Jesus speaks of many troubling events that will occur before the end, starting with false prophets who will lead many astray. There will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines, but the end is not yet. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” Jesus says (13:8).
The image of birth pangs is common in apocalyptic literature as a metaphor for speaking of the suffering that will be experienced before the end. It is ultimately a hopeful image, as it expresses a finality and purpose to the pain. The anguish will ultimately give way to new life, to a new creation.
After speaking of the persecution that the faithful will experience and the desecration of the temple (Mark 13:9-23), Jesus turns to cosmic signs of the end. The sun and moon will be darkened, the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in heaven will be shaken. Although these are perhaps the most frightening of the signs, they signal that deliverance is very near. It is then that the Son of Man will return with power and glory and send out his angels to gather his elect from the ends of the earth (13:24-27).
Jesus speaks about all these things before directly addressing the disciples’ question about when this will be. His response is not to give them a timetable for the end, but rather an assurance that when they see these things taking place, they will know that he is near, as surely as foliage on a fig tree signals that summer is coming (Mark 13:28-31).
Finally, Jesus emphasizes the fact that no one knows the precise day or hour when this will happen, not the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father. It is useless to speculate about timetables. The only faithful response is to be vigilant and prepared at all times, like slaves entrusted with the management of the household while the master of the house is away (Mark 13:32-37). Since the servants do not know exactly when the master will return, they need to be about their work and prepared for his return at any moment.
In fact, there are two opposite and equally problematic extremes regarding preparation for Christ’s return and the end of the age. One is being overly eager to interpret contemporary events as signs of the end times. The other is a complete lack of preparation, giving very little thought to Christ’s return.
For many in the congregations to whom we preach, I would guess, the danger is more that of giving too little thought to Christ’s return, of falling asleep on the watch. After all, it has been some 2,000 years, and still Jesus has not returned in glory. It is easy to lose the sense of urgency about the mission he has entrusted to us and to focus on other interests and priorities.
We are not the first to struggle with staying awake and prepared. The fact that these words of Jesus are included in Mark suggests that the community originally addressed by Mark’s Gospel was struggling too. Jesus says: “Keep awake, be on the watch! 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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly” (Mark 13:34-36).
The disciples in Mark’s Gospel serve as examples of the struggle to stay awake and prepared. Despite having heard Jesus’ teaching, they are totally unprepared when crisis comes. Each of the four watches of the night that Jesus names—evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn—corresponds to an event of Jesus’ passion at which his disciples will fail him.
At evening they gather for the Passover meal, and Jesus reveals that one of them is about to betray him. “Surely not I?” each one says. At midnight in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus takes aside Peter, James, and John and asks them to stay awake and watch and pray with him, yet three times Jesus returns to find them sleeping. After the third time, Judas arrives with the guards who arrest Jesus, and the rest of the disciples all desert Jesus and flee. At cockcrow, Peter comes to the bitter realization that he has denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus had predicted. And finally, at dawn, the chief priests and scribes bring Jesus before Pilate to be tried, and Jesus stands utterly alone. Not one of his disciples waits and watches with him.
Much interpretation and preaching about the end focuses on fear and judgment—the sense that you better be ready, or you will miss out on salvation. That is not the story Mark tells, however. According to the story Mark tells, in the one who was betrayed and denied and utterly forsaken, God worked an astounding act of mercy and grace. After two more long, dark nights, at dawn on the third day, the women found the tomb empty. The angels proclaimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that he would meet his disciples in Galilee.
So even for sleepy, unprepared, miserably failing disciples, there is hope—hope based on God’s faithfulness and not our own. This means that our watching and waiting need not be full of fear and dread. Rather, it is an active, hopeful, and purposeful waiting—like preparing for the birth of a child. It is to be about the mission that Jesus has entrusted to us.
Jesus says that the troubles before the end are only the beginning of the birth pangs. The present pain will give way to new life, to a new creation. He promises to return and to gather his chosen ones from the ends of the earth. We watch and wait not because our salvation depends upon it—that is securely in God’s hands—but because Jesus has given us a mission, because he calls us to participate here and now in the new creation that he is ushering in.
Son of Man, you encouraged your followers to obey only your voice, and promised that they would see your glorious presence. Show us your glory and teach us to obey. Amen.
My Lord, what a morning ELW 438, GG 352, UMH 719, TFF 40 My hope is built on nothing less ELW 596/597, GG 353, NCH 403, UMH 368, TFF 192
Hear my prayer, O Lord, Charles Gounod