Commentary on Mark 13:24-37
Where Are We?
The Gospel text for the first Sunday in Advent is certainly not anticipated and most likely not welcome.
What are we doing in the middle of Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” at the beginning of Advent? Advent and apocalyptic? How much more can a preacher take? A helpful entry point into this challenging text might begin with the literary context. At the beginning of chapter 13, the disciples are enamored by the scale and beauty of the Jerusalem temple and have a “Little Red Riding Hood” moment, exclaiming, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (13:1). Jesus’ response is to teach about the temple’s coming destruction (13:2).
A “desolating sacrilege” will profane the temple along with many tribulations, including false messiahs and false prophets (13:14-23). It is no accident that these words about the temple occur just before the Passion Narrative (14:1-15:47). The theological inference is that the temple will no longer be the location of God. We would do well to ask what difference this makes for Mark’s theology, a theology that first and foremost asks, where do we find God? The answer, of course, is not in the glorious temple but on the cross. Not in the city proper but outside the city walls. Not in the center of power and authority but in the wilderness. Mark’s primary theological question makes a good Advent question. Where will we look for God this Advent season?
Be Careful What You Look For
At the same time, where you find God might depend on what you are looking for. Jesus warns his disciples to be watchful for those who would look to false Messiahs and false prophets who are capable of the same works as he (13:21-22). This is not unlike the description of the second beast in Revelation 13, who is also able to perform signs, to do “messiah-like” things.
Therein lay the problem. That which is false, which is evil, that could lead us astray, can all too often have an appearance of what is good. Going into the last chapters of the story, the disciples need a reality check, and so do we. “Be alert” (13:23), “keep awake” (13:37) is more than stating God’s time is not our time. It is to be watchful, discerning, especially when chaos abounds and know what you are looking for. While we could easily digress into some sort of “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” here, there’s more at stake. It points to the reality of the incarnation. If God becomes human, it becomes all too easy to make God like us; to look for God in human ways and human forms; to hold God to our standards. “Keep alert” for all the ways we could now think that we might finally “get” God.
A little apocalyptic is more than appropriate for Mark’s theological irony. At the heart of apocalyptic literature is encouragement and hope. To some extent, this is Jesus at his pastoral best. That which looks like devastation and defeat will be God’s victory. Out of the theological turmoil and confusion surrounding the destruction of the temple will be a new presence of God. Out of the suffering and death of their Messiah will be new life. God’s new way of being in the world will turn a cross into resurrection and a baby in a manger into salvation for the world.
Where Do We Find God?
Beginning Year B and the year of Mark necessitates reminding ourselves of the theological premise that grounds Mark’s story of Jesus. The link between the baptism of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus with “torn apart” frames this Gospel. The verb schizō, used only in 1:10 to describe what has happened to the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and then in 15:38 for the temple curtain is no tame “opening.” Anything that can be simply “opened” can be easily shut again and we would never know it happened. Lest we think that God can be let out for a little while but when we’ve had enough put back behind closed doors, Mark’s Gospel rips that image apart. That which separates us from God, either the heavens or the holy of holies, has been torn asunder and can never go back to the way it was before. Bookending this Gospel is the conviction that there is no keeping God at a distance anymore. God is not and will not be where we expect to find God.
There is a certain realness in this Gospel text to begin the Advent season. It cuts through any sentimentality and romanticism about Christmas and reminds us that incarnation is risky business. The darkening of the sun, the dimming of the moon’s light, and the stars falling from heaven means the end of the world as we have known it. That death will be no more because God will die is something to anticipate during Advent. This is not to be a downer just when Bing really kicks into high gear with “White Christmas.” It’s to speak the truth, about ourselves and our unrealistic expectations; about God and how God exceeds them.
Into the flowers of the fields that perish, the grass that withers away, the passing power of kings and nations, here is our God. The incredible event, for which we wait, of course, is our God who has chosen to enter into all that decays, into all that will die, and to know it with us. We find God in everything it means to be human, even in death. No longer will God remain in the heavens or behind a curtain high up on a hill. God becomes us to bring life to that which would surely die and to bring a new heaven and a new earth to the moments when the sufferings and despair of our earthly life is more than we can bear. Advent gives us the time and space once again to believe in and live out this reality.