First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Mark 13:1-37 is set exactly in the middle of the passion narrative in the gospel of Mark.

November 30, 2008

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Commentary on Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13:1-37 is set exactly in the middle of the passion narrative in the gospel of Mark.

The overall theme for these five chapters (11:1-15:47) could be entitled: Jesus reveals the temple of his body as the true and living presence of God. A sub-theme identifies the disciples’ inability and failure to watch with Jesus as the drama of his life comes to a close.

We will establish the context of the First Sunday of Advent text (13:24-37), and how our text is set within this final drama of the Son of Man, in three acts.

The first act of the drama of Jesus the Messiah begins in Mark 11:1-12:44. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the city of David and is acclaimed “the Son of David.” Jesus enters the temple precincts and moves in and out revealing the truth of God’s presence now incarnated in his teaching. The cursing of the fig tree (11:14), the parable of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7), and rejection of the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22) in 12:1-12, bring Jesus’ opponents to the fore. One by one they line up to test and challenge him: the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees and scribes. Jesus turns the tables on all of them with his teaching on the true identity of David’s Son (Psalm 110:1), and concludes his teaching, judging the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who demand honor and devour widow’s houses (12:38-44).

The second act focuses on the apocalyptic chapter, Mark 13:1-37. The audience that hears Jesus’ teaching has changed. Jesus, the rabbi, now teaches his disciples concerning the truth of God’s presence, not in a temple made of stone, but in his very body. The inner core, Peter, James, John and Andrew, question Jesus about the destruction of the temple. Jesus answers their question by drawing them into the drama and instructing them that this will not take place until the gospel is proclaimed to all nations. A desolating sacrifice in the temple and cosmic signs will signal the end and the coming of the Son of Man. Only the Father knows this day or hour.

The third act (Mark 14:1-15:47) unfolds the apocalyptic events of the Son of Man. Jesus:

  • eats a final Passover meal with his disciples, one of whom will betray him
  • prays to the Father in the garden
  • is betrayed by Judas and captured
  • is set on trial before the religious leaders at night
  • is denied by Peter
  • is brought before Pilate
  • is mocked and crowned a king
  • is struck and stripped
  • his teaching is falsified by the religious leaders
  • is reviled as the King of Israel
  • cries out to the Father as death draws near
  • is confessed as God’s Son by a centurion as the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom
  • is taken down from the cross and buried before sundown

The gospel text, Mark 13:24-37, inaugurates us into the Advent season on this first Sunday. The Advent season is played out in our culture as a time of many conflicting expectations. One is not expecting to hear a text like this when one is busy getting ready for Christmas. Shopping and parties for this mainly secular event have no place for an apocalyptic text with this kind of imagery.

People want to hear “Silver Bells” and anticipate that “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” not about the opening verses of our text: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (13:24-25). What chance does our text have, and what relevance to this Advent season?

The incredible promise within this text is that which expresses the very heart of why we teach and preach: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (13:31). Amidst the chaos of this time of year, we hear a promise that transcends the cultural focus of our time. The transitory frenzy of our preparation for this grand secular event and our politically correct “Happy Holidays” greeting offer nothing meaningful. This is where our word of the coming of the Messiah meets us.

Only the Father knows the time of the final the coming of the Son of Man. Because we know that God is the watchful one, we can see the emptiness of the signs of our secular culture. The call to watchfulness for the Messiah’s coming is the gift of this text for us. Just as someone leave leaves home and places someone on guard, so we are to be on the alert and keep awake for the master’s return.

The Advent of the Master returning home is indeed happening in this Advent time, and we are admonished three times “to keep alert/awake” (13:34, 35, 37). The sign for us within the community of faith is that Jesus has come, is present, and will come again.

Jesus comes not just as a child in Bethlehem, but our text instructs us that Jesus comes to us through the four watches of the night that lead to Jesus’ death. Mark 13:35 instructs us to see within the passion narrative the fulfillment of the apocalyptic coming of the Messiah, the Son of Man. Jesus, comes to us “in the evening” (14:1-31), “or at midnight” (14:32-52), “or at cockcrow” (14:53-72), “or at dawn” (15:1-20). The apocalyptic sign of the cross is present in this Advent season. This is the true sign of God’s salvation and deliverance from the emptiness of our time.

Herein lies the connection of the coming of the Messiah born in Bethlehem and the outpouring of the Son of Man life in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The events of Jesus’ birth and death are inseparable; we cannot have one without the other. This is the story of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. This is the Advent message amidst the clutter of our time.

Hear the closing promise of Jesus, the Son of Man, in light of all that has been said in this marvelous Advent text: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (13:31). Likewise, the final word of our Advent text is a word of urgency and watchfulness: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (13:37).