First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Advent is a season of waiting, a time to be marked by urgent anticipation, by a longing for the fulfillment of what has been promised.

Annular Solar Eclipse 2
"Annular Solar Eclipse 2" image by arbyreed via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

November 30, 2014

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Commentary on Mark 13:24-37

Advent is a season of waiting, a time to be marked by urgent anticipation, by a longing for the fulfillment of what has been promised.

The Markan text appointed for Advent 1 encourages readers to look for Jesus to return. Some preachers may have an immediate averse reaction to this, troubled perhaps by “rapture-happy Christians” who evince a fascination with the end-times that they find problematic.

I counsel against sermons that belittle the piety of unsophisticated people. There is a time and place for sound biblical instruction on such matters, but preachers who do the 12-minute evaluation from the pulpit usually come off as sounding like intellectual elitists or cosmic party-poopers. In any case, the author of Mark’s Gospel seems less concerned with curtailing fanaticism than with challenging complacency.

The “second coming” should not be simply a doctrine to which we officially subscribe (mentioning it in the creeds); it should be a defining reality that impacts our faith and lives. Such impact may be more affective and emotional than cognitive and intellectual. So Mark relies on metaphor, imaginative imagery, and paradox.

In fact, the entire thirteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel presents a stream of thought that offers inconsistent messages. One popular proposal holds that Mark stitched this chapter together from two “apocalyptic tracts” that originally sounded competing themes. Try this experiment: First, read Mark 13:1-2, 8, 14-22, 24-30. The text flows smoothly, warning Christians to prepare for an imminent apocalypse. Now, read Mark 13:3-7, 9-13, 21-23, 32-37. Again, the text flows smoothly, but it offers counsel of another sort: believers need to dig in, stay faithful, and prepare for the long haul.

The theory is that Mark had these two tracts in his possession and, rather than choose between them, decided to weave them together into the composite text we now possess. In any case (since that’s only a theory), the text we now have does alternate between these paradoxical messages, as though Jesus (or the evangelist) cannot make up his mind: is the end at hand, or not? The key verses that strikes many readers as a necessary conclusion are Mark 13:22-23: we needto live as though the end is at hand and we need to dig-in for the long haul because the eschatological timetable is known only to God.

In the portion of the chapter that serves as our pericope (Mark 13:24-37), the emphasis seems to be on balancing chronological uncertainty with an absolute assurance that the end will ultimately come, in a glorious way that all followers of Jesus should anticipate. The chronology runs like this 1) unprecedented suffering (verse 24; cf. vs. 19); 2) total darkness — the sun, the moon, and even the stars cease to give any light.; 3) the Son of Man comes with power and glory; 4) angels gather the chosen ones. The “generation” that experiences all these things (Mark 13:30) is simply the followers of Jesus who continue the movement he began: that movement will not be extinguished but will endure until all is accomplished.

Thus, hope does not disappoint; salvation does become reality. Mark’s Gospel does not struggle with the question of theodicy; we get no explanation as to why there is suffering, but we do get a promise: when all is said and done, we will have our happy ending — and it will never end. This triumph of hope, furthermore, will be truly cataclysmic: the world as we know it projects pessimistic outcomes, but that world belongs to God and it can be changed. It will be changed, and changed so radically that people will someday speak of a time when heaven and earth passed away (Mark 13:30-31).

Mark clearly wants this to be part of the faith that informs our daily lives.

In today’s church, many Christians seem to think, “Since the time of Jesus’ coming cannot be known, we need not think much about it.” Mark draws the opposite conclusion: since the timing is unknown, we should think about it all the time!

Modern Christians often think, “Since the time is unknown, it could be hundred, or thousands, or millions of years from now.” Mark draws a very different conclusion: since the timing is unknown, it could be today! Maybe this evening, or at midnight, or when dawn breaks.

But does anyone actually think that way? Does anyone go through every day, wondering at morning, noon, and night if now is the time that someone long gone might return?

Yes. People who are in love do that. And that may provide the best context for assessing the intended impact of Mark’s little apocalypse. Elsewhere, Mark’s Gospel likens the time of awaiting Jesus’ parousia to the phenomenon of a newlywed waiting for the return of a “bridegroom” who has been inexplicably “taken away” (Mark 2:20).

There is much to celebrate in this wonderful world, but the days in which we live are described in Mark as a time for fasting as well as feasting, as a time in which we will often be acutely aware of the absence of our Lord and Savior (Mark 2:20; cf. 14:7c).

Of course, Christian theology affirms the presence of Christ through Word and Sacrament, in the fellowship of other believers, and so forth (Matt. 18:20; 28:20). But Mark’s point remains: Christ is not with us as he once was, and he is not with us as he will be!

For many, life in this world is actually not very pleasant. But even those fortunate enough to have a life filled with joy and blessing should not be satisfied to the point of complacency. There is more! There is better!

The season of Advent invites us to wait impatiently for the consummation of hope, longing to know God as fully as we have been known; to see no longer through a dark pane, but face to face; to love as we have been loved; to experience Jesus Christ as he is, and in so doing, to become like him (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2).