Advent 1: 30 November Mark 13:24-37
The church year begins; the calendar year is drawing to its close. The world is still anxious because of terror and rumours of terror and now also because of financial crises in the immediate and climate change for the long term. We visit a text of defiant hope in the context of suffering. The suffering is nearly two millennia distant from us, as, for most of us, is the terrible suffering of poverty in many parts of the world, beside which our panic at terror is scarcely more than an itch. The bearer of good news for the human beings of Galilee and Judea yearning for a just order will come! It is the defiance of faith which in the minds of others then and now produced drastic acts of counter-violence. This humanity will have its hope in the coming of the human one, 'the Son of man'. We are invited to share the hope - and to share the yearning.
For its time the text is restrained. It is the climax of Jesus’ final address to his disciples, according to Mark, to be found in chapter 13. Matthew has expanded it considerably to fill two chapters (24-25), much of which we have covered in the last few Sundays. Luke has also taken it over in his own way in Luke 21, but Luke also has a parting address of Jesus to his disciples in the context of the final meal (22:21-38). He has done so in part by transferring material found earlier in Mark’s gospel to this new setting. Even more dramatic is John’s gospel. It has 5 chapters devoted to Jesus’ last words and actions in the context of the last supper. He, too, has reworked material found in Mark, including Mark 13, like his famous image of the Spirit as advocate (Mark 13:11).
At the time of the New Testament writers a form of literature had become well established in which authors imagined what famous figures of old would have said on their death bed or in their final blessing. One of the earliest example is the book of Deuteronomy. They are often called ‘Testaments’, like a last will and testament, but delivered by the person while still alive. The gospel writers would have been aware of the importance of people’s famous last words and made considerable efforts to reconstruct what they pictured Jesus would have said, drawing on the resources at their disposal. Our passage needs to be heard in that light. If Matthew’s version of events has Jesus challenge people with the image of judgement, as we saw last week, Mark’s is a call to watch for the signs of the end.
Speeches about the climax of history frequently use the language of apocalyptic. Apocalypse means revelation and ‘apocalyptic’ has been widely used to describe ways of speaking of the end of time and events leading up to it in colourful, sometimes, coded imagery. Old Testament images, such as those drawn from Isaiah (13:10; 34:4) in the opening verses of our passage about a darkened sun and dimmed moon and falling stars, are very common. In the Book of Revelation we have elaborate descriptions. Here there is restraint. The focus is Jesus, described using Daniel’s apocalyptic language about ‘a son of man’ receiving authority to rule after centuries of oppression by ‘animals’, who symbolise foreign political powers (Dan 7). It is the Jesus who subverted the powers which destroy people, as Mark has demonstrated in his account of Jesus’ ministry, who will outlast all such oppressors. This is an affirmation of hope and an assertion of commitment.
Mark’s hearers would have known about oppression. The earlier part of the chapter alluded to the horrendous consequences of the Jewish revolt, 66-70 CE, which ended with the Romans starving out Jerusalem before breaking through and destroying the temple. They would have been able to relate to warnings about false messiahs and false prophets. They were in a good position to read the signs of the times. In Mark’s view their times must be the last times. It is very hard for most of us to walk in those shoes. What does it mean to feel that things are so bad the only hope is going to the end of the world? The poetry of pain and despair, the fantasies of escape and resolution, challenge us to silence, to listening, to action. We must not be distracted by our own legitimate anxieties about terrorism and finance markets..
But Mark’s hearers are at one remove from these events. They, at least, have time to gather and hear. Mark has had space to reflect and write. We can give ourselves a hard time about not being right there where it bleeds, but nor was Mark, nor probably most of his hearers. Mark even tones down the irrational tendencies to guess the end, plot the events. To his mind not even Jesus can do that. The mandate is then not to ignore what is happening in the world, but to think about it, to watch, to live in the light of it and in the light of the hope which is beyond it.
To do so is not to focus on predicting the future in a kind of ‘I know what’s going to happen’ game, where I and my group indulge our powers of prediction or claims to privileged revelation and get a religious buzz out of applying biblical prophecy and the fantasy of believing we know. It has more to do with living with the authority which hope gives. People who have the time and space to articulate and reflect on what is going on in the oppression of people whose suffering most often renders them inarticulate have a crucial role for change in the world. Watchful living has less to do with speculation about the end of the world and more to do with carrying out our trust, as Mark illustrates it, in a way that finally makes the date of the end a matter of irrelevance. Readiness has as much to do with being ready for life as it has to do with its end. In their quaint way they depicted global change drawing on images and symbols which mean little for us today. their wisdom was to recognise that there must, indeed, be macrochange if life is going to change for the better for most people. For us the global movers are not angels and demons, earthquakes, and celestial disturbances, but international gatherings of powerful nations able to make major decisions about poverty and the survival of the planet as a habitat. Recent crises, including the financial one, have called into being new levels of global cooperation. Espousing hope is addressing it at both the microlevel of our particular setting and the macrolevel of global change.
In Mark’s day to watch was to live the life of a disciple with an eye to what is happening in the world and probably with the strong expectation that history was approaching its climax. 2000 years of failed guesses and expectations have sobered such predictions, and rightly so. But with that has all too often come a withdrawal from the events of the world, not to speak from the cries of pain, so that not much watching really happens except watching one’s private footsteps and moral goodness or watching only for the terror which might strike us while so much of the world lives the sustained, unspectacular terror of deprivation. Just having a ‘good’ sleep, a sleep of ‘good’ – is good and harmless and may have many other marketable qualities like being peaceful and stress free. It makes for attractive religion, but it has little to do with the engaged alertness which recognises the new leaves, feels the shaking, and sees what the powers of this world are doing.
Jesus’ last words become our first words in the Church’s year, a call to be awake to what is happening in our world and to be looking for and in tune with the one who comes, whether for the final time – as in traditional expectation of the second advent – or for any time, for now. Mark’s point is that the implications are the same.
Epistle: Advent 1: 30 November 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
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