First Thoughts on Passages from Mark in the Lectionary

Advent 1

William Loader

Advent 1: 28 November Mark 13:24-37

The church year begins; the century, the millennium is at an end. What a passage for the fervour of the of the final days of 1999! Last week the judgement. This week the second coming!

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.

But Mark’s hearers are at one remove. 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 we shall have plenty of that as the millennium ends! – 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 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. 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.

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