Introduction and Call to Worship
This Advent Sunday let us lift our hearts and voices as we come to worship the living God who will come with great glory.
First Reading Isaiah 64:1-9
The prophet Isaiah looks at the disastrous state of God’s people and calls upon the Lord, their Father, to come down and make his presence felt.
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
The Apostle Paul thanks God for the spiritual life of the Christians of Corinth and assures them that God will continue to strengthen them to the end.
Gospel Mark 13:24-37
In words of a visionary, apocalyptic nature Jesus calls his disciples to keep awake and alert to the end.
HOMILY “Keep alert… Keep awake.” (Mark 13:33, 37)
Well, it’s already started! This past week a child at school asked the question, “Father Damian, how long is it until Christmas?” I was somehow flawed. The interrogation began. With a raised eyebrow, a dark look in his eye and a persistence that would make even the most hardened criminal crack - he asked me again: “When is it going to be Christmas?” “Well about a month”, I said, but that wasn’t good enough. A child doesn’t really grasp the concept of a month – such a very long time. So, he continued to question me. I asked if he had an advent calendar, because then he could count down to when Christmas would be here. I thought an Advent Calendar was the best way for him to realise just how close it was.
I’ve heard this tale about a church bible study group. They were reflecting on the Book of Revelation and discussing the unforeseen possibility of sudden death and therefore judgement. The leader said,” We will all die someday. None of us really knows when, but if we did, surely we would all do a better job of preparing ourselves for that inevitable event.” Everyone agreed, they too would want to do a better job of being a Christian. The leader continued, “And what would you do if you knew you only had four weeks of life remaining before your death, and the Great Judgement Day?” One man answered, “I would go out into the community and share the Gospel with everyone!” “Very good!” said the group leader, and everyone agreed. One lady spoke up and said enthusiastically, “I would dedicate all of my remaining time to serving God, my family, my church with a greater conviction.” “That is wonderful!” the group leader commented, and all the group members agreed that this would be a very good thing to do. Finally, one gentleman spoke up loudly and said, “I would go to my mother-in-law’s house for the four weeks.” Everyone was puzzled by this answer, and the group leader asked, “Why your mother-in-law’s home?” “Well,” replied the man with a wry smile, “that would make it the longest four weeks of my life!”
Today’s reading with its judgement theme may have us asking the same question: How long will it be? The passage jumps into the chapter halfway through, so it is worth us glancing back to the beginning and Jesus’ prediction that the Jerusalem Temple would be destroyed. To some minds, this inflammatory claim dishonoured God, but it also suggested God’s imminent judgement and the end of the world. Against this background, Jesus speaks about various sufferings to come for his followers, after which, he says, the sun, moon and stars will be no more, and he, the Son of Man, will return in heavenly glory with angels who will gather together God’s people, the “elect”.
This sort of language in the Bible has often led to speculation about the details of the last judgement: what exactly will happen and when? Scholars and conspiracy theorists have combed similar biblical texts for clues about those events. The truth is that what is written gives no time scale, even if there are a few clues as to the signs of the end times in the book of Revelation. The demise of the sun, moon and stars is probably not meant to refer to literal events to come, but is traditionally symbolic language for the fall of these objects worshipped by other nations at that time. I would suggest the aim of Jesus here is to emphasise God’s ultimate victory – and that it will happen in God’s time – whatever anyone else may think.
But for us to understand what is being said we need to think not only of the context of Jesus’ teaching, but also the context in which Mark was writing his Gospel – which we will study this year, Year B in the Church’s calendar of Sunday readings. Scholars do not agree exactly when this Gospel was written, but today’s passage does suggest that the author was addressing Christians going through a period of considerable suffering, perhaps associated with the destruction of the Temple. If this is the case, then those believers were very likely to be asking, like the boy at school: ‘Why?’ Surely, they must have hoped, Jesus would return as promised to save them! Mark’s aim is to encourage them, not by promising an instant fix, but by placing their troubles into a context in which God is still sovereign, knows all about what they are going through, and will bring salvation once the hardship has been endured.
The soothsayers and doom merchants are at it again, claiming the end times are near. Don’t listen! There are many extraordinary events happening all around us: volcanoes, hurricanes, flooding, wars and rumours of wars, Mr Trump and his tweets, BREXIT, and so much more – and locally, challenges too. Friends, this passage is trying to encourage the people of the early Church to hold fast to God through Jesus, who will ultimately return to call his people to himself. But it is not setting dates or even a programme of events leading up to Christ’s return, “about that day or hour no one knows”. (v. 32) This applies to us just as much as it did to them 2000 years ago. During this season of Advent and our preparation for Christmas we are called to look forward to God’s intervention, but we should not assume he will act simply because we are currently having a hard time. We should “keep alert” and “keep awake” to Christ who could return at any time as we maintain our prayers for one another and the world, for prayer is an essential part of our preparation as we live the Christian life in hope and faith – now, today here in this community of love and fellowship. And what a blessing this place is!
We do know when Christmas will be – yes, just three weeks to go! But the end times are quite different, and we are in the same position as first century Christians, living between the time of Jesus and the end of the world. Yes, 2000 years have passed between them and us, and this can make it difficult for people to maintain the conviction that Jesus could return at any time – but he could, and he will! Our tendency is not to wonder why he has not already returned, but whether his “return” will be anything other than the end of the world as we know it. Yet the truth is that the future is indeed a mystery and so are the ways of God. We must stay spiritually awake and alert to the work of God in our lives and his presence around us in this community of faith. That is the right preparation for any sort of judgement. Allow Advent to be a time of real spiritual preparation. Amen.
Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple and speaks about Judgement Day. Mark, writing his Gospel, has in mind Christians who are suffering hardship.
Some Christians have used this text and others to try to predict certain details about the end of the world. This is not the point of this or any other biblical text.
The passage affirms that Jesus will ultimately return and gather “the elect” to himself – in God’s time.
2,000 years on it can be hard to maintain the conviction of Christ’s imminent return, but we are still called to keep awake and live the Christian life in faith and hope.