I found myself in one of those weeks desperate for a sermon illustration. We had translated the Epistle and Mark’s Gospel from Greek into English back in my seminary days, so I was very well prepared to preach on either of those passages, but I lacked an illustration. Then, almost as if God heard my cry, or maybe George’s to get his daughter off his insurance plan, the Lord gave us an engagement. That’s right, today I get to use Tucker and Maddy as a modern illustration of the eschatological Wedding Feast and the need to be alert! Ok, Tucker, now that I have panicked you and introduced you to a small snippet of the torment you will experience in the Eaton-Zemek family, I’ll fess up. We’ll wait and do that when the two of you are not here! See how that works? You are uncomfortable and on edge? That’s what God calls us to be until His return! We are all doorkeepers, but I get ahead of myself . . .
As I was trying to figure out how to approach this Advent with you, I skimmed through a number of commentaries. One of the threads that is in more than one is the idea that Mark had two different manuscripts from which to work. One manuscript treated our Lord’s return as an imminent event; the other treated it as a distant event. Mark, so goes the theory, tried to be faithful to both manuscripts from which he was working and weaved their threads throughout this chapter of the Gospel bearing his name. While I recognize the need for people to come up with various subjects for their dissertations, I must say I have no idea why some writers felt it necessary to invent this idea of Mark struggling with two texts. After all, he lived this struggle as an Apostle and disciple of Jesus.
There is perhaps no greater evidence of that struggle for Mark than in his discussion of the signs of the time. Like other writers, Mark tells us that all these efforts to figure out the Day of our Lord’s return to be wasted effort. No one knows, except the Father. No one. If I had a dollar every time somebody wrote me, called me, made my Facebook feed, appeared on television, or appeared on radio claiming to have solved the mystery of Christ’s return, I would not be Powerball rich. But I sure would not be struggling. From your laughter I can see you all share the same frequency. Everybody has an idea for decoding when Jesus returns. And our “modern” culture is not alone in this effort. In my preparation for the Bible study on the book of Revelation, several commentators described nearly 1000 predictions that gained some public support. 1000 predictions! Who knows how many were ignored by the public the last 19 centuries! So, before we get started, the next time someone offers to give you a date of the Lord’s Return, just switch off your hearing aid or check out in a daydream while their mouth is moving. If Jesus does not know nor the angels who attend Him, I am going to bet a lot of money that some doomsday preacher does not either!
That being said, there are some hints about the time in the prophesies, but they tend to be events which are meant to sharpen our dulled senses. There is, I think, a tendency in the human heart to get complacent about His return. After all, Jesus has not returned in almost 2000 years. I can imagine that after the first hundred or so false predictions of His Return, the public began to be amused by the Christians’ insistence that He would return, much as are we whenever so guy gets on late night television with the date figured out. One big difference between them and us is the culture in which they lived. For the first 2 1/2 centuries or so, the Roman empire was not the best place to be a Christian. Claiming to be a disciple of Jesus could cost one his or her job, property, freed, and even life. Christians longed for that day when they would be delivered from their suffering. While some Christians, particularly those in the Middle East, suffer for their faith in Christ Jesus, most of us in the West are only marginalized, at worst. People might laugh at us like they do a crazy uncle or aunt at the family Thanksgiving Dinner, but, for the most part, no one is really interested in really persecuting us for our faith.
And yet Jesus gave signs of His return. Why? To remind the faithful and to give them hope. Whenever the Church heard of famines and pestilence, wars and battles, natural disasters such as floods or droughts or earthquakes, even signs in the heavens such as comets or eclipses, the Church was to be reminded that His Day was imminent. Those who had grown complacent like lazy doorkeepers about His return would, hopefully, be startled awake and into watchfulness once again. Our ministry is like that of the doorkeeper who must guard against falling asleep, lest an intruder sneak in or the master return to find us asleep on the job! Could this be the moment? Is this the day? What was that noise?
Mark, of course, was aware both of His Lord’s teaching and of the pastoral problems facing those whom he served. Like his Lord, he wished to give his people hope. Like them, he once needed hope, too. For all the effort to recreate these texts and traditions which Mark supposedly wove together, I wonder why we miss the obvious tie to Mark’s need for hope and those whom he served. Look down in today’s passage to the specific descriptions of the time we do not know: evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn. Think back to where this teaching occurs on the timeline of Jesus’ ministry among His Apostles. Do those specific times stand out to you? If I mention that this passage occurs two days before the Feast of Unleavened Bread, would those specific times then ring a bell?
Evening. To refresh your memory a bit, this teaching in Mark occurs right before the Last Supper. The Apostles and disciples are asking questions, and Jesus is teaching them even to the end. He knows that His ministry among them is drawing to a close. But do they really understand what He has taught? Do they understand that He must die and rise from the dead three days later? By their behavior, I would say it was a safe bet they did not. What happens in the evening after the Last Supper? Where do they go, and what does Jesus ask them to do? They go to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus will ask His Father that this cup be passed. Though He sweats blood, He is obedient to the end. And how do the Apostles, the cream of the disciple crop we suppose, respond to His struggles? Do they stay awake, supporting their Master and friend? Do they seek to pray with Him? No. They fall asleep. We understand their fatigue, don’t we? How many of us dozed after dinner or leftovers this past weekend? We understand how a lot of food puts us to sleep. But here is Jesus, about to face the purpose for which He came into the world as a babe in a manger, and how do His closest friends support Him? By sleeping! Even when He wakes them, telling them the hour is at hand, they nod off again. Some friends. And if these were the cream of the crop, can you imagine what the others were doing? Scripture does not record that Jesus bothered to invite them.
Midnight. As the evening wears on, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss at midnight. You all know the story. He gathers the Temple police and leads them to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus and earn his thirty pieces of silver. And how do those closest friends and Apostles respond? Most flee. One even flees naked, he is in such a hurry not to be captured by the authorities. True, Peter cut off the ear of a slave, but Jesus reminds Peter that now is not the time for violence and reattaches the ear for the slave. Jesus will face His ordeal alone, as God intended.
Cockcrow. I am guessing by now that I really do not need to focus on this time. Peter, who was willing to fight for his Master, denies that same Master two or three times before the cock crows, depending on the Gospel we are reading. What makes this prophesy so shocking is that Peter is so determined to suffer with Jesus when the evening began. Peter declares to Jesus that even if no one else will fight for Him, he will not fall away. Peter was so determined that he took up a sword to protect Jesus from the Temple squad, yet he is unwilling to confess his allegiance to a serving maid or soldiers warming themselves around a fire that night.
Dawn. What happens at dawn? Jesus is turned over to the Romans so that he can be put to death. The Sanhedrin cannot even agree on the charges, but they know they want the itinerant rabbi from Galilee put to death. For this, they will need the help of Pilate. In what can best be described as a travesty of justice and utter cowardice, Pilate sentences Jesus to death, knowing He is innocent of the charges levied against Him. Pilate has Jesus scourged and mocked by the guards and then led to that hill where He dies for our sins, just as God knew would happen from the foundation of the world. His Enemy has thrown his best punch. The forces of evil which reject God as sovereign Lord have given it their best effort to thwart His plans. His Son has been put to death. God, seemingly, has been overcome.
Can you imagine the darkness and hopelessness felt by the Apostles that Friday and Saturday? Each of them went into what we now call Holy Week with their own expectation of the Messiah. He rode in on the donkey with the people of Jerusalem waving palms and giving thanks to God for Jesus. He had arrived, and they were chosen by Him to help lead the people of Israel, or so they likely thought. Each of them, instead, was shown to be a sinner in need of redeeming. Mighty Peter denied Jesus three times. None of Jesus’ friends could stay awake with Him that fateful evening. All deserted Him when confronted by the authorities. They objected at the anonymous woman’s anointment of their Master for burial. A stranger carried His means of execution. Heck, a Centurion witness confessed He was the Son of God when no Apostles could be found to attend His death. Even after the reports that He had been raised from the dead from the women and from Peter reached their ears, they still could not believe. They were skittish and confused and hid behind locked and closed doors. Still they struggled to reconcile what had happened with their own expectations. Mark did not need to reconcile two traditions. He had lived through that process! Like the other Apostles, he knew failure intimately. His Lord had taught him that He would die and rise from the dead after three days time. Did Mark believe Him in the beginning? Not enough to stay awake; not enough to stay with Him when the cops came; not enough even to carry the crossbeam for Him; not even enough to attend His death with the ladies.
Yet, the grace of God and the reality of the Resurrection transformed Mark and the rest of the Apostles and disciples into someone quite unlike the stupid cowards they acted that Maundy Thursday and Good Friday so long ago. Each of those men, through the revelation of God and His redeeming power, was utterly transformed. Within a couple months of his famous denials, Peter will, with John Mark, evangelize the very Sanhedrin that conspired to put his Master to death. Philip will evangelize an Ethiopian Eunuch. James will rise to be bishop of Rome. Each of those who meet our Resurrected Lord are changed significantly. Gone is the uncertainty. Gone is the hesitancy. In their place are certainty and determination. All are willing to lay down their lives in the service of the Gospel, and all eventually do. But none are fearful of what the empire, the world, has in store. Jesus has conquered the world through His death and resurrection. Nothing can thwart His plans for them or for those who choose willingly to follow Him. So, in one sense, the immediacy of the prophesy has been fulfilled in Mark’s account. The Son has already come into His glory during Easter.
Of course, there is an eschatological outlook to this prophecy of Jesus. You and I are to mark the various signs and rouse ourselves, and those whom we love, from slumber. We are called to rouse ourselves from the complacency, from the belief that we have all the time in the world until we meet Him. Like a master returning from a journey, He may arrive at any moment. Like a thief in the night, He might catch us unprepared and asleep. Like unwise virgins, He may find us unprepared and our lamps dimmed. It is our responsibility, our heritage, that we keep alert and remind people of the signs. The world might like the cooing of the Baby, without considering the cost that Child will bear when He grows into the stature of a man. But we cannot forget. We are keepers of the door! That is the job with which He has tasked us!
How does such understanding play out in our lives? I cannot think of an better time of the need to be reminded that He will come again in glory to rule. Brothers and sisters are being martyred in other lands for their faith in Christ; armies are at war in various places around the world; here at home we have witnessed riots over race; terrorists are threatening to make a show on Christmas; politicians are more concerned with their own welfare than those who need help; we minister weekly, if not daily, to those who have been chewed up by the system and spit out: battered women and children, the homeless, the unemployed or underemployed, those addicted; we know the suffering mentioned by Jesus firsthand. And, living in that darkness, we come to the same realization as Mark: the suffering of God’s people and the advancement of His kingdom are inseparable until that blessed Day when He returns for good! One day, His kingdom will have arrived, and there will be no suffering. That is His promise to His Apostles, His disciples, and to us.
Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit we believe, places these words in Jesus’ mouth both as a warning and as a promise of hope. We might like to think that the world will spin on for forever, that we have all the time in the world to “get right with God.” In reality, we do not. Both His Return and our deaths can come upon us suddenly, like a thief in the night, and we who were warned might find ourselves unprepared and dressed in robes other than He would have us wear. For those of us who claim Him as Lord, those of us who have laid down our lives, picked up our crosses and followed Him, these words are the words of ultimate promise. They are the words of rest, of peace, of joy, and of eternity. They are the surety that all these things, no matter how bad in our lives, will one day pass away and give way to the eternal shouts of Hosanna and the eternal presence of the Lord dwelling with us. They are the words of love, true love. When we could not atone for our sins, He bore the price willingly for each one of us.
Brothers and sisters, once again we come to that time we call Advent, the beginning of another year in the Church. Once again the world will focus on the Babe lying in a manger and what’s under the tree. You and I, however, are called to remember the purpose behind that little Baby’s birth. You and I are called to remind those in our lives that the Nativity Scene, no matter how peaceful and how beautiful, is already marred by His Passion and Death during Holy Week. Our attention is drawn forward in expectation even as we look back in thanksgiving. But just as God had the power to raise Him from the dead that Easter morning, so does He have the power to raise each of us who believes in Him to eternal life. More importantly, He longs to raise everyone we know, everyone we serve, and everyone we meet. We are, as Paul says this morning, a people reborn and awaiting the revealing of our Lord. But as we wait, we are keepers. We are keepers called to watchfulness by our Master, not just watchfulness for His return or the actions of thieves, but of those who are called to introduce others to the narrow door that is Christ. No matter the past, no matter the present, the future, our future, belongs to Him! No matter the time, He has already won! Keep awake! That blessed Day is much closer than when you first believed. One day, at some unknown hour, the Master will return. Keep awake!