I wonder what you all thought when listening to this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. I can’t say, at least with a straight face, that it screams Advent to me. I suspect it didn’t prompt memories of jingle bells, or the music to the Coca Cola advert or whatever it is that announces the start of the Christmas period to you. I’ve found this passage extremely challenging to understand as a 21st century Western European, even more so prepare a message on. So I’ll invite you to listen to my thoughts, in the hope that they will stir some of your own. I cannot claim to share this with you from a position of theological authority, I am certainly no scholar. This interpretation of the text is only one possible interpretation from infinite others but my prayer is that God would speak to us regardless.
Over the past weeks we’ve been working though a very long passage of teaching from Jesus regarding all kinds of topics written down for us by the Gospel writer Mark. What is interesting is that for the most part this is a speech delivered to the multitudes in Jerusalem. I spoke earlier in the autumn on a passage involving Jesus having a large, public disagreement in the Temple with some of the religious leaders. What is different at this moment, is that Jesus is talking to his very inner circle, to his closest friends. It is easy to forget sometimes when we consider the majesty of a cosmic, all powerful, supernatural Jesus that he was infact a very real, physical, human-being who lived in the ancient Middle East. He had friends, he had family, he walked, he talked, he wept, he laughed. He lived every part of the human condition that all of us still live today. I like to think of this passage as Jesus doing what any of us, in a similar situation would hope to do.
Jesus knows that his time on earth is short. He knows that he is headed to his death in a matter of days. He must also know that he is running out of opportunities to prepare his disciples, his best friends, for life without him (in body at least). To me, these seem like the actions of someone putting their affairs in order.
In this passage and the one directly preceding it, Jesus describes the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The apocalyptic language that is used is reminiscent of the language used by the Old Testament prophets to foretell the destruction of the ancient oppressors of the Jewish nation. The bit about the sun darkening and the stars falling is very similar to Isaiah’s description of the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 13:10). Unsurprisingly, Jesus is right.
Some 40ish years on from this conversation, the pharisees, sadducees and violent revolutionary groups would rise up in a rebellion and force the Romans out of Judea. The Romans come back and take it back in a few years. As was typical of the Roman Empire; they don’t however, simply take it back. In the process they destroy the temple, they raze Jerusalem to the ground and they traffic a large proportion of the inhabitants into slavery. They utterly annihilate God’s earthly dwelling place and decimate his chosen people. Depending on your definitions, Jerusalem doesn’t return to control by the Jewish people until 1948.
This is what Jesus means by 'the distress' (v24). He must be desperate to give his disciples something they can use when they face the coming disaster. You also don’t need too much knowledge of early church history to know that things are going to be pretty bad for the disciples before all this too.
Then Jesus tells them the famous line,
‘Then they will see “the son of man coming on clouds with great power and glory”’.
I want to suggest (lightly), that in this passage Jesus may not be describing a sort of 'rapture' type, second-coming situation with the faithful few floating up to meet him in the sky. I’m not saying that there won’t be a second coming and that Jesus isn’t coming back to earth to establish his kingdom for all time. I’m just not sure he's describing that here. If you aren’t sure that’s a suggestion you want to believe, that’s fine but perhaps humour me for a little longer. Jesus says that all these things will be seen by the present generation His other comments on the future come to pass but as far as I’m aware, I haven’t missed the second coming. So what else might he be referring to?
The phrase is almost a direct quote from the writings of Daniel, who was dreaming while being held in slavery (Daniel 7:13). This was during the exile of the Israelites in Babylon after being defeated by Nebuchadnezer (I'll take any opportunity to get his name in). It’s an interesting choice because the Romans are about to do something very similar to what the Babylonians had done about 600 years earlier. It’s also another example of Jesus fulfilling ancient prophecies. What is interesting about the vision that Daniel has; is that it doesn’t necessarily describe the descending of Jesus on the clouds down to earth to save us. As is the image in the usual imagination of the second coming. It could mean more a sort of ascension, actually. In the vision the son of man comes on the clouds to meet God the Father in the heavens. Once there he is given authority, glory and sovereign power over the earth. It’s from this position that Jesus then calls his followers to gather to him, to recognise him, to form his body. To me, it sounds quite similar to the ascension(Acts 1:9).
It’s a vision of hope, isn’t it? Daniel was captive in a distant land and yet he saw a vision of a human god being given authority over all that enslaved him. Jesus is telling his followers that in the midst of the struggle, suffering and tragedy there will be a point when they can look to the sky and see Him, taking his place of authority and power. He says that Heaven and Earth will disappear, but his words won’t. These things that he has told them will live on forever for them to take hope from and use.
Jesus finishes the chapter with an instruction to be ready for his return. Be ready for the moment that He calls them to him. Be ready to hear him call them to action. A bit like that popular car bumper sticker: Jesus is coming, look busy. Throughout this Gospel, Mark absolutely loves to remind everyone how excellent the disciples were at missing the blindingly obvious, even in the midst of some astounding miracles. They'll tell Jesus that he is the messiah, then ask him if he was Elijah the whole time. Maybe that is Jesus' motivation, maybe why he uses such stark language and really drives the point home. Maybe he’s trying to get through to them, ‘You guys are my closest friends, and I won’t be here much longer. I want you to know that things are going to get really bad. But stay alert, be ready, keep listening out for me. Keep looking for the signs of me, make sure that when the time comes, you are ready.’
So, why is this a relevant advent message? The temple got destroyed, the Romans sacked Jerusalem. So why is it relevant to us today? That generation did see those awful things. Jesus did ascend to take his place in Heaven, and did receive authority and sovereignty.
It’s a good question and, as I said earlier, this wouldn’t be my first pick for a 'get ready for Christmas' talk. Let’s not forget though that Advent is the build up to the arrival of Christ. I believe that the same advice to the disciples to be alert, be ready, keep listening and looking for Jesus still apply. There have been times this year when it has felt like the entire social order is about to collapse around us. Maybe those 1st century christians felt something similar as the Roman army marched towards Jerusalem. People of all faiths have had to abandon their physical places of worship and find new ways to be together and worship. Just as Jesus told them to stay vigilant and be prepared, I believe that he is telling us the same through whatever our struggles may be.
It’s kind of abstract being ready for Jesus though isn’t it. I believe to be ready for Jesus means to be open to hearing him speak. I know people who say they have heard an audible voice of God and I've no reason to doubt them but I can’t say I’ve ever known anything like that. I do believe in using the head and heart the Lord has given me though. I don’t need to hear a supernatural voice to know that Jesus calls me to help the helpless or to comfort the broken. I’ve heard him speak to me in the scriptures about that.
I’ve been led by this passage to think more and more about verse 26. Seeing Jesus coming on the clouds and being called by his angels to respond. What if I start to look for Jesus in all those around me and responding to the call. What if I see Jesus coming to me in a dingy across the Channel, or I see Jesus coming to me in a queue for a food bank?
To me this remains a passage about Jesus, about to leave the world behind, at least in body, telling his nearest and dearest to carry on all the good work. To keep working hard to love those around you. To stay true to the things he’d taught them. To be prepared for things to get really bad but to never forget that he sits in ultimate authority and glory. That he will always be there for them.
And so this advent as we celebrate that first arrival of Jesus as man to earth, let’s continue to confidently wait for his final return. It’s certain to be worth it.
The Gospel story of Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist involves obedience-and-faith, revelation-and-witness. Obedience-and-faith,...
Holidays are Coming
It's the first week of advent and our reading for today is Mark 13:24-37??