Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 | Mark 13:24-37
There’s a rumor going around this church. And it is, like most rumors, not true. The rumor is that I kill cars. I believe the title “car-killer” has even been thrown around.
So let’s just clear the air: the Honda we just sold a few weeks ago was in fine working order when we sold it. Our Toyota pickup is in serious trouble because its clutch has gone out, but we haven’t had it for even a year and it’s 27 years old, so you can’t tell me that I single-handedly destroyed the clutch. I’m thinking the 26 years before we got it had something to do with the clutch going out. And lastly, leaving Adam’s lights on so the battery dies hardly makes me a car killer. Battery killer, okay. Car killer, no.
Brie and I don’t kill cars, we simply tend to buy or inherit cars that are on their last leg, cars that have some life left in them, but not a lot of life left in them. We can do our best to take care of them, we can give them an oil change every 3,000 miles, we can put new tires on them and replace brakes, but at some point, something serious is just going to go wrong. And it’s not my fault! The head gasket or the radiator will crack or something else will happen (the clutch will go out!), and then we are given a choice: give up on it, or call in a professional.
Right now, our truck is parked out on Glisan, and there’s no way I’m fixing it. Either it’s getting towed to a shop, it’s getting bought by someone who knows how to fix it, or it’s just going to sit there until doomsday.
Doomsday – what Jesus’ words are kind of about in our reading from Mark today.
Many people – perhaps many of us – feel the same way about the state of the world as I feel about the state of my truck. We have inherited something flawed. It has some life left in it, but it’s got some serious problems as well. And we can do our best to make repairs here or there, we can give of our own time, talents, and resources to improve its condition, but something inside is broken, or is very close to broken. It’s only a matter of time until there’s a snap and a ping and we lose all power, before black smoke starts billowing out of the tail pipe, before the muffler falls out as we’re driving 55 MPH down the highway.
So we can either give up on it, or call in a professional.
Some Christians are too quick to give up on this world. The world is broken, there’s no fixing it, we might as well sit around and wait for God to show up and destroy it all. They don’t want a mechanic, they want a demolition crew.
Then there are others, who think they can somehow save this world on their own. Despite their lack of resources and knowledge, they are sure that they can figure it out. Like an inexperienced mechanic pulling out hoses and unfastening belts without noting where they need to go when it all gets put back together.
This is how many people – Christians in particular – look at the world. Either we are far too quick to give up on it, or we are far too confident in our own abilities to fix it.
Our Scriptures today remind us that even as we do the good, liberating work of the Gospel our hope ultimately lies outside of ourselves, that we wait for the return of Christ the way the prophets and the people of ancient Israel waited for the first coming of Christ, which is what we celebrate during Advent.
In Advent we draw a connection between those who waited for the first coming of Christ, like Isaiah, who prayed in this morning’s Old Testament reading, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” and our own waiting for the return of Christ, when all will be set right, once and for all. When, in the words of our the psalmist, God will “restore us” and “make God’s face shine upon us, that we might be saved.”
This is the theme of all of our readings this morning: waiting on God. But it’s not a peaceful waiting. The waiting is anxious. You can hear it in Isaiah’s cry,
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
You can hear it in the Psalmist’s plea as well:
“Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might;
come and save us.
Restore us, O God;
make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved.
In these passages there is an urgency about the waiting they speak of. They don’t want to wait anymore, they want God to appear now. They want the sky to be torn open, they want God to descend in all God’s glory.
And who can blame them? Who can blame us? The state of the world was, the state of the world is, dire – whether it’s the Babylonian captivity, Roman occupation, or the threat of North Korea, slavery in Lybia, rampant sexual harassment and assault by powerful men in politics and media (and everywhere) – the world is a mess, a terrifying mess. Devastating destruction seems only the push of a button away, and the power is most often in the hands of the most unstable, and the most power-hungry.
In these moments we are forced to see the limitations of humankind. We look at the state of our world and it’s a tangled mess of pain begetting pain begetting pain, violence begetting violence begetting violence. Whether it’s the Middle East or Asia or inside our own homes, we have seen one group hurt the other, only to have the other retaliate, which leads to more retaliation.
We are powerless to change the tide, and what power we do have we often misuse, only contributing to further divides, more hurt, more pain. Like that mechanic who doesn’t know what they’re doing, making a mess of things when they think they’re fixing the problem.
We need God to be what we cannot be. We need God to do what we cannot do. For all our best intentions, we cannot right this ship on our own. We say with the Psalmist, “Restore us, God almighty,” because we cannot restore ourselves.
We are meant to follow in the way of Jesus, that is, to be like him, but the theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us, “[H]umans are not God. There is a duty prior to the duty of imitating God, and that is the duty of not wanting to be God, of letting God be God, and humans be humans.”
In the face of the magnitude of the world’s problems, in the face of the magnitude of our own personal brokenness, in the struggles we and our loved ones face, we are forced to recognize our own weakness and our own limitations, not as something to be ashamed of, but as a reality that simply is.
Our own inability to save ourselves, the brokenness of our systems and our politics bring us to the point of Isaiah and the psalmist, when we cry out to God that we need God, that only God can save.
Jesus’ words from Mark are words of reassurance to Isaiah and the psalmist – and to us. Jesus says, “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”
Jesus’ words are meant to give his listeners hope in the midst of suffering, and they are meant to give us hope in the midst of our uncertainty. Jesus’ words remind us that our salvation is not found in human systems or institutions but in the Creator-God.
These hopeful words from Jesus – and yes, they are hopeful, notice that there is little about judgement and more about gathering up and about fig trees blooming – these words are hard to decipher.
The most confusing thing about Jesus’ words is the timetable, or lack of a timetable. They seem to address something that’s imminent – something that will happen right away – and something that is far in the future. Some scholars think Mark mashed up two different teachings of Jesus, which would make sense because there are some inconsistencies in Jesus’ words. For example, he begins by telling his disciples what the signs of the second coming will be – “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give it’s light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken” and he says, “when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door” – but then, a few verses later he says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So if he doesn’t even know, how can he say what’s going to happen before it happens?
At another point he says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened,” but then he says immediately afterward, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” So a single generation won’t pass away, but the heavens and the earth will pass away? And, as those living 2,000 years later, we know that that generation did, indeed pass away. It’s all very confusing.
There is no cut and dry answer to this confusing passage of Jesus, but I’m going to give you my best interpretation. It seems to me that Jesus (or Mark, when he compiled the teachings of Jesus, depending on how you look at it) wanted to address something that was imminent – the crucifixion of Jesus – and he also wanted the teaching to be applicable to those who came after the disciples. This can be seen in the fact that Jesus begins his teaching by talking specifically to four disciples (present time) – Peter, James, John, and Andrew (13:3) – but at the end of the teaching he says, “What I say to you I say to everyone (that is, everyone who will come after them and read these words – us)” (future time).
Ok, so, it’s time to geek out a little bit. Prepare to have your mind blown. Towards the end of the passage Jesus says, “Therefore keep awake – for you do not know when the owner of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn,” which seem kind of like, whatever. Okay, we don’t know when “the owner” will return, big deal. But then, in the chapters following Mark 13, significant things happen at each of those times – evening, midnight, rooster crow, and dawn.
In 14:17 Jesus begins the last supper “when it was evening.”
Later that night – around midnight? – Jesus and the disciples go to Gethsemane, and Jesus prays by himself that God will save him from his crucifixion (15:32-42). Meanwhile the disciples keep falling asleep. So we’ve got evening and midnight covered.
Then, in 14:66-72, Peter denies Jesus three times before what? The rooster crows. So we’ve hit three out of four – evening (the last supper), midnight (praying in the garden), and when the rooster crows (Peter denies Jesus). All we’ve got left is morning.
And here it is: in 15:1 Mark says, “As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” So, we can check off all 4 of the times of day that Jesus mentioned right?
But that’s not all. Jesus began this passage by quoting Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4, saying (NRSV): “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give it’s light; the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Well, what happens, according to Mark, when Jesus is crucified? “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (15:33). That takes care of the sun being darkened and the moon not giving it’s light.
Then, when Jesus dies, the curtain in the temple that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple – that is, the curtain that separates God from the people – is torn in two (15:38). This is kind of the haziest correlation, but that could be understood as “shaking the powers in the heavens.” There’s a reordering now, the distance between God and humanity has been eradicated.
The point, I think, Mark is making by telling the story in this way is that Jesus’ apocalyptic visions that we read in Mark 13 did, in a sense, come true when Jesus was crucified. Jesus’ own life and death are an apocalyptic event, they reorder the cosmos, they change reality…and at the same time all those things Jesus predicted have not ultimately come true yet. We are still waiting for the owner of the house to return. The fig tree is still in the process of blooming. It both did happen, and will happen.
And doesn’t that sound like Advent? Isn’t that how we feel every Christmas, as we celebrate what has already happened: Jesus has come, and yet we wait for Jesus to come. It’s happened, but it hasn’t fully happened. We are, like Jesus’ apocalypse, a mash up of hopes and expectations and memories that don’t fit seamlessly together. We say we are saved, and we say we will be saved. As the people of God, as those who have put our trust in Jesus Christ, our present has become incomprehensible outside of faith rooted in the past and hope stretching out toward the future.
And that is what we must remember in this season of Advent, that past and future converge on our present. That the past isn’t something to hide in, and the future isn’t something to escape to, but they are book ends that press up against our present and give it form.
We live in light of the Jesus who came, and in light of the Jesus who is coming. When we are overwhelmed by the trials and tribulations of every day, of diseased politics and perverse men in power, the words of Jesus give us hope that there will be a time when God will rend the heavens and come down, when God will turn God’s face to us and restore us.
Until then, we must not fall asleep waiting. We have been given a task: to live as if the impossible is possible, to believe that God really did become human as a little, illegitimate baby, born to a poor mother and father in a stable. That his life, death, and, yes, resurrection changed the world forever. That God will come again and gather all God’s children together. That this world, sick with greenhouse gases and wars and sexism and racism and homophobia is actually savable, actually redeemable. That we should not – cannot – give up on it.
We are commissioned to have an optimism that is out of this world and yet for this world, to have a joy that is supernatural, to live as if Jesus could come back at any moment and finish up the work he started 2,000 years ago, because we believe he actually will do that one day.
In other words, we’re to stay awake – with our eyes open wide to the future hope of God, our hands holding tight to the plow of the present, and our feet planted in the muddy soil of a stable 2,000 years old.
With the words, “Come, Lord Jesus, come” on our lips.
 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 301.