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Let us pray. Loving God, we ask for your Spirit at work in our hearts and minds to give us light instead of darkness and joy instead of sorrow because we know that in the child of Christmas a Saviour has been given to us, your gift of persuasion, power, promise and peace. In his name we pray. Amen.
I have not worn a watch for the past five or six years. At one time such an announcement might cause great anxiety on the part of a Baptist congregation. At least one of the pastors in the church in which I grew up included as part of his pre-sermon ritual taking his watch from his wrist and laying it face up on the pulpit. After having witnessed this ritual many times I concluded it was without meaning—many a Sunday noon came and went and this pastor was still going strong.
I don’t wear a watch and yet I always know what time it is. The car has a clock. If I’m riding the TTC it doesn’t matter if I know the time because the bus will arrive when it arrives; no amount of fretting will dissolve the traffic that impedes our progress.
My mobile telephone has a clock, as does my iPod. The time is displayed across the top of my laptop screen; a quick glance down at the iPad here on the pulpit will also tell me if I am about to abuse your various attention spans.
Whenever I need to know what time it is, there is some sort of device at hand to give me that information. But the time of day, whether it’s 9 a.m. or 7:30 p.m., whether I use the 12-hour clock or the 24-hour version, is not the most important accounting of time of which I need to be aware. According to our text for today, there is spiritual time to be watched. Do you know what time it is?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season that begins the church year or the liturgical calendar. Baptists are inconsistent in their observance of these church year seasons. I knew nothing about Advent until 1968 when I went off to Waterloo Lutheran University and discovered there was a different way of marking time that was observed by millions of Christians around the world.
Of course, Advent is not a biblical term. Rather, the idea of particular seasons of the church year is meant to help us mark and reflect upon the life, death and resurrection and the teachings of Jesus which gave shape to the fellowship of believers that began to grow after Jesus was raised from the dead. One of the ways that various churches observe Advent is through the wreath of five candles, one for each Sunday of the
season and one for Christmas. Advent is then a season in which we prepare our hearts and minds and souls to receive the light that increases as we get closer to Christmas.
Advent is simply the anglicized version of the Latin word, adventus, which means “coming.” This means that we are encouraged to think as widely as possible about the coming of Jesus—his coming as a child at Bethlehem, his coming as the risen Saviour into our lives through faith and his coming again at the consummation of history. Today our focus will be on that coming again and what Jesus had to say about that promise.
The story that Mark writes is the story of Jesus’ life on earth with an obvious emphasis on the last week of that life. However, it is important for us to also know that the best guesses as to when Mark was written is somewhere around A.D. 66–70. Are there any ancient history scholars here this morning? Anyone remember what was going on in the Holy Land during those years? … That’s right. In 66 Jewish revolutionaries occupied the city determined to rid Palestine of the Romans. Caesar’s armies, of course, responded, and in 70 captured Jerusalem; most of the Temple was destroyed. The only part that remained was what we know as the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. I think I am on solid ground when I ask you to think about how significant it is that in the midst of this crisis for God’s people, Mark reminds them of what Jesus said. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).
We are meant to hear these words of Jesus as being a message to his followers in the midst of a crisis, in the midst of their world crumbling. Think about that. How is your world these days and the world of family and friends? Do you know someone with an uncertain medical diagnosis? How about someone facing job loss? Do you know of people who are struggling to keep their family strong? This past year has seen worlds crumbling for people in the Ukraine, in Iraq, in Israel and Palestine. What sort of time is it for those folks?
Jesus begins with poetic images. If you have been at worship in the past two months you know we just spent some time looking at the last book of the Bible, Revelation. One of the things we realized is that when you are trying to describe something that defies description, you use poetic language, images that engage the mind and soul. Here in this chapter of
Mark we have the same sort of language. I think the meaning of such language is something like this: the return of Jesus is an event with such cosmic significance, it is as if the very heavenly bodies will never be the same.
Then there are two paragraphs that have a tough time sitting side by side. In the first one Jesus talks about signs of the times, using an agricultural image, very familiar to his world. Sort of like this past summer on the August holiday Monday when Chris and I were returning from the weekend at Camp Kwasind. On highway 12, north of Beaverton we spotted a sign advertising corn for sale. After buying a dozen we had a friendly debate about the meaning of the word “local” as it applies to corn sold in Ontario. Does local mean it was grown in a field in that township? Or does it mean it was bought from a guy who is a local produce wholesale supplier? In this part of the province fresh, truly local corn is normally found in late August. In other words corn roasts traditionally signalled not the middle of summer but the end.
Jesus says just like you can know what time it is from what is ripe in the fields, so also you should be able to know the spiritual time from what is going on around you. But then comes the next paragraph. I appreciate how Eugene Peterson paraphrases verse 32: “But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father.” What good is trying to read the signs of the times regarding events about which no one knows anything except God the Father? I wonder if this is one of those places where Jesus is making his point by saying something that appears to be paradoxical. I wonder if this is one of those dying in order to live, losing in order to find type statements. In other words he tells us to be aware of the time in the only way that is possible for us.
It is like someone who goes away for a time leaving his slaves with their various jobs. This is, I think, as common a picture as could be imagined in the ancient world. If the master was in the house, the slaves had their work to do. If the master was away, the slaves had their work to do. There was no use speculating about how long the master might be gone; it could be that he will be back later tonight, perhaps tomorrow or the next day. It was a waste of time and effort to guess as to when this will happen. The day to day work that the master prescribed for each slave still needed to be done. None of the slaves could possibly
know when the master will return, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. Does anything in that list sound familiar?
You may want to have a look at your Bible or one of the pew Bibles. The first verse to look up is Mark 14:17. You will find it on page 51 of the New Testament in the pew Bibles and page 1590 in the large print edition. When it was evening, he came with the twelve. This refers to the Passover meal that Jesus celebrates with his disciples.
Mark 14:43 tells us about the arrest of Jesus in the middle of the night. During the trial Peter is confronted first by a servant girl and then by some bystanders who claim he is a friend of Jesus. He denies it emphatically. Then we read Mark 14:72. At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”
One more verse, Mark 16:2: And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. The master may come in the evening or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn. What was it that happened when the master came at dawn? So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16:8).