As Advent begins, our gospel asks the question, what would we do if the world were to end tomorrow? At this point in the Gospel of Mark Jesus seems to be warning his disciples about the end of time, and it’s not very comforting. There is doom, gloom, falling stars, shaking heavens, and finally Christ coming in the clouds to declare the time of judgment. Mark paints a vivid and somewhat frightening picture, to say the least. So, what is our response to this kind of passage? It probably resonated with early generations of Christians who expected Jesus to return at any moment. During the middle ages, the common people were told to endure their suffering on earth, and look forward to heaven. But we live in a different time and place. What does the gospel say to us?
In the year 2011, there was a lot of attention paid to the predictions of self-proclaimed prophet Harold Camping. First, he predicted that Jesus would return on May 21st and then when that failed, on Oct. 21st. Before he died on December 15, 2013, he admitted that scripture was correct – no one knows the day or time. Dec. 21, 2012 was the day the world was going to come to an end according to the ancient Mayan calendar, but that date has come and gone. Speculation about the end of the world never ends, but most of us don’t take it very seriously. One of the promises of Scripture is that Christ will return, that God will bring the creation that God originally fashioned to a good end, and that everything we tend to think of as permanent is more vulnerable than we usually like to imagine. It is in particular moments, whether in the falling of autumn leaves, the death of a loved one, a chronic illness, the devastation of nature in hurricanes, earthquakes and fires, or the reality of global warming, when we become aware of the fragile and transitory nature of our world and of our lives.
What would we do if the world was going to end tomorrow? Would we reconcile with a long-lost friend or loved one? Would we finish a project that we started years ago? Would we attempt to check off one item on our “bucket list?” Would we be sure to tell our loved ones that we do indeed love them? What would we do? It is a question that can help to clarify our values and sharpen our priorities, which is a good way to begin Advent. We are not only moving at a fast pace to the celebration of Christmas, but it is also the beginning of a new church year. Since we often take stock of ourselves at the beginning of a calendar year, why not at the start of a new church year? Perhaps if we deliberately take some quiet time for meditation amidst all the preparations for Christmas we will remember who and whose we are.
This is where Mark’s somewhat confusing and slightly alarming passage has something to say directly to us. After all the predictions about the end, Jesus says that no one will know the day or the hour and so we have to keep close watch. He compares our situation to that of servants who do not know when their master will return and yet are expected to be prepared for it. Here we recognize the familiar call of Advent – to hold a constant vigil, to always be watching for Christ. We will see Christ at the end of time or, as last week’s gospel reminded us, in the distressing disguise of those who are in need.
David Lose, in one of his commentaries on this text for Working Preacher, finds a theological clue about time in this parable. He notes that “we do not know whether the master will come in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.” Mark places this story in chapter 13right before the passion of Christ in chapter 14. Look at the way in which Mark divides the scenes leading up to the crucifixion: first, the Last Supper, “When it was evening, he came with the twelve…” Second, Jesus’ prayer and betrayal: “And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.” They were so tired because it was the middle of the night. Third, Jesus’ trial and Peter’s denial: “But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ And at that moment the cock crowed for the second time.” And finally, the trial before Pilate: “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.”
By looking at the story of Christ’s passion we find clues to another way to understand this call to watchfulness. Lose says Jesus is telling us that his return – “when the heavens shake and the sun is darkened — is precisely the moment when he is nailed to the cross and we see God’s love poured out for us and all the world. Whatever, whenever, and however the end of the world may come, it is anticipated and realized right here, in the form of Jesus who goes to the cross out of love for us and for all the world.” Lose believes that is why so many theologians of different times and places have declared Jesus’ cross as the pivotal point of God acting in human history, for at that moment one age ended and another began.
As one of our participants noted at Bible study on Thursday, perhaps it is his crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus was referring to when he told his listeners that “this generation will not pass away until these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” They witnessed his crucifixion but our faith has endured through his words.
When he was asked what he would do if he believed the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have replied, “I would plant a tree today.” If we are as confident of God’s love and sure of God’s promises about the future as Luther was, then we can do the same. We can invest our time, talent and treasure in the present, in the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and the need we encounter. We should not agonize over the end of time, given God’s promise that in time God will indeed draw all of God’s creation not just to an end, but to a good end.
We don’t need to wait to answer that question about what we would do if the world were to end tomorrow. We can do those things now. We should love the ones we want to love; finish the projects we started; be reconciled to those who need us; be faithful to the people and the responsibilities that face us; and bravely undertake some new and wonderful endeavor. We can keep ourselves busy with all the things Jesus has called to do as we wait, and to be always alert for how and when Jesus appears in our lives. Christ himself is telling us that he has come, he is coming, and he will come again, all out of God’s love for us and all of God’s blessed creation.
In the midst of all the demands on our time and attention during this busy season, may we find some Advent space to hear and contemplate and believe once again that we are the beloved children of God. May we see the living Christ in the faces of those who surround us, and use our time and talent to respond to their needs even as we trust in God’s promises to us. Since we don’t need to worry about the future – God has that covered – we can concentrate on the present which is eternally open and full of endless possibilities. Amen.