(for the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2018)
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ (Mark 13:24-37, NRSV).
Advent is a time of waiting. A season of expectation and of hope.
Our passage stands as the final part of Jesus’ answer to the disciple’s question: ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ They ask in response to Jesus’ prediction that the marvellous stones that make Israel’s temple will be scattered. Appropriately, the disciples wish to be ready.
And that is exactly what Jesus would have of them. Be ready. Keep ‘awake’.
After all, there is a lot to distract: false Messiahs, wars, earthquakes, famine, persecution – and these are only a beginning. A beginning, however, that leads to great suffering and to an God-initiated end. This is a gracious cutting short. It ensures the possibility of salvation to those who ‘endure’.
The language of a ‘darkened’ ‘sun’ and ‘moon’, ‘falling…stars’, and ‘shaken’ ‘powers’ is graphic. It is used figuratively by the prophet Isaiah. There is no indication that Jesus is doing anything different. In both contexts great, even cosmic, upheaval is implied.
Central to Jesus’ account is the return of the ‘Son of Man’. There will be a cosmic gathering.
Jesus’ pointing to the budding fig leaves is an indicator that these words are to be taken seriously. This divine communion is to be expected and, indeed, searched for. When these signs are seen they deserve a response.
Coupled with this figurative fig parable is another warning: no one knows the timing. Jesus labours the point: ‘keep alert’, ‘watch’, ‘keep awake’, and again ‘keep awake’. A consistent call.
We are to be ready.
And perhaps that is the only way we can respond to this passage: expectantly, brimming with hope even in adversity, and with a large dose of humility. Jesus’ generous answer to the disciple’s inquiry does not imply that they – or we – see and know all that is to come.
It does, however, offer a glimpse. It is, I hope, enough to inspire in us an active – and humble – wait.