‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (NRSV)
This coming Sunday is the first day of the church’s year. Advent, or the season of hope, begins today and will lead us, expectantly, to the events of Christmas. It is a time of looking for the work God is doing in our world.
Few passages raise as many challenges for the reader as the one above. How literal is all this to be taken? What happens if it is taken in a more figurative way? What to do with the words ‘this generation’ in a context widely understood as referring to end times?
One clue to answering these important questions might be found in the reference to “…the Son of Man coming on a cloud”. It is found in Daniel 7:13 and comes straight out of ‘the night visions’ recorded in the ancient prophet’s poetry. The book records Daniel’s God-inspired dreams.
The book of Daniel is apocryphal employing a rich and varied symbolism. It is a consciouslycryptic genre. As suchthere is something authentic and faithful about taking a figurative approach to documents using this imaginative language. To take Daniel seriously may not parallel taking him literally.
We have no historical record of the events Jesus describes. It would be reasonable to expect some evidence if they had occurred – a man flying on clouds would be news-worthy! This absent evidence has caused literal interpreters to look to events yet to occur, namely, end times.
But this is not without its challenges. After all Mark specifies that whatever Jesus is referring to will take place within a certain time frame – before the passing of the listening generation.
History does, however, tell of violent upheaval for Israel within a generation of Jesus. The sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD was a time when all that was taken for granted about the world had to be reconsidered. For all involved it was a time of great ‘distress’, ‘fear’, and ‘foreboding’. It was a time when the activity of God was very difficult to discern.
There is merit to this interpretation in that it impliesa message relevant to its original hearers. Indeed, it would seem almost unfair for Jesus to warn of these future events, suggest that they would occur before the end of the current generation, and then ask for their watchful response all the while really sending a message that was only relevant to readers thousands of years into the future.
Jesus certainly had the capacity to speak both literally and figuratively. But these debates are not, I would suggest, the core message here. This is an urgent call to watch expectantly – even in the darkest of times – for God is on the move in our world.
God’s kingdom is coming even though this may at times be difficult to discern. Knowing this, heaven’s citizens wait and watch with expectation.We look for any signof this activity in the same way a farmer waits, watches, and works for the first leaves and their promise of a summer harvest.
Yes, followers of Jesus are a peculiar people searching – though the world shakes – for any reminder of God’s activity.
And that is a relevant call for every generation.