With all due respect to Holy Scripture, this is some great Advent sermon fodder. There is Isaiah 64’s cry to come down; Psalm 81’s plea to come to save us, and the thrice reiterated restore us,” and, I Corinthians 1’s invitation to patiently wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But when it comes to interpreting Mark 13’s imperatives to stay alert and keep awake from a Reformed theological perspective, we who live after the publication of some 62 million copies of The Left Behind series (not to mention some two-thousand Advents, more or less), have our work cut out for us. The mild-mannered Christianity Today once referred to LaHaye and Jenkins’ series as a multi-“volume post-rapture, dispensational soap opera.” But this stuff–page-turning intrigue and hair-raising climaxes notwithstanding–is not harmless entertainment. It’s theology.
These verses in Mark 13 are among what’s known as apocalyptic literature in the Bible, a unique genre loaded with symbolism, including (what often seems to us, at least) rather weird and sometimes frightful images. The challenge today is reading apocalyptic on its own terms, allowing the text to say what it wants to say. But the tendency for people unfamiliar with this type of writing is to read apocalyptic language and symbols very literally, to identify the Antichrist, or extract a detailed time line for how the end of the world will unfold, maybe even pinpoint when Christ will return. Using this kind of hyper-literal interpretation of apocalyptic often results in saying nearly the opposite of what the text intends to say. Or, in reaction, saying nothing at all.
Mark 13 begins with a handful of the disciples asking Jesus about the end of the world; they’re mostly interested in when it will happen, but a little bit of what it will be like would be nice, too. However, Jesus never answers the when question, and he’s far from forthcoming on the what. There aren’t a lot of specific details here, mostly just a big picture. Jesus predicts the Temple will be destroyed–which is a little like saying, “Religion as you know it will cease to exist.” And then the trouble starts. Life as we know it undergoes cataclysmic change: the social political order crumbles; and, beginning with our lectionary text in verse 28, the ecological order dissolves. Chaos, and more, reigns. In fact, God reigns, when Jesus comes again. But verses 32 and 33 again make it clear that nobody really knows when that will be: Of that day or hour no one knows; you do not know when the time will come. The angels don’t know; Jesus himself doesn’t even know; only God the Father knows.
I understand there are actually fundamentalist interpreters who argue that Jesus didn’t say we couldn’t know the month or year so they go on calculating dates, developing time-lines, suggesting scenarios. But if Jesus doesn’t know the time line, we can be reasonably sure that the likes of LaHaye and Jenkins and their ilk are in the dark, too.
Of course not knowing when Jesus will come does not mean we should ignore the fact of his return. In the last paragraph–no less than three times, in verses 33, 35 and 37–the readers are urged to be on the lookout for Christ’s second advent, to be alert, watchful, for the appearing of the Lord who will come again any day, anytime. Out of sight, out of mind is not an option.
As the mini-parable in verses 34-36 teaches, when the master is away the servants have work to do. And that work is not simply scanning the horizon for the master’s return, but the steady, regular performance of one’s tasks here and now. The problem with an undue fixation on the future is that it impoverishes the discipleship we are called to live in the present moment. Indeed, everything we do now should be done in the confidence that the Lord will gather all the good fruits of our obedience into his final kingdom. Believing God for the future means making the most of the present.
In the early 1800s an illiterate former slave woman escaped to the North, and took for herself a new name: Sojourner Truth. The name was the essence of who she was, a woman on a journey, sharing the good news–the truth! At six feet tall, hers was a commanding presence. Known for her resonant voice and simple eloquence, in addition to a deep Christian faith, as a free woman she made her living largely by traveling around and speaking, or “speechifying,” as she called it.
In her travels, for a time she fell in with a religious group near Hartford, Conn., that believed Judgment Day was imminent. They were certain that sometime during 1843 Jesus would come again to earth and the dead in Christ would rise. “As the year drew to a close, the group’s fervor became more intense, as they waited with a mixture of expectation and terror for the heavens to open.”
Finally Sojourner Truth had had it: “Why are y’all makin’ such a to-do?” she demanded. “Aren’t we commanded to ‘watch and pray?’ You are neither watchin’ nor prayin’! Go back to your tents without noise or tumult. You are in such a state, the Lord might come, move all through the camp, and go away again–and you would never know it!” 1
Imagine…missing his coming! That is precisely what happened the last time God visited this planet in person; when it didn’t match with popular expectations, people missed it. In the words of one Reformed theologian, “A similar danger attends those whose imaginations are truncated by a singular viewpoint on the end” today.2 Fear and worry don’t do much more than preoccupy and paralyze. Advent preparation for disciples of Jesus means going to work, often in remarkably mundane ways–like reading Scripture, and living its truth daily, or confessing our sin. It means praying, and producing the fruits of the Spirit. It means bearing one another’s burdens, and diligently championing the needs of the least, the last, and the lost of the earth.
Jesus is coming again and anything that diverts our attention from living in active, hopeful anticipation of his coming should be left behind.
Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.
Heidi Husted Armstrong is Christian Impact Director for World Vision US.
1 Edward Beecher Claflin, Sojourner Truth and the Struggle for Freedom, 64-65.
2 Scott Hoezee, “Light Summer Reading,” Perspectives, August-September 2000.