Happy new year!
The first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of a new church year, meaning
among other things that we change the primary gospel being read during worship.
After a year of Matthew, we turn into the gospel according to Mark.
I encourage you to take some time—you know, if you happen to be home with nowhere to go for a few months—and read the gospel of Mark in one sitting, like a short novel for book club.
There is a flow to the story that gets easily lost when you only hear snippets on Sundays.
Before you crack it open, however, prepare yourself.
Fill a bottle of water and wear comfortable clothes, and bring a towel to wipe your sweat. While Luke is a miniseries and Matthew is an audit, Mark is a workout.
Jesus maintains a breakneck pace, immediately going and healing and causing trouble
and escalating conflict and going somewhere else and teaching so fast you don't hear what he said because immediately he heads off somewhere else.
There are screaming demons and scolded disciples and dust and confusion everywhere.
We'll explore some of this together early next year; watch the website and other
communications you get from us about a virtual introduction to Mark which I will lead the first three Sundays in January.
For now, buckle up, because Mark flies quickly...until chapter thirteen.
Today's gospel comes from the chapter where Mark slams on the brakes and burns the clutch.
The whiplash gospel now slows to a crawl, as if to startle its passengers awake just in time to hear Jesus say keep alert...keep awake...keep awake!
The chapter begins with the disciples sightseeing at the temple.
Jesus points through the crowd to a widow dropping a penny into the plate.
Someone responds with, Look Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!
The disciples spend a lot of Mark's gospel missing the point.
Then Jesus asked, "Do you see these great buildings?
Not one stone will be left here upon another' all will be thrown down.
Now he has their attention.
Who cares about the demise of some child of God, but architecture matters.
The disciples, who disregard the offering plate but give to the capital campaign because widows come and go but we have to take care of the building, are suddenly all ears: Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the [signal]...?
This launches the longest section of Jesus' words in the gospel.
It reads like a Dave Barry summary of 2020.
There will be wars and rumors of wars...earthquakes...famines...this is but the beginning
of the birth pangs.
You will be beaten in synagogues...stand before governors and kings...hated by all.
Brother will betray brother...when you see the desolating sacrilege...woe to those
who are pregnant in those days...pray that it might not be in winter.
For in those days there will be much suffering, such as has not been from the beginning
of the creation that God created until now...
You get the drift.
All of this doom or gloom, or as we now call it, evening news, leads up to this
morning's reading, when the sky goes dark and heaven and earth die and ... did
you notice the fig tree?
As creation collapses, the man who ignored the temple to watch a widow points
out a fig tree in spring bloom.
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...which is an odd segue from the end of the
world, unless the end isn't really the end.
So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near,
at the very gates.
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
And then he tells them to keep alert and watch, 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...
For twelve and a half chapters, Mark has never bothered to check his watch.
There has been almost no mention of time of day.
But he is about to become obsessed with it.
Because now the Son of Man is near, at the very gates.
They are sitting on the Mount of Olives, just outside the city gates.
It is two days before Passover, which is in the spring, when the fig tree blooms.
Mark tells the story with a close eye on the clock.
When it was evening, he came with the twelve to eat the Passover meal.
When it was midnight, after asking the disciples yet again to keep awake, Jesus prayed in Gethsemane while of course the disciples fell asleep.
At cockcrow, Peter wept, realizing that he had indeed denied Jesus three times.
As soon as it was morning, which is to say at dawn, 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 be crucified.
It was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.
The sun was darkened; the moon did not give its light; the powers in the heavens
At three o'clock Jesus cried out...and breathed his last.
It all happened so quickly, but Mark tells it so slowly, watching his watch, because the day and the hour that the master of the house arrives, the time that the Son of Man appears with great power and glory, is at the cross—the end that isn't really the end.
As we ogle big buildings, Jesus shows us a widow.
As we imagine the end of the world, Jesus shows us a fig tree.
As we watch for an arrival in glory, Jesus dies on a cross.
What does that teach us about entering the news and reading the world?
As calamities and crises and disasters and dumpster fires explode around us, do you see
the friendless old woman?
Did you notice the leaves on the tree or the music of the water or the aroma of the bread?
What is your neighbor doing?
What holy, hidden wonders are unfolding right in front of your eyes?
Where is Christ now?
He is near, at the very gates.
Keep alert, keep awake.