Mark 13:24-32 (see below)
Today's Lectionary Gospel reading must be understood as part of a larger, more complicated discussion, that actually begins in verses 1-4 of this same chapter:
1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" (Mark 13:1-4)
For our purposes today, I would like to divide this homily into two parts. First, I want us to think-through the historical context of today's text, asking what Jesus hearers would have understood him to be saying. Then, I want us to think-through just one phrase from the text as a challenge for Christian living in today's context.
THE COMING OF THE SON OF MAN
As we said, today's reading is part of Jesus' response to the disciples earlier question:
Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"
But, if we are not careful we will find it somewhat difficult to "get at" the intention of Jesus' response. It is normally assumed that Jesus is describing his own 2nd Coming and the end of the age. There is no doubt that his words can seem to lend themselves to this interpretation.
But, in the historical context, Jesus is actually describing the coming destruction of the Temple and the ruination of the nation, as both fall under GOD's judgement at the hands of the Roman Empire in 70 CE. If you look closely you will see this is the door the disciples initially opened as the discussion is initiated concerning the destruction of the Temple. (for an excellent discussion of all this go here and here and here and here)
Think about it. All along, Jesus (in his prophetic ministry) has been announcing the coming judgement of the nation, and calling on them to repent and to become part of his movement as the new covenant community -- the new humanity (hence the calling of the 12), created apart both from Temple (hence the cleansing of the temple) and Torah (hence the new covenant meal).
This is a new way of seeing and being the people of GOD.
Said differently, because Jesus is GOD's final sacrificial word, and because, through the Holy Spirit, GOD will fulfill his commitment to write the law on the hearts of his new community, Jesus' ministry offers a message of the final fulfillment of GOD's promises to the nation. But these promises will actually come to be in the face-to-face of GOD's judgment of the nation (!), beginning with Jesus' own sacrificial suffering and then coming to full fruition with Jesus' vindication at the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.
Or, said still differently, the coming judgment and destruction that Jesus here predicts at the hands of the Romans will vindicate the message of Jesus, and prove that in his ascension he became the one, true and rightful King.
So, when Jesus talks about:
"...the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken."
these words make up the normal language of calamity and cataclysm which are used to describe the collapse of political stability (as in for example Isaiah 13). Likewise, the "Son of Man coming on the clouds" is a clear reference to the Messianic deliverer figure of Daniel 7.
So, whatever else this text means, our interpretation of it must include the reality of what the original hearers of Jesus words would have understood it to mean. That is, what is being presented to Jesus' disciples is a warning about the suffering the new Community-of-the-King would face when the promised judgment of the nation finally comes.
This understanding, for example, makes sense of an exchange Jesus had with the women wailing after him when he was condemned to death and being led to crucifixion:
27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, "Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, "Fall on us'; and to the hills, "Cover us.' 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:27-31)
"If they do this when the wood is green" -- if they crucify an innocent man, one not a revolutionary, then what do you think will happen "when he wood is dry" -- when revolution is everywhere in the air?
BUT OF THAT DAY OR HOUR, NO ONE KNOWS
OK. So, let’s now drill down here a little deeper by thinking about one phrase of the text -- "of that day our hour no one knows":
- We expect that the warning Jesus is here presenting to the followers of his day is not unlike the one that he would probably extend to us.
- That is, while we do not know exactly what Jesus in his prophetic ministry would say to us in our moment of history, we do know that the general thrust would be similar to what he has already said:
- In the face of struggle, persecution and difficult times, when the tide of public popularity turns against the King's people, remain faithful even though you do not know the future, even though you do not know the day or hour of your deliverance, which could be either temporal or eternal.
- In the face of struggle, therefore, read the signs of the times. Recognize how the movement of the Gospel evokes a response in the culture and what kind of response. Be prepared to see the direction of the cultural wind you face, whether agreeable or antagonistic.
- Expect calamity; prepare for it. Nations whose GOD is not the LORD should not expect the blessings of the Almighty to continue. It would be foolishness to do so, for it belies a Santa Claus view of GOD. And this is a view believers must not share.
- And nations whose GOD is not the LORD should not be expected to be friends of those who follow the Jesus-way.
- So, how do followers of the Jesus-way prepare? Hoard our food? Buy rural land and hide out? Stay in the fray? Sift through the cultural garbage and meet the needs of the left-out, locked-out and dropped-out?
- The genuine way to prepare is to prepare the heart. A heart prepared by the LORD for the LORD can face any outward calamity. And how do we prepare? The only way to prepare the heart to watch and pray.
- To watch is to seek GOD's mind on the events of the day. This means we ask for GOD's Wisdom. That is, we must see GOD's perspective to discover our moment and movement within our cultural context. (James 1:5)
- To pray is to clear off space in our lives for GOD. Remember, to pray is not to read books on prayer, or to think about prayer, it is to simply pray. A disciplined, determined prayer practice, both individual and in community, sustains us in the battle of our heart’s faithfulness to the LORD no matter what the given cultural challenge.
Jesus said to his disciples:
"In those days after that tribulation
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
"And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds'
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.
"Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to 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 of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."