Daniel 7:1-14, Mark 13:1-8, 32-37
November 16, 2008
In most of the versions of the Bible, the very end of this passage from Mark is the word, “Wait!” In the Phillips translation it says, “keep on the alert!” But in one version, the Jerusalem Bible, it is rendered “Stay Awake!” And I like that. But I have to say that it is with great trepidation that I use that as a sermon title, lest you think that “Stay Awake” is the quintessential title for any sermon!
By the way, this is just a little interesting fact about the Jerusalem Bible. Do you know what famous person was one of the major editors of that translation? (You get extra points for this one!) It was John Ronald Ruel Tolkien! Interesting, huh?
The passage for today is Mark’s version of what has often been called “The Little Apocalypse.” That’s a word that’s been used a couple of different ways over the years. The word “apocalypse” has been used to describe disaster, catastrophe, Judgment Day, or the end of the world. If someone spoke of “the coming apocalypse” that would sound ominous, wouldn’t it.
Well, people seem to be thinking about those things these days. There have been various programs on the television lately about such subjects as killer asteroids, tsunamis hitting major cities, a super-volcano in Yellowstone Park, a “doomsday code” which predicts the end of the world, and even one about what life would be like on this planet without humans. They told us in biology class that if humans were gone the cockroaches would take over! I think we can see the start of that one already, don’t you think? There’s one lately that chronicles a lot of those possibilities, and it’s called “It Could Happen Tomorrow.” And I find myself thinking, “Yeah, it hasn’t happened in five hundred million years, but it could happen tomorrow!”
Why are people so fascinated with that stuff? In some ways, it sounds like some people are back to the kind of the anxiety we felt in the height of the cold war. Those were some tense times, when the US and USSR were pointing vast amounts of weaponry at each other. (Gee, and they were only two letters apart!) That’s where we got this term “over kill.” It had to do with the fact that the two Superpowers had enough bombs to kill all of the human race several times over.
Maybe you remember those times. Maybe some of you remember the feelings you had during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe you remember the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty we signed with the Soviet Union. That’s the one where each side pledged not to protect themselves against missiles. That’s because they believed that the best deterrent to nuclear war was the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Neither would attack the other because they know they too would be destroyed. The first letters of that policy, “Mutually Assured Destruction” was the word MAD. Seems fitting, doesn’t it?!
So, why all the fascination over a coming apocalypse? I’m really not sure I know the answer to that question. But it seems people are fascinated – or at least entertained – by stories about the possible destruction of the earth and the end of the human race? Maybe that’s it – they are entertained! By its very nature, the entertainment industry has to come up with increasingly more sensational material in order to hold our attention. Mundane subjects won’t do any more, “Come watch our show about the end of the world!” (All brought to you by some insurance company which makes the whole thing pretty ironic, if you think about it!)
Of course, in all of that, many people in our world want to avoid what the Bible says about it all. They’ll watch all those shows, but they don’t want to consider the Bible, unless it’s one of those “Bible Code” things where secret numerological readings of the words of the Bible reveal certain secrets about the future and the coming destruction of the earth. (Oooooh! Let’s get a Bible and start counting words!!)
Well, the thing is, the Bible does have a lot to say about the future of this planet. So, while we’re considering that whole idea of future apocalypse, I want us to think about the other use of that word. The word “Apocalyptic” is used to describe a type of book or letter written to a people who are living through desperate or disastrous times. The title of the book of Revelation in the original Greek language is “Apocalypsus” – “the Apocalypse.” It was written to people who under the persecution of Rome – probably under the emperor Domition. (Boy, was he a nasty guy!) And apocalyptic writing had a positive purpose. It wasn’t written to scare people, but to give the people hope in dark times. Often it was written using symbolic language, and coded messages. It was a sort of “underground newspaper” that could be read and understood by the people, but not by their oppressors.
So, in the Bible, apocalyptic writings were positive. The message was that, despite persecution, despite difficult circumstances, despite the dark times, God wins! To the people it said, “You may be going through hell, but hell cannot prevail!” And it said that they could be part of God’s victory! And if they wanted that, they must not be caught unaware. They must not be caught sleeping. They must “Stay Awake.”
In the New Testament, the end of time, the “Day of the Lord,” the apocalypse, is often described as being unexpected. Jesus told a number of parables about people who were not ready for that time. He described his coming as “a thief in the night.” He said it will be like it was as in the day of Noah, when people were eating, drinking, and going about their daily business unaware, until the flood came upon them. “So it will be,” he said, “with the coming of the ‘Son of Man.’” (By the way, Jesus borrowed that title from the passage we read from the Old Testament book of Daniel.) He even described his second coming in terms of his first coming. Remember when he wept over Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, saying that destruction would come upon the city, “because you did not know the time of your visitation.” “You didn’t recognize the time God came to be among you.”
In this passage from today, Jesus says a lot of things. This reads like the doomsday show line up on TV! “There will be wars and rumors of wars. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines…” That sounds like the daily news, doesn’t it? I’d really like it if you’d read this chapter later when you get a chance. It really is very interesting – particularly if you’re one who goes in for the doomsday stuff! Jesus warns of a lot of things that will happen. He tells them they will be persecuted, which would be true soon enough. Things would get even worse. Before long, there would be this thing he calls the “desolating sacrilege.” Then there would be a lot of false messiahs who would arise and say “the end is near!”
Now please understand that some of this had to do with the very near future for his disciples, and some of it had to do with the end of time. And I doubt even the disciples knew which was which! Because he then says this. “But of that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” To those who like to think about all that end times stuff, that’s all well and good, but no one knows – not even the Son! So he says, “Take heed. Watch.” “You don’t know when the master of the house will come.” “What I say to you I say to all: Watch!”
That means us, my friends. We’re the all. Jesus’ message to the people then, and us today is to wait. That is, to wait in anticipation, to wait in expectation. As we think of the Advent season, which by the way, starts two weeks from today, that’s one of it’s main messages. It is a time of waiting – waiting with expectation. Well, that’s they very way Jesus asks us to think about this time to come. We are to wait. We are to “keep on the alert.” We are to “Stay Awake.”
Having said all that, though, how many of us give any of this a thought? Most of the time are we not like those who just go about their everyday lives, giving most of their attention to what’s happening that day? I know I’m like that. I can get pretty focused on what’s happening that day, or what I need to accomplish in the coming week or so. It’s hard to break away from that, or at least to add to that the eternal perspective. For many people today, the second coming of Jesus would be more of an inconvenience than anything. It would be an interruption to life they way they have it all ordered! Many would amend the last sentence of the Bible to read, “Even so come, Lord Jesus – but not today, if you don’t mind!”
Now mind you, Jesus does not tell the people they shouldn’t be concerned with the everyday business of life. Far from it! In fact, there was that problem in the early church. There were those who resigned from life and wouldn’t work, because Jesus was coming back – imminently! Paul had to address that in his letters. I believe Jesus wants us to be living this life, but doing so in the joy of his kingdom. He wants us to be concerned, and active, and productive people, while at the same time keeping in mind that the day is coming. While we live, he wants us to be aware of that, he wants us to await that day with the anticipation of knowing it will happen, that he will come again, and to keep awake to the understanding that that day is getting nearer with every turn of the calendar and every tick of the clock!
Do we live our lives in that anticipation? Do we think about Jesus’ promise to come again to this world? We don’t have any idea when that might be, or what it might look like. There are those who try to figure that kind of thing out. But nobody really knows – not even the Son! But do we live our lives in the anticipation of that eventuality.
We’re about to move into the season of Advent. And as we spend all that time anticipating the coming of the Christmas celebration, I would remind us that part of that celebration is trying to remember what it was like the first time around. And part of it is thinking about the way we live this life anticipating the next time Jesus comes. So… Wait. Keep on the alert. Stay awake!
Help us, Lord, to live our lives in anticipation of Jesus coming again to this earth. Help us to think of the glory of your kingdom. Help us to live our lives in your presence, and in your grace and love. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.