This week's sermon audio comes with a devotional that includes a few familiar parts of the Sunday liturgy, since we've had to postpone worship services for the time being. I hope this is meaningful for you while we are apart. Stay strong, stay connected, stay informed--as we learn new ways to be the church.
Inspired by Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
If our reading for today gives you more of an Advent vibe than a Lenten vibe, there’s a good reason for that. This reading from Mark that we have before us is always read on the first Sunday of Advent in the Revised Common Lectionary. And that’s because that lectionary follows the themes of the seasons more, and the lectionary we use, follows the life of God’s people, and the life of Jesus, in a more chronological order. And so, we get this very Adventy reading, during Lent. The two seasons really do have a lot in common so it’s an easy transfer, so to speak. However, I think we lose a little something when we take this reading out of it’s context and place it in Advent, which is the season that marks the beginning of a new church year, as well as gets everybody ready for Christmas! Therefore, the season of Advent can’t help but feel more joyous than it’s cousin Lent!
And so, the part that I think we lose when reading this in Advent is the immediacy of Jesus’ teaching here, the seriousness of it all. And that immediacy and seriousness comes from the fact that in this reading, Jesus is near the end of his life, and he knows that. And as I mentioned last week, the close of the last chapter also marked the close of Jesus’ public ministry. From here on out he withdraws to those closest to him, as his end draws ever nearer. So, the time that he spends during these last days, the teachings that he passes on during these last days, naturally have an immediacy and seriousness to them. Imagine if you knew your end was near, how would you spend that time? Who would you spend it with? What last words would you make sure you said to them? This is the state of mind that Jesus is in from here on out. Now, that doesn’t feel very Adventy does it? That, has Lent written all over it! So keep this in mind as we continue through the life of Jesus as seen through the eyes of Mark, til we get to the bitter end.
So, what is Jesus teaching here in this passage? Well, the pattern up til now has been these mulit-scene passages with Mark sharing a teaching of Jesus’ and then showing a real-world example of what that teaching looks like in action. For instance, last week we had the teaching of the Greatest Commandment followed up by the Poor Widow scene, the week before that we had the Parable of the Wicked Tenants paired with Jesus’ thoughts on paying taxes to Caesar. For weeks now we have been seeing this same pairing pattern. This week breaks from that pattern. In this passage, we have one long scene that comes to it’s crescendo at the end. I am going to be taking a bit of a different path with this passage, no surprise there, especially since we are focusing on stewardship this lens and we will again be asking ourselves, “What is God asking us to take care of in this story?”
But let’s start at the beginning. This whole scene consists of Jesus walking out of the temple in Jerusalem and to the Mount of Olives right across from the temple, and the conversation that he was having with his closest followers. It begins very innocently, with those followers simply expressing their awe at the monolithic nature of the temple. I am sure it was a sight to behold. I don’t have to tell you just how difficult it was in that day to build such a grand structure! Well, that’s all it took, that was enough to set Jesus off. Remember, he’s been in a bit of a mood since Palm Sunday. Also remember, that the events of Palm Sunday have already happened, a couple chapters ago in fact. His response to their statement of awe was this, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” Jeesh, talk about a Debbie Downer!
To their credit, Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask him when these things will happen and what signs will there be to signal the end. To that, Jesus launches into a monologue about false messiahs and wars and earthquakes and famines. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus then turns up the creepy dial and goes on about the sun and the moon going dark, and stars falling from the sky, planets being shaken, whatever that means, and the Human One, aka Jesus, coming down from the clouds with angels to gather the chosen people from the four corners of the Earth. Whew! It’s the stuff of nightmares, or at least, sci-fi horror movie!
But we can’t stop there, we have to keep forging through this story to get to the whole point of this, remember this is one long scene, so there really isn’t a whole lotta places we can stop and talk about without spoiling the end, so let’s keep going. From here we get to the climax of the story, the lesson of the fig tree. Now, any other fig tree might be shaking in their roots right now. The last fig tree that Jesus came across in this Gospel got cursed for life! However, Jesus had a different idea for this fig tree. He uses it as an example of how we can have signs of something coming, even when we don’t know exactly when that might be. Remember, they didn’t have calendars at the ready and so the average person didn’t precisely when summer would begin. If the weather warmed early, then the trees and plants would respond early. Other than that, they just didn’t know exactly when the current season was going to end.
So, after scaring them half to death, Jesus tells them to “stay alert.” Or as other translations put it, keep awake or keep watch. I wonder if this was Jesus way of saying, be mindful. Be mindful. Which brings me to our question we’ve been asking ourselves each Sunday of Lent, “What is God asking us to take care of in this story?” The answer? The present. The past is already the past, we can’t change it. The future, at least from a spiritual sense, is in God’s hands, and as we will soon see on the cross, is already taken care of for us. What I hear us being called to take care of in this story is the present. That is where we have the most control, and that is where we can have the most impact, in the present, now.
So, what does that look like? Well, I’d say this is a pretty timely lesson for these days, wouldn’t you? While we are all hunkered down in our homes, waiting this pandemic out, wondering how long it will last? When will it end? Not too many humans on Earth have experienced anything like this. And so, something I have noticed, is that it has made us mindful of things we may have been taking for granted. Things like, the gifts that each of our family members and friends and loved ones bring to our lives; the amount of time we have to spend with them; the insignificance of some things that were merely luxuries or conveniences; the gifts our pets bring to our lives; the pace of our lives; the amount of noise; the intentionality of how connected we are. I could go on but I have a feeling you too have noticed these things as well. Being mindful of the present, appreciating the here and now, being aware of those around us, either physically, spiritually, or virtually—these are the things that I hear Jesus calling us to care for in story from Mark. And in these pandemic days, I find that most timely. Go and be good stewards of the present, my friends, it is a gift worthy of our care. Thanks be to God. Amen.