Following Jesus: Staying Alert

So this week we had some technical difficulties and the recording of the sermon was compromised.  In its stead we've included the written manuscript of Pastor Andy's sermon below.  

“Following Jesus: Staying Alert”
Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

The Wyckoff Reformed Church
Fifth Sunday of Advent
March 13, 2016

Every few years it seems like we go through these patterns of being obsessed with the end of the world.  Have you noticed how many apocalyptic TV shows and movies there have been lately?  There’s that new NBC series: “You, Me, and the Apocalypse”, there was a Steve Carrell movie a little while back: “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”, and there is my current favorite: “Last Man on Earth”.  There are zombie apocalypses like The Walking Dead and post-apocalyptic action films like Mad Max.  It seems we can’t get enough of the end of the world.

And it’s often not enough to just talk about the end of the world, we often get caught up in trying to predict the end as well.  Do you remember Harold Camping back in 2011 and his prediction that the world would end on October 21, 2011?  He was simply the latest in a long line of people who have thought they could predict the end of the world by doing some hidden math based on the bible.  He was, of course, wrong.  They’re all always wrong.

At least until now.  I’ve figured it out.  THE END IS NEAR!!! 

In all seriousness, today we’re going to look at an apocalyptic speech Jesus delivers in Mark 13, a passage that is often used by people as they try to predict Jesus’ return and the end of the world.  But I’m going to give you the spoiler before we hear the passage.  Passages like this in the bible were never meant to be used as codebooks to ferret out signs of the end.  Books like the Left Behind series and others are incredibly mistaken.

Passages like this one are often called Apocalyptic literature, and “Apocalypse” doesn’t mean “the end”, it actually means a revealing, an unveiling, a making known of something hidden.  Passages like this emerge in times of great persecution, oppression, and suffering when the only way in which the people of God can answer the question about who is really in charge of this world is by using such grand, cosmic language.  Apocalyptic writings are meant not to raise our anxiety about the end, but to comfort God’s people in the present, and to reveal the true reality about what is going on right in front of them.

So having heard that, I want to turn now to Mark 13 and see what new thing we can hear in it.  Do whatever you need to do in order to listen well to these words from the book that we love.

As Jesus left the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!”

Jesus responded, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives across from the temple. Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? What sign will show that all these things are about to come to an end?”

Jesus said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many people will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ They will deceive many people. When you hear of wars and reports of wars, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other, and there will be earthquakes and famines in all sorts of places. These things are just the beginning of the sufferings associated with the end. 

“In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.

“Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that he’s near, at the door. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away. 

“But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”

The Word of the Lord, Thanks be to God, Amen.

Still a pretty crazy passage, right?  Well let’s see if we can’t make some sense of it.

It begins with Jesus leaving the Temple.  He’s been there for the last couple chapters teaching, and as he leaves with his disciples, one of them turns around in awe of the temple and says, “Teacher, look at how incredible these stones are! How amazing this building!”

Josephus, the Roman historian of Jewish descent, wrote that the temple was so magnificent that it inspired awe among even the most seasoned of world travelers.  The foundations stones were absolutely massive, and the face of the temple was covered in gold so that it would rival the sun with its reflection.  Imagine what it must have looked like to some country bumpkins like the disciples who had never really been anywhere.

And yet Jesus again is unimpressed.  Again, we mistake glory for size and grandeur and power.  We take security in the size and beauty of our buildings.  The Israelites in particular believed that this building, which was God’s house, would protect them from their enemies and secure their future forever.

But Jesus is the one who says, “the greatest will be the least”, that all of this will be torn down.  That we won’t be saved by our big buildings, by our beautiful sanctuaries, but by Jesus who is going to the cross to give everything up, to lay his life down, and only then to draw all people to himself.  For Jesus, of course, replaces the Temple as the center of our worshipping life, as the dwelling of God among humans, as our only hope in life and death.

Don’t put your hope in big buildings, in beautiful sanctuaries, grandeur and might.  All of this will be torn down some day.  Put your hope in Jesus.

But the disciples are a little scared by all of this talk, and four of them come to Jesus later that night as they’re sitting on the Mount of Olives, looking over the Kidron Valley at the Temple and the rest of Jerusalem.   “The temple is going to be destroyed?  When? How will we know, what signs will show us that the end is coming?”

And Jesus continues on with his apocalyptic vision about false messiahs and wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and famines.  Now, we should note that the Gospel of Mark was likely written sometime around 70 AD, right around the time that the Temple in Jerusalem was actually destroyed by the Romans as they came to put down a Jewish Rebellion.  The first readers of Mark’s gospel would have seen themselves living in the midst of those things about which Jesus was speaking.  And it must have seemed to them like the world was falling apart.

It still seems like it’s falling apart, doesn’t it?  Like everything is slipping away, like we could descend into war again at any moment, like we’re just one terrorist attack away from destruction, one despotic tyrant like Putin or Kim Jung-Un away from a Nuclear Apocalypse. 

And while the world seems like it’s falling apart, Jesus’ message to all of us is clear: Don’t be alarmed, these things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. 

These things are not the signs of the end, so don’t worry, take heart.  I imagine these words of Jesus like those large friendly letters on the cover of every copy of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t Panic!

This apocalyptic vision was meant to be comforting to its first readers, it was meant to be a revealing of what truly is.  This is not the end, these are just the birthpangs.  SO be comforted when the world seems to fall apart because God is still in control, because everything is not falling apart, because God himself is still speaking: do not fear.

But of course this passage isn’t just meant to comfort, there’s another message in it for us as well, a message that Jesus repeats a number of times.  Anyone catch what it was?

Watch out, stay alert!  That command shows up 5 or 6 times in this passage.  In other translations it’s Keep watch, Keep awake! 

As Jesus offers this apocalypse he calls us to keep watch, but not to keep watch of the heavens.  To keep watch of the signs, to count down to the end, to beware of the impending doom of the earth and to simply sit back and watch the skies for Jesus’ return.  We are to keep watch as the stewards of our master’s house, staying alert for we do not know when he will arrive.

And that is probably the most helpful way to think about this call to wakefulness, to vigilance.  Jesus says, it’s as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert.  So: Stay alert! For you don’t know when the master will return.  Keep awake!

Sometimes I think we are nervous about when Jesus is coming back because we want some time to get our houses in order.  We want some time to prepare, to get ready, but that’s precisely the point of Jesus’ message here: Get ready, and always be ready.  There is no time to put off living the life Jesus would have you live, there is no meantime when we can slack off, or not love our neighbor as ourselves while we just watch heaven for signs and clean up our act before the end.

The end is coming, the end has already begun, don’t be alarmed, but get ready!  Watch out, stay alert!  You don’t know when your master will return, and so Jesus is calling you to be ever vigilant.  Not with anxiety about minding Ps and Qs, but in joy and confidence.  Joy, because we have seen God’s grace and mercy and love poured out for us and for all creation once and for all in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  Because in Jesus we have seen God’s eternal YES spoken to us and so we have can rejoice no matter what comes.  And confidence because the God who has spoken this yes is the God whose Word will not pass away, even though heaven and earth pass away.

So Watch out! Stay alert! For God’s kingdom can show up at any moment: in an answered prayer, in a meal offered in support and love, in an invitation given unexpectedly, in a helping hand.  Keep alert and watch for God’s kingdom.

And one final thing, that might help us understand this passage.  Jesus says here, “Stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak.  Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping…stay alert!” 

As Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, I’m sure they assume the events he’s narrating are years off in the future, and so they miss it as they begin to unfold before their own eyes in just a few days.

It’s just two days later, in the evening, as they gathered to celebrate the Seder and Jesus tried to tell them what he was doing for them, but they just weren’t alert.

In the evening, and at midnight.  At midnight as they gather in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus urges the disciples to stay awake with him and keep watch, but three times they fall asleep, and at midnight Jesus is arrested.

In the evening, at midnight, and when the rooster crows.  When the rooster crowed Peter realized that he had denied Jesus three times, that he hadn’t been alert and had fallen away.

In the evening, at midnight, when the rooster crows, and at daybreak.  At daybreak when Jesus is brought to trial before Pilate and EVERYONE has abandoned him.

In using this kind of apocalyptic language, Jesus is casting his own actions in the coming days with cosmic and eternal significance.  Which of course is true, for in the death and resurrection of Jesus we see the very central events of history.  We see the deepest realities of the universe unveiled: that there is a God who has created everything that is, and while we have run away in rebellion and sin, that God has loved us with a love that we simply cannot understand or imagine.  This God came and poured himself out for us in love, poured himself out so far as death, as crucifixion, as torture and execution.  And he bore this pain and rejection in order that we might once again live with God, that we might come home to our creator.

The disorder of the universe has been shaken, the Temple curtain has been torn in two and destroyed, and God is once again with us.

SO keep alert these next two weeks.  As we gather together to tell the stories of Holy Week, keep watch, the story that unfolds before us is not just the drama of one man, but is the unveiling of God’s will for all creation, is the cosmic, central event of all of history.  So stay alert, lest you miss any of this grand story, lest you miss any of the depths of God’s love for you.