Scripture Readings: Isaiah 64:1–9 | Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19 | 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 | Mark 13:24–37
Therefore, keep awake—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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Hear we are again.
As the second wave of this pandemic seems to have finally reached our region, again we are faced with many hard choices, and quickly changing plans. For a long while, we had done fairly well here in southern New Brunswick, and even now things are certainly not as bad as they could be. We had several months of relative stability, where it almost seemed like things were staring to get back to normal. But now we’ve had our wake-up call. Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise. Safety measures have needed to be stepped up again, and we have all been urged to be vigilant… acting for the good of ourselves, and those all around us. Not simply driven by our fears and (understandable) anxieties, but spurred on to do our best, even in taking the smallest steps, to be a people of compassion, of longsuffering patience… a people who love their neighbours, and who point them towards the light. For as disruptive and (in many ways) disappointing as this year has turned out to be, the darkness is not complete, nor will it always endure. Though here we are again, we will not be hear forever.
But what would we have done differently, how would we have behaved, if we knew this time last year how 2020 would unfold? If we knew for certain that this pandemic would upend our entire world, and bring so many changes… what would we have done with that knowledge? Visit more of our family and friends? Get out and do some traveling? Maybe invest some money in a little-known company called Zoom? But seriously, we know we all would have done some things differently, had we known what was coming. But like the rest of the world, we too were caught off guard.
Today marks the beginning again of the Christian year, which starts off with the holy season of Advent: the time of expectation of the coming of Christ… re-entering the scriptural story in anticipation of His birth at Christmas; the incarnation of the One who alone is God-with-us. But just as importantly, it is the season of anticipation of His final return, not in a humble manger, but in glory… to bring an end to our world’s sin, our sufferings, and strife, and to ultimately unveil the blessed Kingdom of God. The current time of waiting will then finally be over. Every tear wiped away. Every wound mended. Every knee bending at the blessed name of Jesus.
It is fitting that on this first week of Advent that we often focus on hope, for from the beginning, until the final day when the Lord Jesus returns, the Church is urged to be a people of hope, through and through. Not simplistically optimistic, trying to only see the ‘sunny side’ of life, while denying the darkness all around. And not driven by anxiety to desperately ‘do something’, trying to fend off the darkness by our own urgent efforts alone. No, Advent reminds us of the Christian character of our hope: that is, waiting… faithfully enduring the present times of tension by trusting in the Risen Lord, through His strength given now by His Spirit, and in the end, looking for the fulfillment of the promise of His salvation. What’s more, Advent urges us to wait by taking action. By acting in all things in the light of what we’re waiting for.
Our Gospel reading today is from the thirteenth chapter of Mark, and this whole chapter contains much for us to carefully contemplate: many dire warnings, and unsettling imagery… of nation rising against nation, families against their own kin, and even the powers of earth and heaven being completely upended and shaken. Given the dark and dramatic words Christ speaks to His disciples here, many have come to see this passage as only speaking about some cataclysmic catastrophe at the end of the world. But it seems from the text itself as though there is another situation being spoken of, first and foremost, a crushing event which would soon change everything for God’s people: the destruction of Herod’s Temple, and the obliteration of all Jerusalem by the Roman legions, all in the not too distant future. For Christ’s disciples, who at this time were all part of the Jewish community, they were being warned that the world they knew would soon be gone forever.
“Jesus’ main concern” in this chapter, the Bishop and scholar N.T. Wright maintains, “is to warn his followers of the signs that will immediately herald the end—the end of the Temple, the end of the Jewish national way of life up to that point.. Indeed, Mark 13 begins with the disciples pointing out how impressive and magnificent the Jerusalem Temple looked, with Jesus responding: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2). The shocked disciples then ask Him about when this unthinkable event would happen, leading our Lord to lay out a grim vision of violence and terror to come, which did in fact come in the year 70 A.D. when Caesar sent his armies to crush a Jewish rebellion centred in the holy city. The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, described the aftermath of this Jewish-Roman war like this: “Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury, (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done,) Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple”, and apart from some towers and sections of wall the Roman armies preserved, “it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.” For the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and for all of the people of God who had built their hopes and lives upon their ongoing connection to God’s Holy Temple, Jesus was truly describing the end of their world… the upending of everything they knew. But alongside this warning He also held out another source of hope: the enduring Kingdom of God they had come close to and had found in Him. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” He tells them, “but my words will not pass away.”
This relocation, this recentering of hope is not meant just for those who heard Him speak these words about two thousand years ago. They remain His words to us, speaking to us all as well. The things they had taken for granted about the world all those years ago, like the Temple, their traditions, their nation, would all soon come to an end, and we know the things we build our lives upon will have their endings as well. How quickly the things that seem so steady and sure can be swept away! But the hope of all the Church, from the beginning, through today, and until the very end, belongs firmly in the hands of our faithful Master, Jesus: in His resurrection, His victory, and in His coming again. Our hope truly belongs, from first to last, in Him.
In light of the destruction of the Temple and all Jerusalem, Christ did not tell His disciples to try and look on the bright side… to deny the traumatic impact of the suffering shortly to come. Nor did He urge them to do everything possible to prevent it from happening, or to plan ahead for ways to retrieve everything that would be lost. No, we heard today that Jesus urged His followers, then and now, to be vigilant. To stay awake. To be diligent in doing the vital work of God’s Kingdom… wholeheartedly devoted to God, and actively loving those around us. Christ urges us all to faithfulness, knowing that as dark as things may seem, the tensions and suffering we face will not be the end of our story. “Keep awake”, Jesus implores us, keep following Him diligently… don’t give in to despair, or desperation. Keep up hope, and keep going.
Despite all of the upheaval, and uncertainty we have encountered, we know ultimately where the story of our world is heading: Christ Jesus, the Risen Lord will return to judge the living and the dead… to establish justice, to end all strife, and to finally bring to fulfillment God’s good Kingdom of life and light at last. In light of this future hope, which through the Holy Spirit, is present among us even now, how are you and I being called to respond? What are we going to do differently? Though the world may be caught off guard by the coming of Christ’s Kingdom, how are we going to live in line with our Master’s reign today?
With the hope of Christ before us, and with God’s help let us stay awake, both in spiritual devotion, and in acts of loving service. May we not give in to despair, and give up on living as His people. May we not get overly comfortable with the current status quo, which we know at any time could come to an unforeseen end. But rather, may we grow more and more as diligent disciples of Jesus; putting into practice all that He has asked of us, and praying in certain hope for His rescuing return. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 186.
 Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews VII.I.I. Accessed through the online source: “Christian Classics Ethereal Library” https://ccel.org/ccel/josephus/complete/complete.iii.viii.i.html