Mark 13:24–37 (NRSV)
The Coming of the Son of Man
(Mt 24:29–31; Lk 21:25–28)
24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
(Mt 24:32–35; Lk 21:29–33)
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The Necessity for Watchfulness
(Mt 24:36–44; Lk 21:34–36)
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 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, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
This time of year is probably the most exciting, it is the holiday season! It begins with Thanksgiving and for the next month we look forward with the anticipation of the coming of our Savior. There is much to celebrate when we look toward God. Yet often times we get caught in despair and hopelessness. So as we start off this Advent season I want to take a look at some of the traditions that many of us have held so dear.
The Christmas tree is probably one of the most memorable tradition in most of our houses. Most of us have memories of the excitement we had a children of putting up the tree. It has become so engrained in our cultural celebrations of Christmas that it is hard to imagine a time where Christmas trees were not popular. The use of a tree to assist in our celebrations in America is younger than the concept of our nation, but the roots go deep into history.
Winter is a very dark and sometimes scary season, especially if you lived in the far northern areas of the world where during the winter months the sun barely peaks over the horizon if it rises at all. People that settled in those northern places, in countries we now know as Finland, Sweden, Norway and others often lived their lives in fear because there was very little light, and the weather was fiercely cold. But they saw something that gave them hope, a tree. During the winter everything seemed to die, the plants died, animals died, and even people because it was just too cold, but there was one thing that did not die the fir tree. This tree would stay green throughout the harsh winter months so it became a beacon of hope for the hopeless. They would hang a fir tree from their ceilings with the hope that whatever power kept it dying during the winter would be poured out on the family living in the house. We know this to be superstition now, but we must remember that this was a dark time. So the evergreen tree made its debut as a holiday tradition in the homes of the Vikings or Norsemen, but it was redeemed by God like some many things.
The redemption came when a monk named Boniface was called by God to travel all over Europe to share the Gospel and build churches. On one of his journeys he came across a group of men who were about to make a sacrifice according to their traditions, but Boniface ran up to them to save the life of the one they were going to kill. Of course they did not want to listen to him but God has a way to turn hearts to Him. The legend says that Boniface punched the trunk of an oak tree that they were going to use for their sacrifice rituals, and the oak tree fell to the ground. Then when the dust from the fallen tree settled a lone fir tree stood, Boniface then used the illustration of the Fir tree to teach the Vikings about the everlastings hope and love of God that is offered through Jesus Christ, and like St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Irish people of the Trinity, Boniface used the triangular shape of the fir to teach the Vikings. It is said that those men converted and the hope surrounding the fir tree was shifted from pagan superstitions to the hope we have in Christ.
I tell this story because the evergreen firs gave hope in a dark time. In today’s passage Jesus is telling those that will listen that there are dark times in the future. This is not exactly a passage most of us would associate with this holiday season, but it provides us with the reason Jesus came to dwell among mankind.
Jesus was born during a very dark time for the people of Israel, not too distant in their history they had returned from exile, gained their freedom, only to find themselves again under the rule of an empire that rejected God. The people were yearning for deliverance yet for centuries they had not seen the answer to their collective prayers. Just prior to this passage Jesus was teaching that in this earnest hope many would be lead astray from the truth by people claiming to be the messiah or a prophet. Most of these prophets were not sent by God and were actually more concerned with profit than being a prophet.
There was tension in the air, everyone knew that something was about to happen, and that excited them. I say excited, but it was not necessarily a joyous excitement. They knew that things were going to change. Jesus is warning them that this change will not necessarily be what they were expecting, Jesus was telling them that there will be great suffering.
Suffering usually proceeds revival. Revival is a compound word that has the prefix “re”, these two letters have a simple meaning when they are attached to a word. Those two letters tell those of us that read or hear the word that whatever the base word means is going to happen again. The term vival is a word that means life, so revival speak of having life again. To have life again, life must end. Suffering, hopelessness and darkness.
The people were looking to the future hoping that someone was going to change the course of their culture but Jesus is telling them that there will be great suffering first. This is not exactly how you draw a crowd. But there is more to this. Jesus uses apocalyptical language, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the heavens, and powers in the heavens will be shaken. These are not the words of revival but the words of exile. Jesus is telling them that everything they hold to be important will be demolished and their world is about to be turned upside down. Darkness is on the way, but the “son of man” will gather his elect from the world.
I want us each to be very careful with how we read this passage. We may be lead to believe that this is a passage about the return of Christ, but that may not be the meaning especially when in other gospel narratives Jesus says that this will all happen within one generation. When we put all our interpretation of this passage on the second coming of Christ we will run into a problem because we are just a few generations away from the time these words were spoken. Trying to make this passage only represent the second coming leads us into error. Do not get me wrong I do firmly believe in the return of Christ.
About forty years after Jesus spoke these words, the culture of Israel was turned upside down. In 70 AD the Romans totally conquered Israel, their temple was torn to the ground and all the vast wealth of the society was taken out of Israel and used to satisfy the whims of the emperor. The sun will be darkened, the moon will fail to give its light, and the hope of Israel will fall. But through all the suffering God will emerge.
I want us to now consider our own time. Throughout our nation we have seen a continual decrease in the influence of God as we know it. The church as a whole has seen a steady decline in attendance, and it seems as if the culture is falling away from God in every possible way. The sun is darkened and the moon fails to give light. The church is left with a crisis, do we continue down the same path, do we fight, or do we withdraw. Consider this for a moment. Are we on the verge of the second coming, or do the signs we interpret point to something else entirely? Change is in the air, and that change has many people crying “how long”!
Jesus did not return in 70 ad, but something definitely shifted. When the Romans tore down the temple it forced the faithful to rethink how they worship and how they engage the world around them. Without a temple what do we do?
Our world is again being engulfed in darkness, the very things that we as the church have held as important for so long, seem to turn people away from the gospel. But does that mean that the time is near for Jesus’ return? I do see that there are signs all around us, but the signs could mean different things. Our culture is increasingly turning away from God, at least away from the church, but does that mean they do not desire a relationship with God? We again must rethink and approach how we engage the culture. Just like the Christmas tree, once pagan icon, was redeemed by the Church to reach out to an ungodly culture, like the shamrock was used to convince the Irish, we too must understand our culture and use the tools God has given us to assist in the redemption of our culture. Some say the church is dead, I say hardly. Some say that our culture is forever lost, I say our mission has just begun. Some have given up hope but I believe we are about to enter into the largest revival the world has ever seen. But how do we get there? We can crusade around trying to force people to act Godly, but is that what Christ has called us to do? We could withdraw and build a colony separated from the darkness, but does that bring hope to those sitting in their houses hopeless? Now more than ever we need to look to Christ, follow in his footsteps and participate in the Holy rhythm of life he showed us. Now more than ever we need to live a life of prayer so that we can be directed by the Spirit to minister to our community. Now more than ever we need to share the hope we have in Christ as we minister to the people stuck in the darkness. God Father sent his son into this world not to condemn the world but to redeem it, so that His will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. The joy of advent, the hope of the resurrection and the return of Christ is just that, the hope of a restoration and redemption the hope of the revival of people, cultures, and our world.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as Friends, I want us each to look at this Christmas tree before us, reflect on the history of this symbol and the memories we have had around such a tree. And let us not forget that God has, can, and will redeem our culture if we are willing to be a person and a church devoted to loving God, embracing His Spirit, and Living the love of Christ with others.