Emergency Alert System: Reflections on Mark 13:24-37
According to Mark 13, there is nothing wrong with Jesus' emergency alert system. The breakdown comes when we respond to it in inappropriate ways. Reading between the lines, it seems as if Mark's congregation, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, may have been facing three temptations. One was the temptation to follow false Messiahs (Mk. 13:21-22). Yet another may have been the temptation to watch for grand, dramatic signs of Christ's return (Mk. 13:24-27). And, while preoccupied with waiting for this drama, the temptation arose to be passive and inactive, un-invested in the present place and time.
Those who only wait for the end tend to withdraw rather than take up their cross and follow Jesus. (Reid, 138) Says commentator Robert Stephen Reid, "Mark's Jesus puts a 'pox' on those who try to calculate dates precisely because fixation on dates tends to obscure the task of living in the present with vigilance." (Reid, 138) "The one who stands firm (endures) to the end, rather than the one who calculates it, will be saved" (Mk. 13:13). (Reid, 139)
I'm not sure when the official beginning of retail Advent is, but in a mall on November 14 I heard "O Come All Ye Faithful" being played over the sound system. I know they do marketing studies and play music most likely to make you buy things, but it wasn't working on me. I felt annoyed. I felt it was too soon. I tried to ignore it and left the store soon after.
It makes me wonder if we aren't facing the same temptations as Mark's community in the 21st century. Temptations to follow false Messiahs during Advent? I got a chuckle out of a Jay Leno news headline typo the other night. A church advertised a special event for young children and their parents called "Breakfast with Satan." But it was sort of nervous laughter. What a difference a couple of interchanged letters can make!
What about temptations to focus on the red velvet, the gold lamé, gifts for the person who has everything, and the illusion of family perfection as signs of the Season? Or the temptation to wait passively for the joy of Christmas to come into our hearts, never mind the many lonely, maybe hungry, people around us who could benefit from some action on our part?
I'm about fed up with praying the same prayer of confession every week without doing anything about it.
Merciful God,we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I wonder if our Advent temptation isn't to be alert to the wrong things: the ideal of a healthy, wealthy, harmonious cultural Christmas and how far short of it our life falls. I wonder if our temptation isn't to ignore the wrong things at Advent.
Like we ignore the humble fig tree perhaps. Mark's Jesus in Mark 13 warns us not to focus on calculating when the sun and moon will darken and the stars will fall. Instead, he commends to our attention the fig tree. Fig trees in Jewish literature were symbols of the joys of the messianic age. (Thurston, 149) It is to signal the arrival of the Messiah at the gate by bearing fruit (Mk.11:12-25). "When its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near" (Mk. 13:28). Maybe we are to look for portents and signs of Messiah's coming this Advent that are "hidden in plain sight." On the ground, not in the sky. Blooming along our path, not booming from a celestial (or mall) speaker system.
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Fortress Press, 2002)
Robert Stephen Reid, Preaching Mark (Chalice Press, 1999)
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.