FOR THE First Sunday of Advent in our new church year we hear from the Gospel According to Saint Mark. Rather than starting at the beginning of that gospel record, however, our text relates to a prophetic statement said just before the arrest of Jesus. Jesus words thus echo to us about coming events…
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And 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.
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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.”
We need to more fully comprehend this prophetic text as given to the early church. In this way we may derive direction for our own day. To do this, to assist us… let me offer that we first must note that our lesson is a word picture painted upon a larger canvas. The picture comes forth from our Lord as a longer talk that preceded this text. The subject was about future desolation to be expected… and the ultimate delivery of the Christian peoples. Since the lesson involves us then, the text rightly needs to be understood from the prediction that Jesus gave concerning the fate of the temple in Jerusalem. The discussion began as the young rabbi had taught his disciples after leaving the temple. He told them that the time was coming that one magnificent stone of the temple would not be sitting on top of another.
We find that this gospel message is mirrored later in Matthew, Chapters 24-25, and in Luke 21:5-36. Here in Mark, however, it seems that we have the earliest written account. Whether this text came to them from either an oral tradition or a proto-Markan writing, we do not know. We do know, however, that this more concise gospel is thought written shortly after the desolation of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. That tremulous, destructive event in the life of Israel, happened to the Judean religious temple system in 70A.D. Therefore, since recorded in this gospel was written less than a decade later, the text here is barely subsequent in time to that historic fulfillment event.
Consider this! In the previous written text, Mark had related that Jesus sat teaching his disciples on the Mount of Olives across from the temple. Jesus forecast that they would receive persecutions, and be beaten… and ridiculed concerning him. Our Lord taught that when they saw the desolation of that great temple, trouble would be coming upon all. The Christians would even be blamed for its destruction. Jesus told them that many persons would come and claim to be the Christ. As history would prove, the Roman war upon the temple cult and its followers unfolded just as prophesied. Life and light was quenched for the Jews at the siege of Masada, Given this historical setting then, recently unfolding for the writers of this gospel, the disciples clearly remembered the words of Jesus. Those who had been keen students of the prophets also were aware that this horrible event had mirrored those prophetically spoken about many centuries before. (see Isaiah 13:10)
The community responsible for this gospel writing was centered in Alexandria in Egypt. That community is thought by most biblical scholars as the first to write down these remembered teachings. The text they penned immediately told readers of the church around the empire that the here and now had arrived, and they lifted up the vision of an unfolding kingdom. For their readers, the present age was emerging out of historical darkness and foreboding for the church. Yes, the temple had been plundered and destroyed. The desolation of Roman symbols stood tall in the temple and had desolated the sacrificial offering fires. Closer to their own home, the pleasant world of scripture readings within the Jewish synagogues had turned unstable… even hostile toward Christians. Tumultuous and confusing events of the day had certainly made it seem that the sun no longer showed them the way forward. The moon seemed not to illuminate and guide those faith travelers through darkness. The stars… that we might guess were representative of the many leaders of the Judaic religion who had once seemed solidly fixed in the heavenly realms… had fallen. The desert wayfarers of the Alexandrian church were therefore feeling quite blind.
Miraculously amid this desolation started by the desecration of the temple... followed by the massacre of Masada and the scattering of Jewish religious community… a brightness miraculously showed forth. I consider by this, that the infant community was truly realizing the enduring gift of the Holy Spirit. Through revelation they knew that the Son of Man was already there, and Jesus Christ was coming again.
You see, a rather difficult name for some of us, “Son of Man” was the title given by prophetic writing as describing a special man. That man was a Deliverer, who was promised as sent to the world by God the Father. The Hebrew prophet Daniel had described him…
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Thus before the fall of the temple, Jesus had repeatedly taught that the Son of Man was described as the fulfillment of prophecy. The Son of Man was taught to be the one who would come with heavenly messengers... and his angels would speak the message of salvation… and they would gather his “elect” from far and wide. By the time of the gospel writing, however, the infant church knew the Risen Jesus Christ had sent the Holy Spirit upon the church. They knew then that the revealed Son of Man and the Son of God were one in the same. In this way they knew the calling of the universal church... called out from the time before the gospel's writing.
We can thus say the church was created at Pentecost and yet is eternal, and stands beyond any particular location and time. Therefore the gospel stated what was already happening, what was to happen… and then offered us the wondrous message from God about what to do as the end of all things occur.
Be Not Afraid!
In this last portion of prophecy we moderns often get most confused. However, be comforted that we have had much company. Worry over the delay of the fearsome and wonderful end times seems problematically inherited for those who possess sinful and finite minds. Even blessed Saint Paul expected things to happen sooner. Take note here, however! Both the disciples and the early church of Mark were told in simple agricultural analogy that things would unfold just as the events were described. Jesus instructed that the divinely-directed progression would occur and the saving gospel would go out fully in all earthly directions. We need presently to note the “all” word here.
The example of the fig tree teaches us that from the first speaking by our Lord on the Mount of Olives, events were already unfolding for the Christian church. His followers knew by the time of this writing that they were to do as instructed. They were to “watch” in an active way. Anticipating the end times, they did watch. The Lord had said that “this generation shall not pass away” until they would see "all" that which was described. Indeed, they did actively watch. As promised, the prophetic words of Jesus are true… for that generation was given and yet still has eternal life. That generation shall never pass away! They did and shall see the unfolding of the kingdom. Out of the ashes of temple flames and dispersed Judaism rose the eternal Christian church. Repeatedly, this is why the early church was told to actively… “Watch!”
What then does this mean for us in the Christian church today? I believe that we are still in the growth stage of the church. I offer that the fig tree is still springing forth toward flowering. Those who watched faithfully in the days of this writing saw the beginnings of what would come to be. As sinful people saved only by grace through faith, neither our predecessors nor we... have even yet come close to seeing the full majesty of the kingdom. Each new day, and each liturgical year of the church at Advent therefore spells out a surprising newness of gospel proclamation for us. Thus as a Christian pastor I say to you… “Do not stand still, brothers and sisters in Christ!” Watch actively, working in faith... knowing that our Lord shall come again. When the end time does come, we shall stand together with those who have gone before us. Together we most certainly shall see our loving God as he was and is, and ever will be… as truly revealed in Christ Jesus, our Lord. To this I say again and again... "Amen, Amen and Amen! Come Lord Jesus!”