Following on from a disturbing Gospel passage in last week’s sermon, the first Sunday of Advent 2017 sees Rev. Geoff McKee addressing “The Little Apocalypse” – Mark 13:24-37. He explains the 3 features of apocalyptic writings and why a wake-up call is always needed by Christians at this time of year. There is an ongoing battle between good and evil. We are all caught up in that conflict. We must be active participants.
Click here to download the sermon in PDF format.
Mark 13:24-37 (New International Version)
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
The Day and Hour Unknown
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
I lived for almost fifteen years right next to the Glasgow Central to East Kilbride railway line.
When I first moved into the house, I can remember the noise of the trains passing every half hour or so. It was especially noisy when the train was pulling away from Giffnock station up the hill past the house.
But, you know, it wasn’t long before I got so used to it that I didn’t notice it any longer.
How many people have said to you: “How can you live in Lossiemouth, with the sound of the jets?”
“How do you stick it?”
We all know that, after a while, we tend not to notice them most of the time.
Human beings have an incredible capacity to adjust to surroundings to the extent that we can fail to notice something that would be strikingly obvious to a visitor.
Advent is the visitor that comes to us every year to remind us how things really are.
Advent arrives as a wake-up call; a call to get ready for a big event.
Now, you might think that I need a wake-up call to what you’ve all been put through for what seems like months now.
I was looking back at my notes for last year’s Advent Sunday sermon. I began then by drawing your attention to a Daily Mail article headline:
“There may still be 146 sleeps to go until Christmas, but that hasn’t stopped Selfridges from launching its festive range a staggering four months early.”
That was last year. I think it was even earlier this year!
Is there anyone that needs to be woken up to the fact that Christmas is coming and that there is an endless list of things that need to be done in the next few weeks if we’re going to have a successful Christmas celebration?
Many of us are over-caffeinated, running about as if there aren’t enough hours in the day. And we’re being pushed on by all the hype and commercialisation that makes Christmas special.
Do we really need a wake-up call? Well, yes we do!
We’ve been living so near to the railway line for so long now that we don’t hear the roar of the trains as they speed past.
We hear all sorts of other noise that our culture is pumping out but it’s doing nothing more than confusing us and wearing us out.
We are in danger of being asleep to what really matters and so the call of this alarming Gospel text needs to be heard again.
The text in Mark’s Gospel we are looking at today has been called ‘The Little Apocalypse’.
It doesn’t make for comfortable reading, does it?
It has the potential to alarm us and upset us – and that is good because that’s the intention.
So what is an apocalypse?
Its root is a Greek word meaning ‘uncovering’. It refers to the disclosure of something that is hidden. It is a revelation of a reality that is evident in heaven and will be made evident on earth.
There are a number of apocalyptic writings in the Bible ranging from the large books of Ezekiel and Revelation down to just a few verses like the reading in Mark’s Gospel today.
There are lots of different contexts in which apocalypses were delivered but apocalypse itself as a genre of writing has common denominators which characterise all apocalyptic literature.
There are three characteristics of all apocalyptic literature.
This includes the ‘little apocalypse’. I would like to point these characteristics out to you today.
(1) The first is the use of dualism: a contrast between two quite distinct entities.
There is a battle ongoing between two superpowers – between good and evil – and we are all caught up in that battle.
We are not merely spectators; we are active participants.
The season of Advent is in competition with the modern cult of Christmas. There’s a battle going on for your attention and for your soul. Is the Advent message going to survive the secular Christmas avalanche?
Jesus spoke of the sun and the moon being darkened, of stars falling from heaven, of heavenly powers being shaken. There is a major battle taking place and isn’t it remarkable that most of the world is deaf to the racket that it’s causing?
(2) The second characteristic of the apocalypse is pessimism.
No-one feels particularly elated after reading this type of writing because it always speaks of tough times and experiences.
Times are tough and you need to be prepared to live through the pain of that.
We don’t like pain and discomfort at all and so our culture tries its utmost to eradicate it and at this time of year that manifests itself in a mass spending spree that is guaranteed to drive out despair. Of course, all it does is postpone the despair until the credit card bill arrives in January!
And that brings us to our final characteristic of apocalyptic writing –
There is no time to go off and ignore all of this because we are being faced with it now. There is an urgency about it all.
As I was putting my initial thoughts for this sermon down on paper in mid-October, the UK and Ireland was bracing itself for Hurricane Ophelia.
As I looked outside, it was getting awfully dark at two o’clock in the afternoon and what light there was was turning a strange yellowish kind of colour.
The ancients might have believed that this was a warning that the Gods were not happy and that would have been confirmed by winds and floods and trees coming down. We know that it’s caused by Saharan sand and Portuguese wildfire smoke.
But its effect is classically apocalyptic.
You had better make preparations now for there is not time to wait.
Dualism, pessimism and imminence: these are the dominant themes.
Once again, we are confronted with them on the first Sunday in Advent, as shoppers not so far away from us are bathed in a tinsel glow with sounds of jingle bells and dear knows what else.
Both contrasting narratives can claim to be appropriate; both, however, cannot be right.
The challenge today is for all of us to agree together that Jesus Christ will appear again.
That, as the ancients awaited his birth, so we await his re-appearance and, as we do so:
- we take on the forces of evil,
- we acknowledge that times are tough, and
- we get ourselves ready – for change is imminent.
Nothing could stand in greater contrast to the message of our long, western, commercialised Christmas season.
A New York City businessman decided to avoid a $20 service charge by replacing a fluorescent light himself. After he had smuggled a new light into his office and put it in place, he decided to get rid of the old tube by throwing it in the trash can near his subway stop.
That night he got on the subway holding the seven-foot light vertically, with one end resting on the floor of the car. As the train became more crowded other passengers took hold of the tube, assuming it was a stanchion. By the time the man reached his stop, he simply removed his hand and exited the car, leaving the other passengers gripping the fluorescent tube!
Isn’t it amazing what we can fail to notice?
We become desensitised to the obvious and our behaviour is so easily influenced by what has no foundation in reality.
Jesus said: “Keep awake”.
We hear his warning today, so let’s endeavour to attune our ears again to the reality of his promise – and not the mirage which this world offers.
Image credit: David Monje via Unsplash