The season of Advent often gets combined with Christmas, thanks to retail and academic calendars encroaching on the liturgical calendar and a general love for celebration and excess. Our duty as preachers and teachers, however, remains to remind our people that Advent is a time of quiet and profound preparation for the liturgical coming of the Lord; a time of reflection, of muted anticipation, of patience. The very liturgical color of violet suggests penitence (and also the royalty we await in the coming of Christ the king). For Advent takes its very name from the Latin word for “coming” (adventus; ad, meaning “to” and the verb venire, “to come”), and so during its season we prepare for the Lord’s coming.
But which coming? The Gospel readings for 1 and 2 Advent this year – Mark 13:24-27 and Mark 1:1-8, respectively – concern not little baby Jesus meek and mild but rather the second and first comings of the adult Lord, while the readings for 3 and 4 Advent (from John 1 and Luke 1) bring us back to the birth of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Advent is a season preparing the people for both comings, and should the Lord tarry and not return before Christmas, the liturgical life of Christ begins again for another year.
The chapter from which the text for 1 Advent is selected, Mark 13, is often misunderstood. At first glance, it appears to concern the end of the world, and that within the lifetime of Jesus’ original disciples. Taken with Mark 9:1, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power,” many people assume Jesus and the earliest Christians thought the world would end very soon, within their lifetimes. Indeed, a British atheist of a prior generation, Bertrand Russell, pointed out in his Why I am not a Christian that Jesus’ words in Mark 9:1 were simply false, and thus too the Christian religion, Q.E.D.
Yet I would suggest that this is not the case. Reading the Gospels well involves reading them in light of their narrative structure, and thus reading parts in their literary contexts. Mark 9:1 presents no discrete, isolated saying, but is followed immediately by the Transfiguration six days later (Mark 9:2), which is a proleptic disclosure of the resurrection state at the final coming of the kingdom of God; those hearing Jesus’ words in Mark 9:1 do indeed see the kingdom of God come with power six days later in the Transfiguration.
Mark 13 also bears closer scrutiny. Much of it concerns Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which event happened in AD 70. That destruction, in turn, functions as a first-century token of the cataclysm of the end of the world at some point in the indefinite future. What is more, Jesus warns the disciples that they should not concern themselves with the precise time of the end, because only the Father knows, not even the Son. Far from providing the keys to some end-times schema, Mark 13 warns wise readers off of any and all apocalyptic expectation about the timing of the end, teaching rather that a disciple is to keep vigilant watch at all times, precisely because one does not know when the master will return.
Mark 13 breaks into four sections, following an A-B-A’-B’ pattern. The A sections concern the destruction of the temple, while the B sections concern the end of the world:
A: Mark 13:1-23: Temple
Observe that the setting of the chapter is the temple: “And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” (v. 1). Jesus then predicts its destruction: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (v. 2). Sitting “opposite the temple,” the Markan narrator emphasizes, four disciples ask him what sign to look for when “these things” are about to occur, things pertaining to the temple’s destruction.
Reading with our eyes open, Jesus’ response is intriguing, for unlike many engaged in apocalyptic speculation today, Jesus insists that the signs usually considered end-time signals mean in this instance no such thing: “the end is not yet” (v. 7); “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (v. 8). Indeed, Jesus instructs his disciples to flee when they see the “abomination of desolation” in the temple (v. 14, reminding hearers and readers of Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ desecration of the temple in 167 BC; cf. Dan 11:31 and 1 Macc 1:54):
But when you see the abomination of desolation set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything away; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. (vv. 14-18)
A question: If this is the end, why flee? Where will you run to? Where will you hide? Further: Why the words about pregnant and nursing women, and what’s the problem with winter? The answer is that it’s difficult to flee under those conditions. Note well that Jesus also says, “For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be again” (v. 19). Jesus’ words make much more sense when referred to the Roman destruction of the temple in AD 70.
B: Mark 13:24-27: End
In this section we are dealing with the end of the world; Jesus now speaks not about “these things” (a phrase which indicates the temple is in view; cf. v. 4), but of obvious apocalyptic phenomena – the sun and moon darkening, stars falling, and the powers of heaven shaking, followed by the obvious return of the Son of Man and his angels to gather the elect. Here Jesus is not telling the disciples to pay attention to signs; rather, he tells them the end will be obvious.
A’: Mark 13:28-31: Temple
We return to the temple. First, Jesus instructs the disciples to learn the lesson of the fig tree. Now readers should recall the episode of the cursing of the fig tree coupled with the cleansing of the temple in Mark 11:11-26, which passage itself is organized in an A-B-A’-B’ structure. Jesus enters the temple and looks around and then departs (A); he then curses the fig tree, which has leaves but no fruit (B); next he cleanses the temple (A’); and then the next morning the fig tree is found to have withered to the roots. The “cleansing of the temple” is actually an enacted prophecy of its destruction: Jesus turns over tables, stops the commerce necessary for sacrifice, and alludes to the first temple’s destruction by mentioning the “den of robbers” of Jeremiah 7:11, all pointing to the end of the temple. The cursed and withered fig tree is thus a symbol of the end of the temple system as well. Second, Jesus mentions “these things,” a clue that the temple is in view, as in v. 4.
But what of “he” being near, “at the very gates”? A better translation (and translation is the end, not beginning, of interpretation) is “it” – the destruction of the temple – is at the gates. And if that’s correct, then Jesus’ prophecy that “this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” is not in error, for the destruction of the temple takes place about forty years – a biblical generation – after Jesus’ prediction. Finally, when Jesus says “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” he is here too referring to the temple for (as many have argued) “heaven and earth” is a circumlocution for the temple, as many Jews considered the temple to be the center of the cosmos. Jesus is saying not to worry about the temple’s loss – the utmost trauma for believing Jews, as the disciples and the earliest Christians were – because the message of Jesus, the new temple, will abide.
B’: Mark 13:32-37: End
Here we return to the end, and Jesus makes more plain that one cannot calculate the end by looking for signs but rather that one must be ever vigilant awaiting Jesus’ return. Jesus speaks of “that day” and “that hour” and tells the disciples that not even he, the Son, knows. If that is the case, perhaps Christians given to apocalyptic fervor should be a bit more circumspect about attempting to pinpoint the timing of the end. Jesus tells the parable of the gatekeeper as an allegory (yes, many parables are a sort of allegory) of his departure and return to instruct the disciples to “watch” for “the hour” and not to be caught “sleeping.”
The whole of Mark 13 then, advises against seeking signs; it will be obvious when Jerusalem is to be leveled; it will be obvious when the world ends and the Son returns. But Mark’s is a Gospel of action; never content merely to tell, he often shows. And so here as well. For in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), Jesus asks three disciples to “keep watch” in the “hour,” but they fail and Jesus repeatedly finds them “sleeping.” In short, the very disciples Jesus told to keep watch waiting for the hour immediately fail to do so when Jesus’ hour comes (14:41). “The hour,” then, need not be in Mark the end of the world; as Augustine suggested, it can refer to the final hour of every Christian, as Jesus’ hour came roughly 1980 years ago.
Indeed, representative of Mark’s literary brilliance, Jesus’ last night takes place according to the four-watch schema of Mark 13:35: “evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.” Jesus has the Last Supper in the evening; he is arrested in Gethsemane at midnight; Peter denies Jesus at cockcrow; and he is tried by Pilate and crucified in the morning. The narrative point is, again, that one should be ready at all times, for the end might come suddenly, as sudden as Jesus’ end came.
In which directions might the preacher then go? Several possibilities come to mind:
(1) Teach the meaning of Advent. Talk about its solemnity, its penitential, preparatory tone, its time spent in quiet anticipation of the Lord. It would be rhetorically effective, one would think, if easy, to contrast the Advent attitude with the general celebratory attitude of the wider culture during Advent. The preacher might also use hymns specific to Advent and specific to Christmas to illustrate the difference in tone between the two seasons.
(2) Discuss the practicalities of spiritual preparation. Many people find general adjurations to pray, to relinquish, to prepare, etc., too vague to be of use. How, precisely should people pray? Prepare? Do penitence? Be specific; the greatest spiritual writers were and are.
(3) Talk about Christian eschatology. Of course it’s a big and difficult topic, but many churchgoers want to learn, want to be stimulated, and want to have their thinking challenged, and, beyond that, doctrine is good for us, as it concerns the right understanding of God, nature, and humanity. In a didactic vein, one might simply attempt to point out that it’s not clear the earliest Christians thought the world would end in their lifetimes, and one might present a more robust vision of eschatology that sees the inauguration of the new age starting not at some time in the future but roughly 1980 years ago at the cross (cf. Galatians). One might also discuss how much Christian fiction and nonfiction speculating about the end comes to grief given Jesus’ words in Mark 13. In an existential vein, one might attempt to communicate the gravity of the end, using Jesus’ hour as an example.
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is the Director of the Christian Leadership Center in Bismarck, North Dakota.