Advent 1 · Mark 13:24-37 · November 30, 2008
By Jeffrey A. Oschwald
One of my greatest Advent frustrations over the years has been an ongoing encounter with a fundamental misunderstanding of the season’s purpose. Whether introducing the season to people unfamiliar with it, searching for materials to use in the classroom, or planning our own family Advent celebrations, I have for years seen, and continue to see, Advent presented as the Christian alternative to a December of malls, mayhem, and maxed-out credit cards. It is presented as “the better way to prepare for Christmas.” Advent, we are to believe, is best used to create family traditions, to bring meaning back to our Christmas celebrations, to find “special moments,” to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, or to learn to treasure Christmas in our hearts. From here it is a very small step toward regarding Advent as nostalgic (recovering lost traditions or remembering better times) or even sentimental (making this the best, most meaningful Christmas ever). And, of course, in the pastor’s study these sentiments manifest themselves in thoughts like: “Is it already Advent again?” and “What are we/am I going to do this year?”
The Gospel from Mark 13 (the Lectionary also allows for the account of Jesus’ royal entry from Mark 11 to be used) rouses us from these dancing-sugarplum visions of Advent like a shot of eschaton espresso. The first Advent voice that speaks to us is the Advent Voice—not the hopeful voice of the prophet, not the awed and exotic whispers of foreign sages, not the cooing of a sweet baby, nor the lullaby of a tender, young mother. It is the voice of the Son of Man, a voice that speaks of tribulation and darkness, a voice of warning and command. And what he said to them then he says to us now: “Stay awake!”
A Thematic Jumble?
The ESV divides the pericope into three paragraphs, each with its own heading. Nestle-Aland 27 divides the reading into five paragraphs, reflecting even more carefully the constantly changing topic of Jesus’ discourse. The passage contains prophetic warnings, an extended quotation of an anthology of Old Testament verses, two parables, instruction concerning the eternally reliable nature of His word, a provocative Christological statement, and a closing one-word application for the hearer/reader. How is a preacher ever going to do justice to a text like this—especially when he wants to introduce a unifying theme for a season already too full of distractions?
In what follows, I am going to make a daring gamble, departing from my usual homiletical principles and betting on your ability to approach these four Advent Gospels from a new perspective without losing your sermonic center of balance. What I mean to say is this: our unifying theme for the season and for this message is most easily found by focusing on the implications for us, as God’s Advent People, than by launching a direct assault on what these Gospels are telling us about Jesus. However, even with my trust in your ability to make the best of this, I wouldn’t risk so much unless I thought that, in the end, we will hear again and anew what these four Gospels are telling us about our Advent Lord as well.
Exegetical Problems as Exegetical Keys
I have often found in my study of a particular text that the key to unlocking the meaning of the entire passage often lies in the word, phrase, or verse that is giving me the most trouble. I suggest that this is also the case with our text from Mark 13. Mark 13 presents a number of exegetical challenges, but the preacher— thanks be to God!—does not have to address them all on Advent 1. The text graciously begins after the passages about the Abomination of Desolation and the shortening of the days in Mark 13:14-23. The exegetical problem I see in our text is much less dramatic and may not have even caught your eye on a first reading. Look again at 13:34. In a manner typical of this kind of parable, our Lord describes a variety of servants being given a variety of assignments at the departure of their master. What seems atypical is a concluding singling out of the doorkeeper. If the servants represent collectively Jesus’ followers or the church, then who is the doorkeeper? Why should he be given a special command to stay awake?
As tempting as it might be to explore the identity of the doorkeeper over against the rest of Jesus’ followers, such a temptation is immediately overcome by the words of Jesus that follow. To his hearers he says not: “Therefore I am putting you in charge,” but “stay awake.” That is, everyone who hears or reads this parable is to see him/herself as a doorkeeper. The question we are left asking is not: “What do I do while the doorkeepers watch the door?” nor is it: “Why do I have to stay awake and watch the door while everyone else gets to go about his/her normal business?” The question is: How is my life during these Advent days like that of a doorkeeper watching and waiting, alert and awake, night and day, for the return of his master? Though I rarely use outlines in writing sermons, I am going to propose a quasi-outline here as the most economical way to explore the theme and make some connections.
Doorkeepers of the Lord and for the World
I. We know what we watch for
For those of you who begin your preparation early enough, I strongly recommend that you start by reading R. Τ France’s treatment of this section in his commentary on Mark for The New International Greek Testament Commentary, especially pages 497-505. France argues, rightly and persuasively, that this section of Mark shows the same sort of double focus that we are familiar with from Matthew 24—25. In this case, however, the shift from the discussion about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to the Parousia of Jesus is more abrupt—and takes place in the middle of our pericope. The shift occurs in v. 32 with the reference to “that day or that hour.” What precedes this shift should be read as referring to the destruction of the temple in history and the “end of the old order” (to borrow France’s term)—the turning point of history brought about by the incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session of the Son. For the original doorkeepers, these words were prophecy; for us, they are historical review.
But that is precisely the point. We, the elect who have already been gathered in, know the world’s story. We are no longer watching for the signs leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction, but we do understand that chapter of history as “the beginning of the end,” as the transition from the old order of Jerusalem and its temple to the new of Golgotha and its cross. What people are better qualified to serve as “doorkeepers for the world” than those who have been trained to see the world from the divine perspective, who watch the unfolding of its drama with the Playwright’s script in our hands?
II. We know whom we watch for (Part 1)
There are really two ways the text answers the question: “For whom are we to watch?” It is perhaps this twofold responsibility that makes the doorkeeper’s position crucially unique and uniquely crucial. What, after all, is the significance of the door, if not that it separates outside from inside? First of all, then, the doorkeeper watches for the sake of the others who are “inside.” The image our Lord gives us in this parable of the household includes the activities—and the existence—of many other servants. The picture here is not of the individual, alone, watching at the door of his/her own house/heart. There is a community within which depends on the doorkeeper for their own state of alert. If he/she is found asleep at the door, it is not only the returning Lord outside who has been let down, it is also all within who were failed by the doorkeeper. The house in this brief parable is beginning to sound a lot like the church, but the text as a whole will not allow us to stop there.
What is the lesson of the fig tree that we are to learn? The primary lesson is, of course, that we are not to ignore the “signs of the seasons” that God surrounds us with. At the same time, the fig tree can serve as a good reminder to us that being aware of the seasons and making the appropriate changes doesn’t come as naturally to us human beings as it does to the rest of nature. We cannot count on fallen humanity “feeling the sap rise in its branches.” When the Son of Man appears again, that is, the next time the world sees this sign, he will come to gather in his elect—and there is no mention here of preaching and healing and teaching and warning. This angelic ingathering will stretch to the four corners of the world and even from the farthest reaches of earth to the farthest reaches of heaven. Who can number those “within” who depend on the service of us doorkeepers?
III. We know whom we watch for (Part 2)
The second answer to the question brings us back to the heart of the Advent message. We know whom we watch for in the sense that we know who it is than coming. And we know much better than the original hearers of these words. Although we are not the blessed ones who lived and worked with, learned from and marveled at Jesus, who beheld him with their own eyes, who knew the sound of his voice, and the touch of his hand, we are the ones who have believed through the word of those who were with him. We know the whole story of incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session. We have seen him vindicated by the Father and given all authority in heaven and on earth. We have been buried with him and with him have risen to new life.
Knowing our Lord as we do should be all that it takes to keep us awake and watchful through this world’s long Adventtide. Still, our Lord knows us even better than we know him—even better than we know ourselves. His warning and command are no less compassionate than they are earnest. He knows our vulnerability with regard to distraction, boredom, fatigue, despair—with all that might keep us from being His faithful doorkeepers.
At this point, your hearers will certainly be hoping for some word of Advent encouragement, some reason to hope that the favor of the Lord and the fate of the world do not rest solely upon their shoulders. But at this point, the text ends. The gospel, however, does not end here, and this is one of those occasions where the preacher must import good news from the larger gospel story to prevent misrepresenting one small piece of it. Very natural possibilities that come to mind are the “Look! I am with you always” from Matthew 28 and the “I will not leave you as orphans” and the promise of the Paraclete from John 14ff. A transition to the latter may come more smoothly, since it would not involve explaining how the Lord who leaves us never leaves us. What the text will not allow is some sort of “gospel comfort” that lulls us back into dreamy drowsiness and dulls the edge of our Lord’s advent charge. The promise of his coming, the world’s Savior for a world in need of saving, should rather renew us in our vigilance, filling us with a joyful anticipation that simply won’t let us sleep.