Vicar’s sermon: Advent Sunday Mark 13.24-37 3.12.23

The difficulty with the gospel reading this morning is that it tempts us to read it in a far too literal fashion. This ‘apocalyptic’ style of writing presents us with images that are a film maker’s dream. It is big, dramatic, colourful. The special effects are spectacular and, if you were to make a film of what is described the computer-generated images will look tremendous. (Ask Ridley Scott to move on from Napoleon and the battle of Borodino and to create a story board for the pictures Jesus gives us and he will be in his element). And there are indeed parts of the church of God that read these texts and, indeed, take them literally. Earlier this week I learned of the ‘Redoubters’ in the United States who are folk, following a particularly charismatic preacher and leader who have gathered in the mountain states of the US ‘away’ from the corruption of the world and who are set upon creating a ‘redoubt’…a fortress against the moral collapse that they see in the modern USA. My guess is that they love this sort of bible writing.
The problem though is that these verses, whilst they contain Truth, were never intended to be read literally. ‘Apocalyptic’ is a particular type of writing just as poetry or biography are particular styles of writing. It’s a pretty niche style of writing at that – though again, our American cousins seem to get excited about it. So when you go into Waterstones and head for the poetry section you know what to expect, what to look for. With poetry you know that its particularly dense, creative use of language is seeking to reach to your emotions and is trying to help you see the world differently. It’s the same with the Sci Fi section: when you take a book off the shelf in the Sci Fi section for the shop you know full well that there aren’t really little green men out to get us in the middle of the planet Mars but experience tells you that reading this sort of literature enables readers to step out of the world as we know it and to consider it afresh: Sci Fi speaks of the future but also questions the present.
It’s the same with apocalyptic writing. You have to know what it is for before you can read it in a way that doesn’t give you nightmares. And an added problem is that whilst there are whole books (Revelation) or parts of books (the second half of the Book of Daniel) that are very clearly ‘apocalyptic’, some times this style of writing finds its way into quotes or sections of the other scriptures: the apostle Paul quotes apocalyptic passages in he writing, here (today) we have a section of Mark’s gospel that uses this style and, if you don’t make the ‘switch’ from reading a bible narrative across into an apocalyptic style understanding then you end up in some very strange places.
Apocalyptic uncovers for those in the know a secret or hidden Truth. Apocalyptic paints us pictures that need interpreting. Apocalyptic tends to be written at a time of crisis to speak into a time of crisis but the message is one of reassurance, encouragement and comfort not one of disaster.
So looking at the first verses of our Gospel passage, can you see the encouragement they offer to God’s faithful people. The temptation is to focus on the trials and tribulations of the world, the heavens being shaken and the stars falling from the skies. But what is the encouragement? It is that the Son of Man will gather his faithful people to himself. Come what may, Jesus says to His disciples, stay true, stay faithful – I will not abandon you, I am for you.
Tucked in these few verses there are some quotation marks. It is true that these would not have been present in the original Greek versions of the gospels (indeed these had no punctuation at all) but our translators have given them to us because this phrase –‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’- references an image in the Book of Daniel (chapter 7) which is one of the most important scriptures for the first disciples (it crops up again and again). In Daniel the ‘Son of Man’ is not coming down to earth to destroy it (as some might wildly imagine) rather he is coming to be presented to the ‘Ancient One’ (another translation might be the ’Ancient of Days’, to God). And what does this presentation signify or bring about: it heralds God giving him ‘dominion, and glory and kingship, so that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion will be an everlasting dominion and his kingship will never be destroyed.’
Has this come about? Yes, it has. It happened as Jesus was crucified, raised and ascended to His Father. The gospels (writing in an apocalyptic style) tell us that the sun was darkened when he died, the earth quaked when he was raised and that he has ascended to the right hand of God as Lord and King. These words of Jesus are an encouragement to his disciples before the events of Holy Week to ‘hold on’, to not despair. His reign is about to begin.
Which helps us to make sense of the imagery that follows in verse 28. This is much more gentle: ‘summer is coming’ it says, and He is near. Everything will change for this generation (Jesus is very specific) – it is as if the whole created order has passed away and been renewed. And He is at the gates: again, this is an image, a picture, but it is not one to fear. It tells us that Jesus is near. We read it sometimes as if He is an invading force, an unwelcome presence…but no, that is to read it incorrectly. Jesus does come to us. He is present to us, as close as breathing, though His Holy Spirit. Surely we want Him to be near?
And finally we have a picture of a man’s servants waiting for daybreak. Maybe it’s the darkness of the night that frightens us or that shapes our ‘hearing’ of the passage. But the sun will rise, indeed the dawn is coming and, as each hour passes, the master’s presence becomes ever more imminent. These are words to encourage us not to flag in our discipleship but to ‘keep awake’. We can, if we wish, project them into a distant future but it seems to me to make more sense to hold them close in the present. Why? Because, as we heard in last week’s gospel reading, Jesus comes to us in any number of ways: he looks at us through the eyes of the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner or refugee: if we don’t recognise Him in these people how can we be sure we will recognise Him at all?
Now I know that large parts of the church read these verses and boot them into some distant future at the end of time. I know that many people, for all they have heard sermons about being careful how they read apocalyptic easily forget what they have heard and want to read these texts literally. So what can I offer you as I finish.
Apocalyptic is more about the present than it is about the future.
Apocalyptic is not written to frighten us: it is written to encourage and strengthen us in our faith.
And these passages remind us that Jesus, through the ordeal of Holy Week, has ascended to the right hand of God and is Lord. For all that the world may seem to be a mess, nothing has changed. Jesus is Lord and we are his people: stay faithful, do not lose heart. He is near, the Kingdom is coming, summer is coming, renewal is possible. And He is present to all who eyes to see and ears to hear. For whilst darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Take heart

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