By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
November 30, 2008
Read: Mark 13:24-37
Chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel is often referred to as “The Little Apocalypse” based on it’s similarity to the Great Apocalypse of the Revelation of John. Our piece of scripture today is taken from that chapter, The Little Apocalypse. Last week I asked the question, what if today were the end of the world?
As C.S. Lewis said, once the author walks onto stage, the play is over. Many who take these texts as the description of an ultimate denouement of God that will actually happen, don’t obsess about the timing. What difference does it make whether the end of all things happens in my life or if I go to be with God upon the occasion of my own personal death. Either the world ends or I do. What matters is to be awake (whatever we take that to mean). Jesus says it several times.
Today’s piece of scripture seems to be telling us how to live in the midst of the unknown. Jesus is telling us to keep alert; for we do not know when the time will come. Keep awake. So just what is he saying to us?
First of all, I think it’s important to understand the original Greek word for time – kairos- in these words of Jesus’. Time here doesn’t refer to chronological time, as we know it. When we say that we will do something at a particular time, we are using chronos time. Kairos time has to do with crucial time or a decisive moment. A pivotal point in history. You have heard the phrase, “missing the boat” which at it’s heart means missing the opportunity of a lifetime. This is kairos time, it is a moment of opportunity–some refer to it as “God’s time”.
If that is the case, then Jesus is referring to a spiritual alertness. Staying awake to those opportune moments in our lives. Those crucial; special moments.
Barbara Brown Taylor shares the story of visiting her friend John at Nacoochee Presbyterian church. He showed her through the new fellowship hall that was under construction and then went into the church, where a curious thing sat on the communion table. It was a fat white candle sitting in a deep dish with a spiral of rusted barbed wire climbing the air all around it. “What is that?” she asked him, thinking it had something to do with prison ministry. “it’s a symbol I came across that really spoke to me,” he said, gently touching one of the steel barbs. “See, the light has already come into the world, but there is still work to be done. There is still darkness between us and the light.”
There is not any barbed wire around the candles on our Advent wreath, but in their own way they remind us of the same thing. There are four candles, one for each Sunday before Christmas. The first reminds us that this is the beginning of a new church calendar year. And for us, this is also the time of year when darkness settles in. The days are getting shorter and darker and will continue to do so as we light the Advent candles. By the time the earth rounds the bend on December 21, it is the shortest day of the year, barely nine hours long.
One thing Advent tells us is that people of faith know it will get darker before it gets light. Week by week we will light new candles, but even as we light them the darkness will increase. We know the sun will come back, just like we know that God will be born in a barn in Bethlehem. These are sure facts of our lives, but so is waiting in the dark. Anyone who has ever hungered for morning knows that. It will come, but it will not be rushed. You can prop the clock right by your face on the pillow. You can count to sixty 500 times and it will not change a thing. Night creatures will still rustle in the leaves outside your window. Your heart will still beat like a drum in your ears. Morning will come, but it will not be rushed. Our job is to wait without losing hope.
Keep awake, Jesus says. It’s like living in a house by the train tracks. While house hunting we notice the tracks and the sound of the train rolling by; but after moving in and years pass, we no longer hear the sound of the train. We sleep through the whistle blowing and rumbling in the dark of the night. Advent reminds us to spiritually wake up! Notice the train rolling by; notice the opportunities in life; notice what is important.
Jesus uses an example of a fig tree today. It is a strange example for us because we no longer hold fig trees as a key metaphor in our cultural life. When we do encounter figs, they tend to be mashed inside that moist little comfort food cookie, or we might have a fig alongside a piece of fine cheese.
“But as for fig trees themselves, I do not see them on the carefully mowed lawns outside of Coatesville. If we do mow our lawns, rake our leaves, it is as a chore, often for appearance’s sake. We do not normally find ourselves considering the branches of the fig tree and how they produce or do not produce fruit. Fruit production happens at the grocery store, when we take the food from shelf, to bag, to car trunk, to pantry; and then suddenly, on our kitchen countertops, fruit has been “produced”. Yet most of us long for a richer sense of how fruit comes into the world, with its rhythms of leaves and seasons. So whether we walk in orchards or drive around the suburbs, the image of the fig tree transports us to another world. There we imagine people who tend branches, not for the fun of it or to decorate a garden that decorates a house. We imagine a place where fruit trees are tended to because they make a difference in our survival. We imagine a time when figs were a regular part of the diet and helped fill stomachs that might have been left empty, if someone had not faithfully tended those branches” (Daniel, Lillian, “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 13:24-37” Feasting on the Word, eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B. (Louisville: WJK, 2008)
In Advent, there is still time to wake up from a bad dream. There is still time to encounter instead the presence of Christ in our waking hours.
An agricultural, natural image pulls no punches. The seasons pass, and the fig tree’s growth follows an order, but that fig tree is fragile itself. Some figs will not make it; they simply will not flourish. Staying awake matters, not so much to protect ourselves, but also to notice the beauty in the moment. By staying awake, we may catch the second when the branch is tender, and learn that summer is near. By staying awake, we may be there to see the master who arrives when we are least expecting it, at midnight at cockcrow, or at dawn.
Amidst the holiday parties and late-night shopping trips, the gospel reminds us to be awake to God in the world. This is a way of being awake that might actually be restful, and give us peace. The one who is coming is not an enemy but a friend. He may come in the light, but he may also come in the evening, or at midnight, or at three in the morning. The darkness does not stop him, and it does not have to stop us either. Our job is not to lie in bed with pillows over our heads or to shove all the heavy furniture in front of the door for fear of the darkness outside. Our job is to light the candle wrapped in barbed wire and set it in the window. Our job is to watch for the one who comes to us with healing in his wings and to open the door for him before he raises his hand to knock. Who knows when that will be? No one, that’s who. Watch, therefore. Take heed, watch. For what he says to us he says to all: Watch.