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What Time Is It?

November 28, 2011

“What Time Is It?” Mark 13:24-37 © 11/27/11 Advent 1B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Sometimes reading the Bible is like being a new member of a family or a fresh addition to a group of old friends. There are all kinds of insider jokes, knowing looks, and code words that we have to be initiated into. Somebody at the Thanksgiving table says about a recent event: “Yeah, that was just like last Christmas,” and we have no idea what’s being talked about. Or a single word provokes laughter, and you or I sit there wondering what we missed. Seeing our distress, some kind soul explains it, and suddenly we’re more a part of the in crowd.

Apocalyptic literature in the scripture is especially difficult. “Apocalyptic” comes from a Greek word that means “unveiling” as at the end of a wedding for the kiss or “revealing” as in what God does in letting people know what he’s up to. The technical name of the book we call “Revelation” is “The Apocalypse of John.” And the section of Mark we heard is usually called “the Little Apocalypse.”

Like Revelation, this material draws heavily on the Hebrew scriptures. There are quotes and themes from Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah, Joel, Deuteronomy, and Jeremiah. So unless we know those scriptures pretty well or have good footnotes in our Bibles, we will miss something important that the original hearers understood. There are also the standard features of apocalyptic, like cosmic disasters, persecutions, hardships, and war, signs and wonders and warnings. Such things would have been as typical a part of the thought world of the first century audience as references to pop culture, sports, and current events are for us. And finally, there is some definite insider talk going on with the note about the “desolating sacrilege,” where the author is speaking in code. He even says “let the reader understand” or as we would say “you know what I’m talking about.” As in Revelation, he wanted to keep his meaning from the authorities in case the parchment fell into the hands of persecutors, in this case, the Romans.

The complexity and strangeness of this material has made it fodder for frauds and candy for kooks interested in scaring people into heaven and disinterested in the concerns and cares of this world. They like to draw straight, solid lines of connection between today and the predictions and situations found in Mark and elsewhere. Harold Camping, you recall, predicted the so-called “rapture” on October 21, for example. I have to wonder: what part of “no one knows the day or the hour” and “the end is still to come” don’t such people understand? It’s so odd to me that people who loudly proclaim how “biblical” they are don’t actually read the Bible. And folks who talk about what great Christians they are don’t listen to Jesus!

On the other hand, we can’t simply dismiss or ignore these kinds of texts, whatever the misguided and the scam artists do with them. They are part of our scripture, which we take seriously as unique witnesses to Jesus, the Word of God. We need to try making sense of them for our day, even if we can’t and shouldn’t try to find one-to-one correspondence between events in the first and twenty-first centuries.

What then are we to say? The best thing we can do is to find some clues here about how we are to live as disciples in our own day. What can we tease out of this difficult material that will help us in some practical way?

The first piece of guidance here is the call to faithful stewardship of our calling from God. We ought to be occupied with the tasks God has given us rather than preoccupied with end of the world scenarios, the dire predictions of doom from some would-be prophet.

I read recently how an eclipse during the colonial period frightened and confused the legislators in a New England assembly. They thought it was the end of the world. Some wanted to adjourn. But one man addressed the moderator: “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world, and we adjourn, then we shall be seen as fools. But if it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought.”

In like fashion, the calling of the community of faith is to be found doing our duty, living with faith, hope, and love, ministering to and with the least of these. We don’t throw away everything and go wait on a mountaintop. We engage the world, we care for each other, whether the end of the world is today or tomorrow or centuries in the future. That is our Lord’s summons to us.

But this story is not only about the cosmic coming of the Son of Man. It is also about our Lord’s coming to each of us, whether in the midst of personal tragedy or crisis or at the time of our own death. None of us knows that hour. We can’t even predict when crises may come upon us, though we can definitely see the signs. So the key is to live our lives as those prepared to die.

We ought to pay attention to the old Jewish custom and wisdom. Mitch Albom in his book Have a Little Faith tells about his conversations with an elderly rabbi named Al. The man was ill, and Albom asked his forgiveness for anything he had ever done or said to hurt the teacher. Al said that he considered all such matters addressed, that Mitch was in the clear. “Timing is everything,” Mitch commented. “That’s right,” Al responded. “Which is why our sages tell us to repent exactly one day before we die.” Albom wondered how anyone knew when he or she would die. The rabbi raised his eyebrows. “Exactly,” he said (213).

So Jesus calls us to a faithful attention to the work our Master and Creator has given us. But he also tells us to be alert, to keep awake, to be on the watch.

Being on watch is different from merely watching. Simply to be an observer would hardly be a holy and urgent task. It’s so passive, so uninvolved. On the sci-fi series “Fringe,” there is a race of beings known as “the Observers.” Who they are or where they come from is unclear. But their task is simply to record events, to watch interactions, not to intervene. They generally stick to the plan, except for one who from time to time is a bad boy and affects the timeline in one universe or another.

That’s not the sort of watching Jesus has in mind. It’s not simply being there, uninvolved, disinterested, objective. The watching we are called to do is the sort implied by the term “keeping watch and ward,” which means the duty to guard a place for the sake of the public peace, like the doorkeeper in our Lord’s story. It’s the alertness of hunters in a deer stand, looking for that movement that signals the presence of their hoped-for prize for the wall and venison for the table. The attention of a trained dog flushing game or just the tail-up frozen position of a hound who has spied birds in her yard. The kind of scanning and awareness we have driving defensively in heavy traffic or out on a rural road in the dusk, making sure a doe doesn’t bound in front of our car. It’s the vigil by the bedside in the ICU, looking at the monitors for oxygen and blood pressure, attentive to every movement of your loved one in a coma. It’s the sailor keeping her eyes on the screen or listening for sounds that indicate movement of an enemy vessel. The soldier’s attitude, when he or she says to another: “I’ve got your back,” the pilot’s assurance: “I’ll watch your six.”

That’s the level of alertness to which Christians are called. It’s not passive at all, but implies and demands responsibility and stewardship. Alertness is a signal of our hope in the faithfulness of God to his promises.

Jesus tells us to be alert particularly for false prophets, fake messiahs, those who unlike God make promises they can’t and won’t keep. There are always those who use religion to foist some agenda on the unsuspecting. It was true in the first century as well as today. Folks that want to make us afraid, who put a spin on current events and say “See, it’s the end of the world.” But the sorts of so-called “signs” charlatans point to have been with us longer than the charlatans have. Wars and rumors of war. Earthquakes and lightning. Bad moons rising, as John Fogerty so memorably put it. Our Lord doesn’t want his faithful to be fooled by the fakers. He tells us that the signs of his coming will be so spectacular and cosmic that nobody can miss them. “My Lord, what a morning,” said the old spiritual, “when the stars began to fall.” Such will be the signs of his coming.

In the meantime, watch out! Be wary of the wiles of politicians and preachers and celebrities who want to cover up their bad character with talk of religion. Don’t be taken in by those who want to tell you what and how to think, who want to take away your freedom in the name of faith, who insist that they and only they have the answer that will save us all. Don’t believe it!

President Andrew Jackson put it best in his farewell address in 1837: “But you must remember, my fellow citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful….”

Jackson was talking about the state and federal governments, and the subtle ways they can take away our liberty. But he could just as well have been speaking about a repressive, dysfunctional family or a church obsessed with rules and dogmas. Those in whatever part of society who want to take away freedom, to tell you and me how to think and act, count on our being distracted, drowsy, anesthetized. Then they can pull one over on us. But don’t nod off! Jesus says. Be aware. Stay awake. And with vigor and interest be part of the world, even though it is certain that such involvement might be costly. The church is not spared the consequences and the terror of the turmoil that sometimes engulfs the world. Believers weren’t spared with the Roman rebellion in the first century, which is what the text is talking about. And we are not aloof and unengaged with the social ills of our day or unaffected by them.

The writer Kathleen Norris tells of a Christmas ad she once saw for a beaded handbag costing thousands of dollars. “It featured a model with her eyes closed, looking beautiful but comatose, as the words ‘Comfort and Joy’ blazed across the page.” Norris has good advice for this season, in contrast to the message of the ad: “Let’s keep our own eyes open, and as we prepare to sing of comfort and joy this year, let’s look for them where they may be found” (www.christiancentury.org/article/2005-11/apocalypse-now).

Finally, not only are we to be faithful stewards who stay awake. We are to trust God above all. This text and the season of Advent itself ask us to consider what time it is. One writer puts it this way: “What time is it, anyway? Who knows what time it is?” So many voices tell us they know, that such and such crisis is at hand, and we are one minute from midnight. “To which voices are we to listen?” she wonders. “Not all of them know what time it truly is or what response is appropriate” (Beverly Gaventa, Texts for Preaching Year B: 10).

The band Chicago raised much the same question back in the day: “People runnin’ everywhere/Don’t know the way to go/Don’t know where I am/Can’t see past the next step/Don’t have time to think past the last mile/Have no time to look around/Just run around, run around and think why. Does anybody really know what time it is?” (Robert Lamm, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”)

God knows what time it is. The great good news is that there is One beyond us who is sovereign. Whatever the changes and challenges, the ins and outs and ups and downs of human history, the futile efforts and grand achievements, God reigns, God is faithful, God will see to it that justice triumphs and peace and love prevail. His timetable is a mystery to all but himself, but the end he has purposed is sure and certain. We may not see it in our time; our children and their children’s children may not. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The arc of the moral universe… bends toward justice.” The way of God will win out. Or as someone once summed up the whole story of the Bible: “Jesus wins.”

Our calling is to be alert to the signs that the promises of God are being fulfilled, even when the sky is falling and the moon is darkened and oppressive forces have the upper hand. The fig tree blossoms nevertheless and bears its fruit. Katrina almost did in the tree in our back yard, but in the end the storm could not fell it. It came roaring back, laden with figs, and growing so tall and full we had to prune it. So will God’s will and way win out, even when the worst the world can do seeks to defeat him.

What time is it? Time to take seriously our stewardship of this world, and be ready to give account of ourselves. Time to throw off our laziness and stupor and be awake to the possibilities and perils of our world and be occupied with the Lord’s work in creative and hopeful ways. What time is it? Time to be energized for fresh discipleship, full of expectation of what God will do among us and in us. Time to be aware of the signs of our Lord’s presence and power and open ourselves to his coming into our lives. What time is it? Time to forgive, time to embrace our neighbors, time to love, time to heal, time to hope. Time to live.

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