Text: Mark 13:24-37 W Sunday of Fulfillment
What We Know and What We Don’t
In the name of him who is coming to judge the earth, dear friends in Christ: … The year twenty twelve … sometime in December if I understand correctly. That’s one of the currently most popular predicted dates for when the world will come to an end. I’m sure many of you have heard about it. It’s based on the fact that the ancient Mayan calendar runs out on that date – as if a bunch of human sacrificing, cannibalistic, Mesoamerican Indians who believed the sun was their god and whose level technology was one step removed from the Stone Age had some special insights into the future. I wonder, if they knew so much about the future, why did they let the Aztecs and then later the Spaniards conquer them? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? And yet I’ve read that a lot of people are pretty worked up about it. They’re really worried about what’s about to happen. Of course, it probably doesn’t help much that Hollywood has just released a major film capitalizing on the idea; a film filled with spectacular special effects of disaster upon disaster striking the earth beginning on the date in question. What they don’t tell you, however, is that the Mayan calendar is cyclic. That is, when you get to the end of it, you simply start over again at the beginning. It never really runs out; but if they told you that, you might not want to go see the film and get scared out of your wits.
Anyway, while doing a bit of research for this morning’s message, I came upon several websites that list hundreds of past predictions for when the world would end. The vast majority of these dates have come and gone without even the slightest hint of the doom and gloom their proponents had forecast; though a few are dates still in the future. Radio preacher Harold Camping is sure 2013 is the right year. I guess he thinks the Mayans were off just a bit. Actually he’s has several failed predictions in the past. Apparently he thinks if he just keeps guessing he’s bound to be right one day. What is it they say about a stopped clock? I think ol’ Hal’s mental clock stopped ticking a long time ago. One of my favorite predictions was by a woman who claimed to be a psychic. She had a chicken that kept laying eggs with the alleged date of the world’s end written right on them. A lot of people were convinced by this seemingly miraculous sign – that is, until someone caught her in the act of forcing a pre-inscribed egg back into the poor hen’s oviduct. Ouch. That’s gotta hurt. I’m not a big fan of PETA or of chickens, but in this case I’d be in favor of anything they’d have wanted to do to prosecute her.
All of this, however, makes it pretty clear that people in general are interested in the subject of the world’s end. They’re always looking for the inside scoop on the story, some special revelation of exactly what’s going to happen and when. And I don’t suppose that any of us are immune to this desire to know. The difference is that we know where to look for the answers. We’re not going to find what we’re looking for in Mayan calendars, psychics, hen’s eggs, or kooky radio preachers. We know that we’ll find all there is to know about it in the Word of God.
So, using God’s Word, let’s start with what we do know. First, from this morning’s Gospel and many other biblical texts we know that Christ our Lord is coming again. This will not be a secret or hidden return as some have imagined; rather Jesus says of the people who are alive at that time, “They will see him coming on the clouds with great power and glory.” It will be spectacular event witnessed by all. Furthermore, we know that when the Lord returns, the world as we know it will be destroyed and a new heaven and new earth will be created. At that time Jesus will send his holy angels to gather to himself the elect, that is, those who were chosen from before the foundation of the world, and who in time were called to faith by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They include all who trust in the forgiveness of sin Jesus died on the cross to secure, and who persevere in this saving faith until the end – either of their earthly lives, or, if they’re living when Christ returns, the end of the world itself. We know that this gathering of the saints will involve the general resurrection of the dead, an event we heard about last week in the Old Testament lesson. Then we read how the prophet Daniel foretold that all those who sleep in the dust of the earth will rise, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. We know that this division will take place at the final judgment, when Christ the Lord will say to the sheep gathered on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”; and to the goats assembled on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” All these things we know.
And we know a few other things too. Namely we know that the Lord has ordained a number of signs to remind and warn us that these events are surely coming. We heard about them in last week’s Gospel lesson. They included such things as ongoing wars and conflicts on the political front, the rise of false Christs and false prophets within the Church, the persecution of the faithful, and in nature widespread earthquakes, famines, epidemics, and other disasters. And as we considered these things last week, we saw that as unpleasant as they are, they all play an important role in keeping us in the faith. They remind us that this earth is groaning under the curse of sin as if in labor, eagerly awaiting its redemption and the revelation of the life to come.
But for this morning’s purposes, we want to focus on something else these signs have to say to us. The fact that we see them taking place all around us speaks of the imminence of Christ’s return. That’s what the parable of the fig tree is about. Jesus says, “When you see its branch become tender and its leaves beginning to shoot out, then you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things happening, you know that he (that is, the Lord) is near—at the very gates.” So what we’ve been given is a check list of sorts, a check list that indicates, since we are seeing all these things, that the Lord could return at any moment. There’s nothing yet to be fulfilled. It’s like the idiot light on your dashboard, the one that says your engine will seize up and explode if you don’t pull over immediately. It’s that urgent. So also, since we see these signs being fulfilled we know Jesus can return in an instant, so we ought to be taking appropriate action to ensure that we are ready to receive him when he does. And again, all these things we know.
What we don’t know is when. During his earthly ministry Jesus said that not even he knew when his return would occur. And I know this causes some people a bit of alarm. They ask how it is that Jesus, being God who knows everything, didn’t know. It seems to be a contradiction. The answer to this apparent dilemma is that during his time on earth – in order to be our substitute on the cross – he had to live just like the rest of us: that is, by faith in the Word of God. So he divested himself of his divine attributes. That is to say that though he is God in flesh, he did not make full use of his divine powers and knowledge. Instead, what he knew about God’s great plan and his own messianic mission, he knew from his study of God’s Word—the same way you learn about these things. The difference is that he truly understood all that the Scriptures say. His mind was not darkened with sin or cluttered with doubt like ours. When he read the Scriptures, he really comprehended all they have to say. But here’s the point: the reason he did not know the time of his second coming while he was here on earth is that the Scriptures don’t reveal it. If they did, he’d have known – a fact that shoots all to pieces the dates that so-called prophecy experts keep coming up with based on their supposedly thorough study of the relevant texts. Hogwash. If Jesus couldn’t figure it out from the Scriptures, obviously they’re not going to be able to do it. But now that Christ has been glorified, he no longer lives under the same restrictions he had while he was here on earth. So one thing we can say for sure is this: though he didn’t know when he was coming back then, he does now. We, however, still don’t.
But even not knowing when Christ will return tells us some things that we do know. Specifically, because Jesus has told us that he will show up suddenly and unexpectedly, we know that we need to remain on alert. We can’t afford to be lazy or negligent in spiritual matters, else he may catch us unaware and unprepared. And that would be disastrous.
He compares our situation to that of the servants a man of some means who is taking a journey to a distant country, and who, while he is away, entrusts his household to us to take care of for him. To each one of us he has assigned certain tasks, so we all have roles to play in keeping his household up and running. And of course the household we’re talking about here is the Church. Interestingly enough, it’s something of a symbiotic relationship. On one hand it’s through the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament that Christ the Lord fills us with his Spirit, creates and strengthens faith in our hearts, and motivates us to do his will. On the other hand, it’s we who serve in so many ways – each doing our parts – to keep the Church doing these things for us. Or to borrow another scriptural picture, the Church, who is the bride of Christ, is our mother. It’s she who gives us birth in Holy Baptism, who washes away our sins, who clothes us in the righteousness of Jesus, who nurtures our faith by the Word and worship, and who feeds us with Christ’s body and blood. She is always doing these things for us. And yet, as her children, as we grow older, we take on some of the responsibility for caring for her. On top of it all, at the same time, we are her. We are all engaged in her work of giving birth to new sons and daughters of God, to spreading the good news of the Gospel, to forgiving, encouraging, and supporting one another, and working together to do good works, as we strive to be obedient to our great Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
All this being said, we know that our being awake and alert as we await Christ’s return is not a passive thing; it’s very active. There’s a lot to do both to keep ourselves ready as individuals, and to ensure the whole house of God is ready when the master returns. And if we see it that way, we’ll be less likely to fall asleep on the job.
Another illustration here: you know that I served in the Army during the Cold War. While in Germany back in the mid eighties we had to be ready all the time. We had two hours from the time of an alert to be rolling out the gate with all of our soldiers, equipment, and ammunition. So we were constantly on it. Everything was always being checked and double checked and rechecked again. And when something wasn’t right, we had to fix it right away. We knew that we could be facing the enemy at the drop of a hat, so there was a collective sense of urgency. But I had another experience prior to that. For a brief period before going on active duty I did a stint in the Oregon National Guard. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. The unit to which I was assigned had a different idea of what it meant to be ready. It was supposedly a company of combat engineers; but the only thing that mattered to everyone was their award winning field kitchen. There was some annual competition to see which unit had the best kitchen in the state, and my unit had won the contest at least eight of the previous ten years. But that’s all they did. Every weekend drill for two hundred guys was about the kitchen and its crew. All the engineering equipment was used to make sure the site for the kitchen was just perfect and properly drained and what not. It was crazy. They were a nice enough group of fellows; but in terms of being ready to do their job in combat—forget it. It was the last thing on their minds. Oh, but I should probably mention that they did eat very well.
In the same way we want to be careful that in our ongoing preparations for Christ’s return that we not become “one note Charlies” like that sorry outfit. Being ready means that we embrace all the tasks we are to be doing to build ourselves up in holy faith, to expand our knowledge of the Lord and his Word, to help and support each other on the way, to warn and redirect those who are wandering, to serve one another with acts of kindness and love, to support the work of the Church with our time, treasures, and talents, and to further the spread of the Gospel. There’s a ton to things to do. And by keeping at them, we will ensure that we are indeed awake and ready when our Lord comes.
Because coming he is. We know, because he’s promised; and we know that he always keeps his Word. So may he also keep us alert, awake, and ready to receive him, that when he comes we may enter with him into the fullness of his glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!