Last Sunday of the Church Year (B): Mark 13:24-37
What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!
What has a beginning also has an ending. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The world as we know it has a beginning. And it also has an ending. As God worked the beginning, so He works the ending.
We’ve come to the end of the church’s calendar. The last Sunday of the church year. he final chapter of history, the last movement of the performance, the last Sunday that wraps everything up at the close of the age when Christ will appear as the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great and terrifying power and glory and send out his angels to gather his elect from the four compass points of the earth. Or as we summarize it in the creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
Today a look at the end of all things from the words of Jesus. It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s hard to imagine everything coming to an abrupt end. We’re more inclined to think in terms of a slow wasting away, running down like an spent battery on its last charge. We simply can’t fathom the idea of a final day, a day when everything as we know it comes to an appointed end, when everything vanishes in a flash.
He comes suddenly, like a flash of lightning that streaks across the sky from the east to the west. He comes without warning, like a thief in the night. He comes at the least likely of hours, like a groom at midnight. He comes when the world sleeps in complacency, drunkenness, distraction, and unbelief. Jesus’ word for the end is an urgent word: Keep awake. Watch.
No one knows the day or the hour. That’s the reality of the end-times. Jesus leaves the last big question unanswered. Imagine parents going out for the evening and telling their kids, “we’ll be right back.”
“So when exactly are you coming back?”
“Who knows? Could be anytime at all. But when we do come back it will be suddenly and without warning.”
“Could you at least give us a ballpark estimate?”
“No, that wouldn’t be good for you.”
“Maybe nine o’clock? Midnight? Something like that?”
“No, but we’ll be back. You can count on it. Why do you want to know, anyway?”
Why do we want to know? In part to make sure things are straight and tidy at the last possible moment. Why do we insist on foolish figuring when the Lord has told us it’s not for us to know the day or the hour? Why do we fixate on years like 1000 and 2000 and 2012 and whatever the next great prediction will be? One part of it is fascination with the unknown and a lurking sense that things seem to be tumbling to some sort of end point. Another part, though, is our desire to put God into a convenient box the way we do our holiday seasons, to schedule Him in on our busy calendars to make sure we’re ready when He shows up so we can have our houses swept clean and our lives in order, things accomplished, or perhaps connivingly things we would leave undone, things we intend to do but never seem to get around too. “Watch. Keep awake.”
While the rest of the world is spiritually asleep, even more than a post-turkey comatose, Jesus would have His believers alert and ready, like the doorkeeper of the house who watches for the master of the house to return. He doesn’t know when, so he’s always alert, always ready, always watching. Jesus made it quite clear to His disciples. The end-times is not a time for couch potato Christianity, the one who is complacent, the one who would sit idly while being entertained. Stay awake, keep watch, pray.
The problem is that the call to end-times alertness after 2000 years sounds like crying wolf. Our work and social calendars crowd out the significance of any end of the church year, end of the age, end of all things considerations. And while we may have a lurking notion that the world will end one day, we also have this false confidence that it is not likely to end today, tomorrow, or the next day. And that would be as foolish as those bridesmaids who thought that a little oil was enough and never expected the groom to show up at the unlikely hour of midnight.
The Apostles and early Christians believed that they would live to see the visible return of Jesus. They lived in that hope and expectation. They went about their lives and business as usual, but always with one eye toward the heavens, watching, waiting, hoping for the dawn of their salvation. Jesus had said, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
In a very real sense, “these things” actually took place. There was darkness and earthquake and even a resurrection when Jesus died on the cross. That, in a very real sense, was the end of the world as we know it. The end to sin’s reign and death’s rule.
In a sense they were correct in anticipating “these things,” as they came to pass some forty years later, when the Roman army overran Jerusalem and tore down the temple until not one stone was left upon another. Many thought the end of the world was about to come then; later then Rome would be burned, Mt. Vesuvius would explode and destroy an entire city of Pompeii and much of Italy. But it was all only a sign.
And there is always in Christianity a sense of urgency, of end-times-ness. Every generation of believer believes that the end will come in his lifetime. The early church fathers did. Luther did. Luther supposedly said that if he knew the world were going to end tomorrow, he would plant an apple tree today. The authenticity of the quote is questionable, but the idea is sound. That we’d go about our daily work as we always do, what we are given to do daily in this body and life. But always, always, always with one eye toward the heavens from whence comes our salvation. The main event is yet to come. “He will come to judge the living and the dead.”
When Jesus speaks of the end, he uses the sign of the fig tree – not as it’s shedding it’s leave and going dormant into the dead of winter, but as the sap is rising and the leaves are budding to anticipate the coming of summer. In other words, Jesus turns all the destruction of the end into signs of life. These signs are called the “birth pangs,” the labor contractions of the new creation that has come with the coming of Christ. Jesus gives the sign of life. Birth pangs, labor contractions, yet the outcome is so happy and joyous and wonderful. The end comes in death and resurrection, pain that leads to new life.
How then do we live in these days?
Dear Christians, in today’s epistle, Jude would exhort us to build ourselves up in our most holy faith. Not like some procrastinating students cramming for an exam, but more like lovers dwelling over their words to each other or learning about something that fascinates us and captivates our hearts and minds. Immersed and living within it. Christ is coming soon! And in the end it’s all about Christ, who is the beginning and the end.
“Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” Notice it is “mercy” for which we are waiting and life. To keep in the love of God is to be on the receiving end of His love toward us – hearing His Word, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, taking in the words of forgiveness and life. And as we receive the tokens of His love for us now, we are being prepared to be the objects of His love when He appears in glory.
Lastly, Jude says, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” He turns us to one another. Doubt and faith always run together because we believe what we do not now see. The church is a body; there is safety in numbers. The isolated believer is the vulnerable one. We need each other, sometimes to stick out a rescuing hand to pull another from the fire of unbelief. That hand may leave a temporary bruise, but if someone were about to be run over by a truck, you wouldn’t worry about a black and blue mark, would you? We are called to watch out for each other, care for each other, support and even rescue one another, because we don’t want anyone to miss the glory that is coming.
There is a final comfort here, on this Last Sunday of the year. Jesus is the One who keeps us from stumbling and presents us blameless at the end. Not us. Not our religious efforts, our works, our piety, or anything. Jesus keeps us blameless in the robe of His righteousness; Jesus keeps us from stumbling by His sure feet that have trampled sin, death, and devil. He is your beginning, your end, your Alpha, your Omega, your life and your salvation. Trust Him to the end, and you will see with resurrection eyes what you now believe.
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”