|Don’t Get Caught Napping!
March 5, 2000 / Mark 13:32-37
On Tuesday of the final week of Jesus’ life, he and the disciples had a conversation about the destruction of the temple and the end of the world that is recorded in all the Synoptics. It is the longest discourse found in Mark’s Gospel and presents some special challenges to readers — no matter what approach one takes to it. In my opinion, Mark’s version of the sermon can be read in two movements. Jesus starts with the nearer event of the fall of Jerusalem and moves to his more distant return at the end of time.
Does anyone else here wear bifocals? If you know what these corrective lenses accomplish in allowing their wearer to switch between at-hand and distance vision, it might help you understand Mark 13. In everything he said through verse 31, Jesus answered the close-vision question about the destruction of Herod’s Temple; all these events would come to pass before “this generation” passed away (v.30) — within about 40 years. Everything from verse 32 to the end of the chapter, though, has Jesus lifting his prophetic vision all the way to the end of time.
With the prescience possible only for a divine being, he spoke of the fate of Jerusalem under the Romans and then looked to the time of his second coming and said:
No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back — whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!” (13:32-37).
In the close-vision issue relative to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, Jesus gave a series of signs that would signal those terrible events. Wars, false messiahs, earthquakes, famines — these are fairly generic in nature and might fit any number of forty-year periods. But one final and fateful sign that he called “the abomination that causes desolation” (v.14) and that Luke explained as a reference to the siege laid against the Holy City by the Romans would signal the end (Luke 21:20-24). Sure enough, when General Vespasian began besieging Jerusalem, the Christians fled to a town in the Transjordan called Pella and were spared the fury of Rome’s anger against the Jewish uprising.
If Jesus’ words are taken seriously, however, there is no greater waste of time for Christians than to speculate about signs of his second coming. If Jesus told the truth when he said there would be no special sign of “that day,” people are not telling the truth who advertise that they have deciphered its signs. Every generation since Jesus spoke these words has had the same sign that the people of Noah’s time had about the coming flood — the promise that an end was coming and that everyone should prepare in view of it (cf. Matt. 24:37-39).
Here is Jesus’ word to us about his return: “Watch!”
Practicing His Presence
In view of Jesus’ counsel wrapped up in the Parable of the Doorkeeper, I want to make a suggestion: While we are waiting and watching, let’s deepen our readiness for him by practicing his presence.
When I am going to make a speech, I rehearse it. When I am preparing to meet someone for the first time, I go over it in my mind. When I have a proposal to make to our shepherds or to my wife, I visualize the event and try to think of the best words to use. When I debate an atheist, I try to anticipate everything he might say or do and envision myself reacting to it in the most appropriate way possible.
The situations that scare me most are the ones for which I’ve made no preparation. If I have to speak impromptu, look out! I need time to pray, prepare, and practice. (If you think I’m bad with preparation, just try to imagine how bad it could be if I didn’t plan ahead, write a manuscript, and practice!) If I’m caught off guard in a setting — whether private or public — I don’t do as good a job reacting as I can with anticipation and polish.
I’m doing the same thing as I anticipate seeing Jesus. I’m practicing. I’m anticipating his questions and my responses. I consciously prompt myself to ask how Jesus would deal with some situations that get put on my plate. I pray, anticipate what to do in certain situations, and do everything I can to rehearse a response that I believe would please him. Am I the only one who thinks that way? I suspect you do as well. Here are three things we can do to help each other get ready to meet our Lord.1
First, let’s challenge one another to be awake and alert to Jesus at all times. Do you have a greater awareness of Jesus at church than at work? When we bow for prayer than when you’re washing your car? When reading the Bible than when watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? When singing Jesus, Let Us Come to Know You than when reading the newspaper, studying for an exam, or doing laundry? Yes, you say? So do I. And I regret that. My goal is to be as sensitive to God’s Holy Spirit in my non-church, non-head-bowed moments as in the ones that more easily remind me that I am saved by grace and called to holiness.
Someday Jesus will come back, and you and I will look out on a new world where the only true and abiding value will be life in Christ. I will be dead to and unprepared for it then, if I don’t get into that frame of mind now! And so will you.
You see, you and I don’t have to be bad people to be sleepy disciples — like those men in Gethsemane, like the doorkeeper in Jesus’ parable about watchfulness. We aren’t hostile toward Jesus! After all, we wear his name and think of ourselves as Christian (i.e., Christ-following) people. But Jesus isn’t the functioning master and sovereign of our lives. He doesn’t make our routine decisions about entertainment, money, or work. He doesn’t keep us from losing our tempers with each other or being mean to one another.
We don’t hate Jesus. It’s just that we have domesticated him to the church building and “private time” when he wants to be Lord of everything. Trust me, Jesus would prefer that you curse him than tolerate him as a vague Sunday feeling and a Monday-through-Friday irrelevance!
Second, let’s practice (i.e., visualize, rehearse, act outw) our Lord’s righteous behavior. “Ah, that’s what we church people are good at!” somebody says. “We know right from wrong and don’t hesitate to let people know where we stand on ‘the issues.’” And she proceeds to give me a pamphlet against abortion or gambling. He invites me to join his anti-drug campaign and to put a bumper sticker on my car. That’s too easy!
Jesus told us to love our enemies, not just the people who joined us in our clean-up-the-world campaigns. He told us to serve others from our position of weakness, not to wait until we had a political majority to make someone’s life better. As most of us think about Judgment Day, I think our worst fear is that an affair, drunken weekend, or “blue streak” of ugly language will be put on the floor for explanation. In Jesus’ picture of that day, he will ask about the amount of time we spent tending the homeless and the hungry, the prisoner and the outcast (Matt. 25:31-46).
Mother Teresa said she saw Jesus’ face in the suffering people of Calcutta. Yes, we should be against stealing, adultery, and substance abuse. But we should be for people — even, no especially, those people who have stolen, who have already lost their families (and reputations) because of an affair, or who are addicted to alcohol and drugs. If you can’t visualize yourself loving these people back to spiritual redemption and health, you aren’t awake and clear-headed yet about Jesus.
Remember the old story of the controversy between the Cold North Wind and the Warm Sun? The issue was which of the two could make a traveler take off his coat. The Cold North Wind blasted him, and the poor fellow pulled it tighter and tighter to himself. Then the Warm Sun gently beamed down on him. It wasn’t long until the man took off his cumbersome coat. Will more people turn lose of their rebellion, anger, and addictions because we “blast ’em” for their wickedness or because we embrace them with the love of Christ?
At which sight is the world more likely to look and say, “Aha! Those are the people who know how to think and act like Christ!”: TV shots of angry abortion protestors or a family quietly taking an unwanted baby into their home? Bumper stickers threatening unbelievers with hell or people who weep over the lost and go seeking them? Christians telling homosexual jokes or committing to provide care to a man with AIDS? I won’t insult your intelligence by answering for you. I’ll only ask which type of behavior is more typical of you?
Third, let’s envision ourselves giving Jesus pleasure in everything we do. The face of God has a natural smile on it — not a perpetual frown. He takes joy in you. He delights in you. He made you in his image, after all, and has redeemed you at an incredible price. If heaven had a refrigerator in it, he’d have your awkward scribblings of ministry and service to him displayed on its door!
Jesus isn’t like a candidate for office who wants your vote, money, and influence. He is your personal, loving Savior who has called you into partnership to tell people the kingdom reign of God is near — for anyone willing to receive it. He invites you to share in the discipleship task of making still more disciples. His church is not a warehouse for storing believers but a factory for manufacturing them.
When someone comes to Christ, the first thing he or she needs will likely be convalescence, a gradual return to spiritual health and strength. It will take a while for the wounds inflicted by Satan to get well. But the day comes when every saved person is supposed to turn the corner from patient to healer, from receiver to supplier. Part of the work of the church, then, is to turn consumers into supporters, members into ministers, an audience into an army.
Our gifts are not the same, and you aren’t expected to do what God called and gifted me to do. You don’t have to compare yourself with anyone else in the body. Because we want you to be faithful to God in your Christian life, we have a program in place at Woodmont Hills to help you discover and use the gift God has given you for ministry. You may have the gift of hospitality or administration, teaching or prophesying, giving or showing mercy (cf. Rom. 12:6-8). We’ll help you discover it, if you’re uncertain. We’ll show you how you can use it in our ministries here. And we’ll try to help you see the smile on the face of Jesus as you employ the gift he gave you for his purposes.
You ask: But what does this have to do with being ready for the End of the World? How does this help me obey Jesus’ command to watch and be on my guard against that unannounced, unexpected time? Everything!
Francis of Assisi is said to have been hoeing his garden one day, when a man walked by. The man asked him what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming back that day. He said, “I would finish hoeing my garden.” Think about it . . .
If you are practicing the presence of Jesus every day, what does it matter when he comes? If he comes today while you are finishing whatever is on your agenda, wonderful. If he tarries while you rehearse his righteous behavior, so much the better for the purification of your faith and the development of your skills in serving him. In either case, no panic. No fear. Just settled confidence as you wait for his coming — fully awake, fully watchful, fully prepared.
1These points are based on three suggestions from Bruce W. Porter’s communion meditation of November 30, 1997, “God’s Wake Up Call!” Dr. Porter is Senior Pastor for Church of the Palms in Sarasota, Florida.
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