Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:1. 3-8
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Sunday can be an exciting day. Living in East London, and having to negotiate the changing pattern of weekend engineering works, my journey into Church is hardly ever the same two weeks running.
So every Saturday night I log on to the Transport for London Journey Planner and check what my options are. This morning, it was the 7.58 District Line from East Ham, changing at Mile End for the 8.12 Central Line, and again at Bank for the 8.28 Northern Line to Kings Cross. And it all worked. Hurrah! Well done, TFL.
Now this is partly practical and common sense. But it’s also to enable me to sleep on Saturday night. Because I have to admit I’m a bit of a control freak. If I know that the next day is planned and under control, then I can relax.
But imagine if I were to look up a train timetable and instead of that useful information all I got was, “be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the train will come”.
Well, today Jesus says to the disciples, “you never know when the time will come”. And this is because just before this they have asked him, “when will these things happen?” They want to know the timetable. But what “things”, what timetable, are they talking about?
Today, with a new church year, we begin the Year of Mark. Mark’s gospel is the one we will be reading through on most Sundays during this year. We don’t however start at the beginning, but quite near the end, and what we have heard is the last teaching that Jesus gives before the story moves into the plot to kill him, the anointing at Bethany which Jesus says is “for his burial”, the Last Supper, and his betrayal and death.
Mark 13, part of which we have heard today, is an apocalypse, a particular kind of writing that we find in parts of the Bible; Revelation and Daniel are other examples. “Apocalypse” in everyday speech usually means some kind of great disaster, like a nuclear war or the lurid scenes of global destruction painted by John Martin that were shown at the Tate Britain recently. There’s a whole movie genre devoted to that kind of thing.
But this is not what apocalypse means in the Bible. At root it means revelation, seeing, and is about final fulfilment, not final destruction. It is about seeing the hidden truth behind the universe, that ultimately God is in charge. It is about entering the Kingdom of God by seeing what the Kingdom is. The Kingdom is God’s reign of love, peace and justice, becoming real in the world.
But as Father Bruce said to us last week, the Kingdom of God is a very elusive concept. It’s not quite like anything we might expect; it’s more like a happening than a place, and when we think we’ve got it pinned down, it slips away from us.
The parable Jesus tells today has that slippery elusiveness of the Kingdom which is a characteristic of all the parables. Always when you read a parable, think, “what’s wrong with this picture?”. Today, it’s the curious travelling habits of the master. The times at which it is said he might arrive – between dusk and dawn – are simply not times that any traveller would arrive in the ancient world. There was no street lighting, no headlights on your donkey, settlements were small and the roads between them nothing more than dirt tracks in lonely and dangerous places. People simply did not travel at night. So the parable is about people staying awake at a time when no-one would have been expecting them to.
All of which reinforces Jesus’ point that we do not know when the Kingdom is happening. Which is also to say that we don’t control it. He doesn’t tell us that we will know, he does not instruct us to find out. He simply says, you don’t know. It’s God’s doing. Our part is not to know, but to stay alert, to be watchful. To be attentive, so that we can see.
Not knowing things is part of our limitation as created beings. We are not God. The first step to entering the Kingdom is to accept our created being as God’s free gift, and to accept with it all the contingency, limitation and transience that comes with that. We are not in control. Our being rests entirely on God’s will and gift, which is entirely an expression of his love.
This is the first good news of Advent: we are not in control, and God is. That can be difficult good news, because we like to be in control, and we don’t like to be the victim of circumstances and things going wrong. But it is truly good news because God has created us in love to share his life forever in heaven, and the fulfilment of that does not depend on us.
Just as well. In the news last week were reports of the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. There was one man who murdered a couple because they fell in love without permission from the Party. A horrific reminder of what can happen when human beings think they control the fulfilment of human destiny.
Just after Jesus gave this teaching about the Kingdom, he himself fell victim to just such an attempt to control human destiny. In his betrayal and death he assumed the place of the outsider. He became the victim of those who thought they knew what the Kingdom was and could impose it by force.
But the words of Jesus hover over the scene of his passion and death: “Stay awake!”. Be attentive. Look. It is in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus that the Kingdom is happening. It is in the death of the innocent victim, and his being raised to the glory of the Father, that God is acting to put right what is wrong. Like the master returning when no-one would expect, the Kingdom is happening in the last place you would think of looking.
This is the second good news of Advent; but this, too, can be difficult good news. The Kingdom of God is happening amid betrayal and loss and death. The Kingdom is happening where human beings lose control and become victims. Apocalypse in the Bible has been called the “literature of the dispossessed” because one of the things it always does it to reveal the truth of where God is acting. And that is on the margins, among the outsiders and the victims – not in the centres of authority and the power structures of this world. Resurrection happens where death seems to have triumphed.
As Christians we live our lives suspended between two deaths: the ritual, sacramental death of baptism; and the biological death of our bodies. And each of those deaths is also a resurrection. In baptism we are buried with Christ in the waters of the font and rise with him to new and eternal life. Because of that, the death of the body is also a participation in the saving work of Jesus, in the Kingdom becoming real. Death becomes definitively the way to the glory of the Father.
The principle of dying and rising is imprinted on our lives, and is the mark of God’s Kingdom. Not just in baptism and our final dying, but in all the circumstances of life in every moment. Falling, failing, losing control, finding ourselves on the margins and not in the centre, all are where the Kingdom is becoming real. We don’t like to face the difficult times of life: illness, bereavement, the loss of a job, troubled relationships. But by the grace of God it is through those times of loss that we can discover that we are utterly safe in God’s hands because he has created us in love and will not let us go. We are not in control, and God is.
We do not know the day or the hour. But in every present moment, whatever it brings, Jesus calls us stay awake, to be attentive, for the Kingdom of God is very near.