Alright, I’ll admit I wasn’t thrilled when I realized that I would be preaching today on a text from Mark 13 — these are difficult words to understand and to interpret! The 13 th chapter of Mark’s gospel reflects a genre of writing that we call “apocalyptic.” Apocalyptic thought occurs in both the Old and New Testaments and is characterized by “a deterministic and pessimistic view of history, anticipation of the end of the world in some great and imminent crisis, a dualistic understanding of human existence, and visions of cosmic upheaval.”  It has to do with what we have come to call the “end times.” While some Christian preachers would undoubtedly find this passage to be a goldmine for speculation about the end of the world, there are far more, I would imagine, who would be glad to ignore it entirely and focus instead on the more ‘comfortable’ words of the gospels. But here it is, in the church’s Scripture. And our lectionary forces us to deal with it, whether or not we are inclined to do so. So what does this word of Jesus have to say to modern Christians?
It is important first to try to understand what this 13 th chapter of Mark might have meant for the community for whom it was written. What was its message to its original hearers? The community to which and for which Mark was writing his gospel was a community that was experiencing persecution as a result of their faith in Jesus. The passage immediately before the one that was read as our gospel lesson today describes the kinds of experiences they were undergoing. In it, Jesus predicts their suffering, saying,
“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them… When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13:9-13)
To this beleaguered and embattled little community, this is a message of hope. The persecution they are experiencing is one of a number of signs that anticipate the end of time. There will be wars and rumors of wars (v.7), earthquakes and famines (v.8). False teachers will rise up, claiming to be the messiah, producing signs and omens which are intended to lead the elect astray (v.6, 21-22). Jesus warns them to “be alert” (v. 23) so that they may not be deceived. “Do not be alarmed,” he tells them, “this must take place, but the end is still to come” (v.7). In spite of all these “signs,” the end is not yet; there is more to follow.
“In those days, after that suffering ,” Jesus tells them, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 9:24-26)
Jesus is here warning his followers that the end is in fact coming – not when these various signs occur, but when “the heavens are shaken” and the Son of Man returns in glory. This event is certain to happen (v.30-31), but the time is known only to God (v.32). The appropriate stance for disciples, therefore, is to watch, to stay awake, to keep alert, so that they may not be caught unprepared (vv. 33, 35, 37).
This is Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples in the gospel of Mark. Unlike the gospel of John, where his last word is a command to be united in love with Christ and with one another, or the gospels of Matthew and Luke, where the emphasis is on engaging in mission to the Gentiles, the central thrust of Jesus’ final words in Mark’s gospel is to watch for the coming of the Son of Man.
“Beware, keep alert,” Jesus tells them, “for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:33-37)
To this early Christian community, these words were words of hope. The prospect of the imminent return of the Son of Man armed these disciples for the troubles they were facing and had yet to face, and encouraged them in the tasks they were undertaking for the sake of the gospel. Historically, the community was living through or had lived through the Jewish-Roman war of the years 66-70 A.D., including the destruction of the temple in the year 70 A.D. Though we can’t be sure what the exact meaning is of the “desolating sacrilege” of which Jesus warns (v.14), it almost certainly refers to outrages against the Jewish people committed during this period of intense conflict.
In this context, then, the meaning of this chapter becomes clear. In spite of popular expectations that war and catastrophe (vv.7-8), persecution (vv.9-13), the fall of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple (vv.14-20) were sure signs of the end of the world, the message is that “the end is not yet.” These are only preliminary signs – not the end, but “the beginning of the birthpangs” (v.8). The end of history is rather to be associated with the coming of the Son of Man in glory. Something marvelous that God is doing is yet to arrive, yet to be born. Be on guard, then. Believe in the final act of God and do not despair in these violent times. Do not be led astray by false teachers who might lead you to abandon your mission. Be watchful and alert. Endure in the task you have been given, to proclaim the good news to all nations (v.10).
If this is a message of hope and encouragement for a band of persecuted believers, what is its message for us today? Let me name three possible responses.
First, to those who are eager to attach apocalyptic significance to natural disasters and wars in our own day, comes the reminder that “the end is not yet.” The historical signs which many people associate with the end of the world have occurred countless times by now, but the final coming of the Son of Man still lies in the future. Mark 13 speaks to those who are eager to proclaim, “This is the time!” It admonishes, “Do not believe it; the end is still to come.” Over against all attempts to fix a date for the return of Christ or the end of the world, the gospel says plainly that only the Father knows the day and hour of his coming (v.32). Besides their presumption in claiming to know more than even the Son knows, these date-fixers and doomsayers often demonstrate little responsibility for the world, whose destruction they await with fascinated detachment.
In contrast, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel speaks of responsibilities imposed by the master who has left us in charge. Not only are we to “keep alert” for his coming, we are to be diligent and responsible in discharging the duties with which he has entrusted us. We are to “watch” without forsaking our present responsibilities or neglecting our God-given duties. Speaking of this text, biblical scholar Lamar Williamson recalls the story “of an eclipse in colonial New England during which state legislators panicked and several moved to adjourn. But one of them said, ‘Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. 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!’” 
Finally, to those who have lost the hope of Christ’s return and whose vision has come to be limited to the realm of human activity and human institutions, this gospel has something to say as well. It utters the certain conviction that human institutions will pass away and proclaims with confidence and hope the sure promise of the return of the Son of Man. It is a word of hope, not of fear. The One whom we now experience primarily as absent will come with great power and glory. We are to watch for this coming, to expect it, to be alert with expectation and anticipation.
Some of us Christians are expecting too much. We are too eager to find in current events evidence that will tell us when and how the world will end and the Son of Man will return. Others of us are expecting too little. We have lost our hope in God’s promise and come to believe only in ourselves and in our human institutions. Mark’s gospel challenges us all. “Watch, be alert, keep awake,” it warns us. Christ will surely come. Do not be found sleeping or unaware, but be diligent and responsible in discharging the duties which God has given you. “I say to you all: Keep awake!” (v.37)
 Williamson, Lamar, Jr. Mark [Interpretation commentary] (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), p. 236.
 Williamson, p.242.