Jesus’ message in Mark 13:24-37 is not confusing. It is not complicated. And, unlike last week’s reading from Mark 13:1-13, it is not limited to events that took place in the first century. Jesus’ words this week apply to every hearer in every age. His message is clear. The end is coming. The day is near. So, stay awake!
This text reminds us that the imminent return of Jesus is foundational to the Christian faith. His recorded promises to come back are too numerous to list. Which makes the loss of a sense of urgency, the lack of anticipation, and the absence of vigilance in the Church an indictment of Christians for failing to believe what they confess. “From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead...” Observers could be forgiven for questioning whether we mean it.
The last Sunday in the church year should not be the only time we talk about His return. But a sermon on this text misses the point if it does not call the hearer to a life of attentive and active vigilance. The only question is how best to do this for your specific audience.
Vigilance, as a concept, is not foreign. Americans know what it means to be on guard. Airport announcements continually remind fliers to look out for unattended baggage. Parents of small children watch alertly when anyone takes more than a passing interest in their little ones. Parents of teenagers stay up late hoping (and praying) their young drivers will come home in one piece. Credit card companies actively monitor purchases to catch fraud before it gets out of hand. Deer hunters notice every bouncing squirrel and every falling leaf from deer stands. College applicants develop 20/20 vision for any and every potential scholarship. Jesus used a fig tree and a master’s journey to teach his first-century hearers. Today’s preachers will use similarly contemporary images to teach theirs. The point is that people of every age know what it means to be vigilant. If you want to get a sense for what your hearers are looking out for, go ahead and ask them this week without mentioning our text. You might be surprised at what you learn.
The preacher’s task is to take this familiar concept of vigilance and make the promised return of Jesus its object. Doing this will require a clear and forceful proclamation of both Law and Gospel.
With respect to the Law, the preacher has multiple options. He could call out a half-hearted approach to the Church’s mission. He could speak against whole-hearted infatuation with temporary things of this world. He could warn against weak faith that no longer expects Jesus to return, a casual approach to sin, or a failure to live in the joy of the Lord. Each congregation has its own version of complacency.
With respect to the Gospel, the preacher would focus attention on the One who is coming back. When He came the first time, Jesus brought the kingdom of God with Him. It was a gracious and merciful reign, characterized by an inaugurated restoration. Through His life and ministry, suffering and death, resurrection and sending, Jesus dealt kindly with His fallen creatures. When He returns, He will finish what He started and bring about full and eternal restoration. The sermon should proclaim that gracious promise of Jesus to finish what He started, for their good and for His glory.
Sometimes hymns capture Christian concepts well. “Herald, Sound the Note of Judgment” (Lutheran Service Book, 511) is one such hymn. The first verse speaks a word of warning against sin and sadness. That is the Law. The second, third, and fourth verses proclaim words of joy, pardon, and victory. That is the Gospel.
Having thought about how to preach this text, it is probably helpful to pay attention to a few specific textual notes:
1. Verses 26-27 employ images and concepts found throughout Scriptures that speak of the end. In addition to parallels in Matthew and Luke, the “son of man coming in the clouds” (τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐν νεφέλαις) echoes Daniel 7:13, and the “four winds” (τῶν τεσσάρων ἀνέμων) recall the words of Daniel 7:2, Zechariah 2:6, and Revelation 7:1. The gathering (ἐπισυνάξει) of the people of God calls to mind 2 Thessalonians 2:1. Any of these verses could be highlighted to show the consistency with which the Scriptures point to the end.
2. Verse 30 seems to throw a chronological wrench into the interpretation of Mark 13 as a whole. Jesus says that “this generation” (ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη) will not pass away until “all these things take place” (ταῦτα πάντα γένηται). The problem is this comes after the seemingly eschatological prediction in verses 27-28. The key question here concerns the referent of “all these things.” Jim Voelz suggests this should be read in light of what Jesus says about his own ignorance of the day and hour in verse 32. Voelz argues that “all these things” refers to the signs of the end, which were already beginning to take place before the destruction of the temple. Thus “all these things” were taking place in part within the lifetime of the apostles. This fits with R. T. France’s suggestion that “all these things” should be read as an answer to the disciples’ question in Mark 13:4 (France, The Gospel of Mark, 540). For preaching, this does not need to (and therefore should not) be a big issue. But for the conscientious preacher (and the potentially inquisitive hearer after the service) you should have an answer.
3. The variant in verse 33 adds the command to pray. Many manuscripts include it and the addition is more easily explained than the deletion. See also Mark 14:38; Luke 21:36; and Ephesians 6:18. Whether you read with or without the variant, calls to prayer in this context would be one of many appropriate takeaways from the sermon.
Concordia Theology: Various resources for preaching Mark 13:24-37 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Lectionary Podcast: Sermon Notes on Mark 13:29-37 from Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
Preaching from Mark’s Gospel: Fasten Your Seat Belts!: Thoughts on preaching the Gospel of Mark from C. Clifton Black at workingpreacher.org.