Dr. Claude Welch, my freshman professor in Biology 101, warned our class on Day One that at times during his class, we would have "pop quizzes." He said we should always come prepared, because we never knew when "they" would come. He also said, "there will be signs." After all these years, feelings of expectation and fear come back to me. I was always on edge that fall in this class with this funny, engaging, and cagy wizard of the biological wonders of the world. But, I was not always prepared.
All these years later, I wonder, what were those signs to be? Would he move a little quicker through the door to the desk at the start of class? Would his usual face of laughter and delight turn cold and expressionless? Would he stake his claim on my GPA by firing from the hip? Or would he enter class in exactly the same way except that the overhead projections would turn from black to red ink? (That turned out to be the sign!).
On the day the first "red ink projection" was placed on the glass of the overhead projector, there was no time to prepare. It was already too late. As I saw the red writing, my blood froze in my veins. Like a rock dropped in the center of the pond, my circle of life was terminated and the ripple effect on my already shaky grade was clear. I was doomed. I was not prepared. Like the rock, I sank down in my seat prepared to lose ten points from my grade. Dr. Welsh had warned us time and time again. Looking back to the day before, I could remember that he told us with extra emphasis to "be prepared." But, I was not.
My eyes glazed over knowing that my 20/20 "hind sight"could not save me now. I wrote my name. I gulped hard. Three questions into the "pop quiz" I began to compose my defense appeal for extra credit where the answer to question #3 should appear. The appeal took the rest of the lines on the 8½ x 5 ½ lined paper. I was after all pre-law. Certainly, I could stage a case for the defense early in my college career. When the paper came back the next class, I was clear that my defense had failed in the court of appeals. Dr. Welsh had written in red ink: "Mr. Ahrens - BE PREPARED - 20% F -." From the bottom of the pond, I could only wonder how the prepared tadpoles were doing up above . . .
Today a new church year begins. We turn our focus for the next 52 Sundays to the Gospel of Mark. And if there is one thing that this Gospel tells us repeatedly, in the texts of Mark 13/14 it is that the disciples were not prepared. Speaking to Peter, James, John, and Andrew, time and time again throughout this narrative, at one crucial moment after another, the evangelist (like Dr. Welsh), fears that they will be caught napping and they are, according to Jesus. In Mark 13: 5,9,23, & 33, Jesus tells them to "watch!" But, they do not "watch." The climax of inattention comes in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus cries out to the sleeping disciples, "Could you not watch one hour?" (14:37). No, they couldn't. When their moment came, they were not prepared.
Written more than thirty years after the death and resurrection of the Christ, Mark's gospel is as much an appeal to the early church to pay attention, to watch, to be ready for the return of Christ as it is for the first disciples to pay attention to his demise and the end of days surrounding them. Mark's gospel contains no birth stories of Jesus. He is not interested in the infant narratives as are Luke and Matthew. Mark wants to tell the story of the Risen Christ. By the 13th chapter, Mark's concern is wrapped-up in the political and military disorder of his times and the early church's need to not listen to false messiahs and false prophets who would attempt to take advantage of Israel being consumed in a war with the Roman Empire. (Does this resemble anything you have heard in any other time?).
In the early passages of Mark 13, the first author of our Gospel narratives tells people to not be led astray (vs. 5), to not be alarmed by wars and rumors of wars (vs. 7), and to not be afraid when nations rise up against nations and kingdoms attack other kingdoms, for these are signs of the birth pangs of the end that is to come (vs. 8). Instead, he tells people to pay attention to the Holy Spirit and to trust in God and they will be saved (vs. 11-14). He says, false prophets and false messiahs will appear and seek to divert people's attention and lead them astray by preying upon certain signs and omens (vs. 22). But, if the disciples of Christ are alert, if they are awake, they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory (vs. 26). Jesus says his words are trustworthy and true: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (vs. 31).
Mark's Gospel text takes a subtle, but potent, shift in 13:33. To this point, we have been told to "Look out," "to be prepared" and "to be ready, now." The word for this is "Blepo," which refers to the kind of correct spiritual discernment which will protect a disciple from being misled by external appearances. But, in 13:33 Jesus switches to another verb - "Gregoreo," which deals specifically with correct behavior. In the parable in 13:33-37, Jesus leans upon this new "see" verb in order to make the case that his people must - in their anticipation of his return - watch, which is to say, ACT in a new way.
So, Christ's disciples cannot merely be passive in their watching and waiting, but they are called to move! In other words, with the return of Christ, close at hand, Jesus' disciples must not concentrate on the heavens and the coming down from the clouds, but on their lives and how they live justly, righteously, and lovingly. Thus, "blepo" or "accurate spiritual perception" will lead a disciple to gregoreo" or "faithful behavior." It is not enough to have spiritual perception for its own sake. Rather, spiritual perception should always lead a disciple toward active behavior. "Seeing" (or discerning) the reality of the reign of God should always lead one to preach and live the universal reality of that reign.
The same can be said to us today. Christ is returning. The pop quiz is coming! But, what are you doing to be prepared for it? That's the question. Throughout time, Christians have taken different approaches to preparing for Christ's return. There are at least three clear approaches down through the ages.
First, for some, watching means looking for the literal end of the world. Many books, including the recent popular Tim LaHaye fictionalized novels on the Book of Revelation and the End of Days have pointed to the end coming very soon. These books, I am told, are wonderful fiction. The danger is reading them as fact. The only major problem with this approach is that it tries to discover what even Jesus himself could not discover. Jesus said, "Truly, this generation will not will pass away before all these things take place." But with his next breath he says, "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Mk. 13:32) Even Jesus did not know the mind of his Father on the end of time, so how does Tim LaHaye or anyone else know? I ask this, not to be critical of Mr. LaHaye and his readers, merely to point out their true inability to overreach in areas and in ways that Jesus doesn't dare to touch.
A second way for Christians to prepare for the end is to let their awareness of the end heighten their commitment to the present. A story from colonial New England tells of a time when the state legislators were plunged into darkness by a sudden eclipse of the sun, during which many panicked and others moved to adjourn. One leader said, "Mr. Speaker, if this is not the end of the world, and we adjourn, we appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty when the Son of God comes in the clouds. I move, sir, that the candles be brought" (found in Barbara Brown Taylor's book, Gospel Medicine, Cowley Publications, Boston, Mass, 1995, pp.137-138). Many of us choose to live this way.
A third way to watch for the end is to suspect that there is not just one end of the world any more than there is just one more coming of the Christ to look forward to. By this I mean, when Jesus died, the disciples thought the end of the world had come. When Jerusalem fell and Emperor Nero swooped down on a young church like a mad vulture, they believed the end of the world had come. In a way of speaking, the world, as we know it and experience it can end any day of the week with a declaration of war, the death of a child, a life threatening diagnosis, and watching for Christ's coming again in power and glory can seem like the only light in such times when the sun, the moon and the stars have seemingly been extinguished in our lives ( drawn from Taylor, pp. 136-137). I find this path helpful and healing as I take on the daily tasks of living in the present times.
Whichever approach works for you, each has this in common. The one who is coming is our friend. He may come at any time of day or night, but he will return. Darkness does not stop his advance. Our job is to be ready - not just spiritually, but ready by the very actions of our lives. He may come on the clouds in power and glory or he may come with a simple, quiet knock on the doorway of our hearts. But, like the "pop quiz" in Dr. Welsh's class so many years ago, I am telling you today "be prepared." It will happen. He is returning. This is God's promise. This is my gift to you from Dr. Welsh. Amen.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church