Matthew T. Phillips

Pop Quiz (Mark 13:24-37)

The First Sunday of Advent (B)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina

24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then 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.

28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Mark 13:24-37 NRSV

Helpful Confusion

During my last year at Wake Forest, the faculty considered ending the requirement that all students take a course in philosophy. Faculty members and even some students in the philosophy, religion, and other humanities departments spoke out in favor of continuing the requirement, which was easily the least popular of the required courses. Finally, though, it was a Math professor—not the typical supporter by any means—who gave the most convincing argument for keeping the course. He said that he could quite easily have gone through college taking only math and science courses, which he enjoyed and obviously was quite good at. But he took a chance and enrolled in a philosophy course, and found himself utterly confused. Doesn’t sound too great at first, but he appreciated the experience. He had been coasting along in school, doing what was asked of him but never thinking far past the next assignment. He reflected that it was a wonderful gift to learn relatively early that the subject area in which he was an expert only explained a little part of the world and to face something that his mind simply was not equipped to handle.

In today’s gospel text, we meet Jesus and the disciples just when the disciples were starting to feel like experts. They had heard Jesus teach for quite a while now, and they were getting excited about the new ideas he had and the new kingdom he told them about. Peter, James, John, and Andrew, who always knew the answers—they probably got beat up and had their collection plate money stolen during disciple recess—tried to show off that they were paying attention:

“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Mark 13:4 NRSV

“You’ve been talking about the new kingdom, Jesus; when is it coming?” they asked. And Jesus showed them that they only understood a tiny little part of his message. The text still speaks to us in much the same way, except I think we may be a little less excited about the scene Jesus describes at the coming of the kingdom.

Waiting and Hoping

This is the first Sunday of Advent and the first Sunday of the Christian year; what a terrible way to start off, huh? The whole rest of the world is singing Christmas carols and putting up tinsel, and we’re sitting in here talking about fig tree leaves and masters coming home to slaves in the middle of the night. And the prayers, the liturgy for lighting the advent wreath, and the songs have all been about hope, and I’m talking about stars falling from heaven and the darkening of the sun. Where is the hope here?

The fact is, like the disciples, we only understand a tiny little part of the message. It’s all well and good for the Bible to talk about the coming of Christ, but it says right there in the Bible, “‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,’” and it’s hard for that to make a whole lot of sense to us. Lots of generations before us have read that and then proceeded to pass away, so the whole idea of waiting seems pretty ridiculous. You think maybe that’s why our whole society ignores Advent?

Advent is about waiting and hoping, but what for? We all act as if we don’t think anything will actually change on December 25th, and what thinking person would do any different? We believe that God is great and strong and good, but let’s get real. He’s not coming this month. Isaiah prophesied about people just like us when he prayed to God

We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Isaiah 64:6b-7 NRSV

Since we don’t really think God is going to come, our faith has become light, unable to anchor us, and so we get blown off course. We’ve allowed Jesus’ talk about his second coming to whither into pretty images and we’ve given up waiting for his predictions to come true. So where is the hope for us?

Behind the Symbols

We have work to do first. We have to discover something to believe in, and you can’t believe in symbols for very long without being gravely disappointed. Neither Advent nor Christmas is about stars and trees and presents. I’m not going to ask you to give all those things up because I don’t want to give them up myself, I’m not sure it would be helpful, and you wouldn’t listen to me anyway. But let’s at least not make them important thing about the season. The great star in the East pointed to something, and so should our symbols. They point to nothing less than the

“‘…Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”

Mark 13:26b NRSV

And here we reach our second major problem with Advent. Like Rich said in the newsletter this week, Advent has traditionally been a time when we remember the preparations for the coming of the Christ child two thousand years ago, and when we prepare ourselves for the second coming of the Christ. I’m willing to guess, though, that lots of people—probably not anyone here, but lots of people—would prefer that Christ not come again. It just doesn’t sound very pleasant. Jesus tells us there’s suffering, after which

24bThe sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Mark 13:24b-25 NRSV

Who really wants that to happen? This world may not be perfect, but we’ve gotten used to it. There’s the problem.

If you are comfortable in this world, then I encourage you to ignore Advent. Christmas is the holiday for you. Waiting and hoping are just not worthwhile, so jump to the fun stuff. Advent only makes sense if you want something else to hold on to. If you need to believe that as wonderful as the sun, the moon, and the stars may be, when they fall away it will be because a new, brighter, more perfect light has come and we no longer need those things.

Advent is a special time when we anticipate our favorite stories about Jesus’ birth, but if we do it right, it’s also a time when we look at ourselves and our world and decide that we shouldn’t be comfortable. We shouldn’t be comfortable that people are starving a stone’s throw away and that their starvation will last long past the holiday season when people are feeling generous with canned goods. We shouldn’t be comfortable that we stand on the brink of World War III—that’s right, you heard it here first—and our own neighbors worship the flag of one aggressor and the oil of another.

The alternative is to trust in the kind of king who gets born in a feeding trough, who teaches that people who trust in God should not be concerned about their status or well-being in this world, and who gets strung up on a cross for telling the truth to people who were completely comfortable with the world as they knew it.

If we could choose that alternative, then whatever you imagine as hope would pale in comparison to the power and the glory of the hope we would have that God would come this month. Our hope in the kingdom will not make us dreamy-eyed and nostalgic, but rather will be empowering. Because we hope and believe in the coming of Christ, we can work for a whole new order in the world where God’s commandments—human life, right worship, peace between God’s children—are our highest values. Where we see ourselves as slaves keeping Christ’s house in his absence, and preparing for his welcome return. The command to keep awake so that the master doesn’t find us asleep will be an easy one, just as it’s hard to go to sleep on Christmas Eve, because we will be so excited about what the morning will bring.

Puzzling Quiz

But the idea that the morning will bring anything new is still pretty foreign to us. I told you about the Math professor who argued to keep philosophy as a required course. He liked it because it taught him how to handle confusion. Philosophy largely confused me too, and it still does. I’ve gotten pretty good at nodding my head and smiling knowingly when my really smart friends refer to some philosopher at school to cover up for just how clueless I am. I do remember one lecture, though, when the professor told us about the pop quiz puzzle. There was probably a fancier name for it, but I’m doing good to remember the idea at all. It went something like this. On Friday, a teacher told his class that he was going to give a surprise quiz the following week. One clever student—we’ll call him Jamie—went home and thought about this pop quiz. He didn’t know the subject very well, and was upset that he was going to miss his whole weekend to study. Jamie tried to figure out what day the quiz might be. First, he noticed that it couldn’t be Friday, because if they got to Thursday and hadn’t had the quiz yet, then everyone would know it was on Friday, and the teacher had said it would be a surprise. Friday is out. Well, now the text couldn’t be on Thursday, because if they got to Wednesday with no quiz then everyone would know the quiz was on Thursday, because Friday was already ruled out. Thursday is out too. By the same logic, the test couldn’t be on Wednesday or Tuesday. That left Monday as the only possible day, so a test given that day wouldn’t be a surprise. Jamie figured out there was no way for the teacher to give a surprise pop quiz, so he spent his weekend playing with his friends, going to church and youth, and watching Monty Python movies. Anyone want to guess what happened? The teacher gave the quiz on Wednesday morning, Jamie was surprised, and he failed.

Did I tell this story just to embarrass Jamie? Certainly not, although that would have been a noble enough goal. We read Jesus’ prophecy about his second coming, especially the part about the present generation not passing away before all these things come to be, and we reason that since, as far as we understand, part of the prophecy was not true, we should just read this all as a nice set of symbols. That part about expecting the master to come home and keeping awake—we don’t really need to do that, because he hasn’t come back in the past two thousand years. The odds are pretty good he won’t come back this year either. Well, the odds were pretty good Jamie wouldn’t fail the pop quiz.

Gifts and Strength

There’s one other reason I think we’re often reluctant to prepare for the coming of Christ. I know that I, at least, am pretty concerned that I would fail his test. If the master’s not going to be happy with us slaves when he gets home, we might as well not even try, right? St. Paul knew a church not entirely different from us, and he assured them that they had what it takes to prepare for Christ’s coming, and he would encourage us as well:

4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Corinthians 1:4-9 NRSV

We sang at the beginning of the service about

Saints, before the altar bendingwatching long in hope and fear.

“Angels From the Realms of Glory” (Hymnal 220, v. 4)

The altar is before us. Here’s our chance to choose to eat a different kind of food, hope for a different kind of king, and watch for a different kind of world.