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Falling Stars, Failed States, and the Power of Advent (Mark 13:23-37)

It’s easy to read this week’s gospel as a warning of doom and gloom.  It begins, after all, with this strict admonition, “Be Alert!” (v 23), and ends with the equally forceful command, “Keep awake!” (v 37).  It’s as though Jesus has just shouted, “Watch out!” and thrown a ball of flaming fire into the crowd.  But, of course, there is no fiery ball and so the question naturally is, “Watch out for what?”  Within the pericope itself, the obvious answer becomes the awesome image that Jesus paints in verse 26: “The Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  And why should we be concerned?  (Apart, of course, from the darkened moon and falling stars…)  Because Jesus says the Son of Man is like a master returning and from there we write our own scripts of what wrath this master might bring.  “Keep awake!” the Bible tells us, and we add, “Because if we sleep, we might be hit by that fiery ball!”  And, indeed, for Matthew and Luke, who record this prediction as “a thief coming in the middle of the night,” rather than a master returning to his home, such fears may be warranted.  But, for Mark, different dynamics are at play…

The master, after all, is in control of his house.  He does not come to rob or destroy.  He returns home to rest.  To reunite with the friends and servants he left in his wake.  To reap the profits they have earned while he was away.  To check on the state and upkeep of his estate.  The gatekeeper might be embarrassed if his master arrives while he is asleep, he may even be rebuked by the returning master for such negligence, but the master is still no thief.  He doesn’t bring wrath or destruction, he hasn’t come with the purpose to judge or condemn… he has returned home expecting to celebrate his homecoming with his household.

In our world it has become easy to look for “signs.”  To see wars, economic perils, the downfall of dictators, the election of leaders… pretty much anything and everything as signs of the woes that Jesus describes in Mark 13.  To think, despite Jesus’ insistence to the contrary, that we can tell – that we know when the master will return – and that his return will mean peril.  But that’s not the only way to read Mark 13…

In a world of thieves, in a world of wars and dictators and economic hardship, where the powers and principalities cannot be trusted, Jesus proclaims that with his coming the suffering will come to an end (v 24).  When Jesus comes the stars, which in common first century cosmology, represented the powers and rulers of the world, will fall.  He will “cast down the mighty from their thrones” to quote Luke.  And the real ruler of the world will return, not with more destruction, but hope. The power dynamics are changing—indeed, have already changed.

The question for us today is—in a world of woes and suffering, when the powers and principalities have not yet been (completely) dethroned—how are we to stay alert?  How are we to live as servants to (under the power of) God’s household when the powers around us seem so completely to overwhelm?  Do we dread God’s coming as yet another trial and tribulation?  I suggest that we remain alert, maintaining and building God’s household in expectation of Christ’s powerful return – a power ready for celebration and full of grace.

The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University.  She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.

This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.

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