Summary: From the text of the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13, this sermon explains that while we cannot know the precise day and hour of Jesus’ return, it is possible to see the end of the age approaching.
Is Jesus Coming Back Soon? Mark 13:24-37
Mark Chapter 13, along with Matthew Chapter 24, record Christ’s teaching in what is known as the Olivet Discourse. It gets that name because Jesus was at the Mount of Olives, preparing his disciples for his impending passion, and Peter, James, John, and Andrew pose to him a question about the end of the age. The Olivet Discourse is Christ’s answer to that question, and today’s gospel lesson is the conclusion of his answer.
Our gospel lesson begins with these words: “24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light…” Jesus words “After that tribulation” refer to the things he has just described in the previous verses of Mark 13 – a great persecution of believers in Christ, an event which Jesus calls abomination of desolation being set up, and Jesus refers to an earlier prophecy of Daniel as the first mention of this event, and finally the astronomical events that are mentioned in today’s gospel – a darkened sun and moon, and stars falling from the heavens on to the earth.
There is a curious double-mindedness among Christians about Jesus’ teaching here. On one hand, there have always been those who have attempted to correlate what Jesus has said with the events around them. The recently popular series of books and films known as “Left Behind,” are one example of this. Back in the 70s when I was first coming to some sort of spiritual life myself, Hal Lindsay made a small cottage industry out of books which supposedly expounded the events of the day in terms of this prophecy and others found in the Book of Revelation.
This was nothing new, of course. One such prophet was an Adventist leader named William Miller whose legacy to us today includes both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists.
Miller first predicted that Christ would return on 21st March 1842, and subsequently revised the date to April 3, 1843.
When Jesus didn’t return, you’d have thought that his movement would have died. But it didn’t. Rather it continued to grow. Miller recalculated a new date for the second soon - April 18, 1844. When Jesus did not show up on that date, there was again frustration and some followers left the Adventist ranks. So, Miller came up with a third date - 22nd October 1844. Surprisingly, this third date rallied his followers, and they began to spread the news of the new date of the second coming. Churches which rejected their message were denounced as agents of “Babylon.” and the devil.
One account notes that “Fields were left unharvested, shops were closed, people quit their jobs, paid their debts, and freely gave away their possessions with no thought of repayment.” William Miller himself began selling white “ascension robes” to the faithful, many of whom waited for the miraculous event in freshly dug graves. But as we all know, the Second Coming did not occur on 22nd October 1844.
As you go back in Church history, this kind of phenomenon is not hard to find. There was a huge rash of this kind of thing at the turn of the first millennium. And, all of these kinds of things have given a bad name to any effort to speak intelligibly about whether or not one can recognize the end of the age.
Indeed, that’s the other side of the double-mindedness about the Lord’s return to the earth. While some will make an attempt to predict when it will be, others loudly scorn that sort of effort, insisting that the failure of all previous attempts discredits the idea. And, of course, they can point to the very words of Jesus Himself in today’s gospel lesson. “32 But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
What are we to think of all this? Which of these two perspectives on the end of the age is correct? Can we know that Jesus is about to return? Or is that event hopelessly hidden from any and everyone until Jesus suddenly shows up to everyone’s surprise?
The answer, I think, is that both perspectives are correct, so long as we do not push them beyond what Jesus taught his disciples. In the space of a homily today, we cannot cover even a sketchy summary of eschatology. But, I do think we can nail down a few notions that have practical consequences for how we shall live our lives in light of the end of the age. Let’s take those few notions in turn.
First of all, those who insist that we can see the end of the age approaching are correct in principle. When Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked our Lord about how to recognize the end of the page, either told them how to recognize the end of the age or he didn’t. And, of course, the bulk of Matthew 24 and Mark 13 are devoted to Jesus’ laying out what would occur at the end of the age, including his return to the earth. If the true answer to the disciples’ question had been – you can’t know, you can’t see it coming, then we might have expected Jesus to speak that line about no one knowing – not the angels in heaven, nor the Son of God – and to have left it at that.