Frederick Buechner Sermon Illustration: Mark (Mark 13:24-37)

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick  Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the First Sunday of Advent. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Mark:

Mark 13:24-37

"But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then 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. "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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It 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. Therefore, 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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

The following article was originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words:

Nobody knows for sure who wrote the Gospel that bears Mark's name because the book itself doesn't say. Some people claim it was the John Mark who turns up in the book of Acts as a traveling companion of Paul's and the son of a woman named Mary, who owned a place where the group used to meet and pray back in the days when the church was young (Acts 12:12). And maybe this John Mark was the same person who appears in the scene of Jesus' arrest at Gethsemane as a boy who managed to escape from the soldiers' clutches but not without leaving his shirt behind, so that he ran off into the dark scared out of his wits and naked as the day he was born (Mark 14:51-52). Mark is the only one who reports the incident, and maybe he put it in as a kind of signature. An early historian says he was a friend of Peter's and got some of his information from him. Who knows? In the long run, the only things you can find out about him for certain are from the book he wrote. Whoever he was, Mark is as good a name to call him by as any other.

He was a man in a hurry, out of breath, with no time to lose because that's how the people were he was writing for too. The authorities were out for their blood, and they were on the run. At any moment of day or night a knock might come at the door, and from there to getting thrown to the lions or set fire to as living torches at one of Nero's evening entertainments took no time at all. So he leaves a lot out; it's amazing how much. There's no family tree for Jesus as there is in Matthew and Luke. There's nothing about how he was born, no angel explaining it ahead of time, no Wise Men, no Herod, no star. There's nothing about his childhood. There's precious little about his run-ins with the Pharisees, no Sermon on the Mount, only four parables. His teaching in general is brushed past hurriedly—except for one long speech, just a word here, a word there. "Immediately" is one of Mark's favorite words, and he uses it three times more than either Matthew or Luke, fifteen times more than John. "Immediately he called them" (1:20), "immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue" (1:21). Immediately the girl got up and walked (5:30), or the father cried (9:24), or the cock crowed (14:72). Jesus himself races by, scattering miracles like rice at a wedding. Mark is alive with miracles, especially healing ones, and Jesus rushes from one to another. He had no time to lose either.

Mark writes for people who already believe instead of the ones who need things explained, and therefore it's who Jesus was, rather than what he said, that Mark's book is bursting with—who he was and what he did with what little time he had. He was the "Son of God," that's who he was. Mark says it right out in the first sentence so nobody will miss it (1:1). And he came "not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (10:45). That's what he did, and he died doing it. The whole book is obsessed with the fact of his death. And with good reason.

If Jesus died as dead as anybody, what hope did the rest of them have who woke every morning to the taste of their own death in their mouths? Why did he die? He died because the Jews had it in for him, Mark says, because he is hard on the Jews, himself very likely a Gentile and writing for Gentiles. He died because that's the way he wanted it—that "ransom for many" again, a wonderful thing to be bought at a terrible price. He died because that's the way God wanted it. Marvelous things would come of his death, and the one long speech Mark gives has to do with those marvelous things. "The stars will be falling from heaven," Jesus says, "and the powers in the heavens will be shaken, and then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory" (13:25-26). Of course there was hope—hope that would set the stars reeling.

But even in the midst of his great haste, Mark stops and looks at Jesus, sees him better than any of the others do. When Jesus naps in a boat, it's in the stern he does it, with a pillow under his head (4:38). The others don't say that. And the grass was green when he fed the five thousand on hardly enough to feed five (6:39), not dry grass, crackling and brown. He got up "a great while before day" to go pray by himself (1:35), not at nine, not after a hot breakfast, and he was sitting down "opposite the treasury" when he saw the old lady drop her two cents in the collection box (12:41). Only Mark reports how the desperate father said, "I believe. Help thou my unbelief" (9:24), and how Jesus found it belief enough to heal his sick boy by. You can say they make no difference, such details as these, which the others skip, or you can say they make all the difference.

Then the end comes, and even Mark has to slow down there. Half his book has to do with the last days in Jerusalem and the way Jesus handled them and the way he was handled himself. And when he died, Mark is the one who reports what his last words were, even the language he spoke them in—"Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani"—which he translates, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (15:34). Only Matthew had the stomach to pick them up from Mark and report them too. Luke and John apparently couldn't bring themselves to.

Mark ends his book, as he begins it, almost in the middle of a sentence. There was no time to gather up all the loose ends. The world itself was the loose ends, and all history would hardly be enough to gather them up in. The women went to the tomb and found it empty. A young man in white was sitting there—"on the right," Mark says, not on the left. "He has risen," the young man said. "Go tell his disciples. And Peter," Mark adds, unlike Matthew and Luke again. Was it because he'd known Peter and the old man had wanted his name there? So the women ran out as if the place was on fire, which in a way of course it was, "for trembling and astonishment had come upon them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid" (16:1-8). Later editors added a few extra verses to round things off, but that's where Mark ended it. In mid-air.

Mark's last word in his Gospel is afraid, and it makes you wonder if maybe the theory is true after all that he was the boy who streaked out of Gethsemane in such a panic. He knew how the women felt as they picked up their skirts and made a dash for it anyway. Wonderful and terrible things were happening, and more were still to come. He knew what fear was all about—the scalp cold, the mouth dry, the midnight knock at the door—but he also knew that fear was not the last thing. It was the next to the last thing. The last thing was hope. "You will see him, as he told you," the young man in white said (16:7). If that was true, there was nothing else that mattered. So Mark stopped there.