Today is the beginning of Advent and the start of a new church year. “Advent” (from the Latin adventus, “coming”) is the season prior to Christmas when many Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus. It looks backward to the Incarnation and forward to the Second Coming—twin Christological certainties separated by the here and now, the in-between-ness, when things are far less sure. In the Gospel reading for today, Mark 13:24-37, Jesus gives his followers their marching orders for the interim. “Watch!” he said. Before we consider what and how we are to watch, a little background is needed.
One day Jesus and his disciples left the temple and made their way up the Mount of Olives. Looking back they could see the majestic structure, its white limestone gleaming in the midday the sun. It must have been an impressive sight. One of the disciples said, “Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!” (Mark 13:1). I’m sure it was a shock when Jesus replied: “Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone left upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (v. 2).
Like the disciples we are often impressed by big buildings—those soaring structures dedicated to the worship of God—like the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, or the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, CA, or even the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel (above), which I can see framed in the window of my bedroom where I am writing this. Churches spend enormous sums of money on their buildings. When I lived in Southern California, the Los Angeles Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was completed at a cost of $250 million. First Baptist Dallas plans to spend $115 to rebuild their downtown sanctuary. These might be symptoms of what Howard Snyder calls tongue-in-cheek an “edifice complex”—the institutional church’s over-emphasis on buildings.
There’s nothing wrong with having nice architecture, and a sense of sacred space can enhance worship. But Christian worship must be centered on Jesus Christ, not any physical structure. Jesus signaled as much when he told the disciples not to gawk at the temple but to watch for his return. I wrote about his apocalyptic imagery in a previous post, but here I want to focus on what Jesus meant by his admonition to watch. In the biblical text, watching is the opposite of sleeping, but it’s more than merely waiting passively for the Second Coming.
Being watchful doesn’t mean taking an obsessive interest in End Times prophecy or worse, trying to predict Christ’s return. The Bible says explicitly “no one knows the day or hour” (Mark 13:32). In fact, Jesus said even he didn’t know when he was coming again, only his Father in heaven. A parallel passage in 1 Thessalonians 5 tells us what it means to watch for the coming of the Lord. Jesus’ return “comes as a thief in the night” (v. 2), though Christians are not caught off guard (v. 4). Sleep, night, and drunkenness are the experiences of those who will be surprised by Jesus’ Second Advent, just as alertness, light, and sobriety characterize those who are watching for the Lord’s return. Moreover, Christians are protected by faith, hope, and salvation (v. 8). Thus armed, we are to comfort, edify, and be at peace with our fellow Christians (vv. 11, 13). Further, we are to “warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (v. 14) and not “render evil for evil” but do good to all (v. 15). There’s also advice on our inner activity: “Rejoice” (v. 16), “Pray without ceasing” (v. 17), “Don’t quench the Spirit” (v. 18). Thus, watching is more than mere waiting.
There’s plenty for us to do while we anticipate the Lord’s return. The question is, Are we so busy getting ready for Christmas that we’re not taking time to get ready for Christ?