Talk about the end times is prevalent these days. Covid-19, worldwide pandemics, wars and rumors of wars… there are many who are certain Jesus is returning soon. And perhaps He is! The passage today from Mark 13 certainly appears to list some signs that will indicate the hastening end of all things.
And yet Wesleyan/Arminians historically aren’t big on dispensational, end of days thinking. Part of that is because John Darby, often considered the father of dispensationalist thought, was not yet born when Wesley died. Books like those in the Left Behindseries would not have even been considered in Wesley’s day. Moreover, John Wesley had a strong passion and appreciation for the Church Fathers and Mothers, who similarly focused less on the second coming of Christ and more on the first.
We must “follow the meaning of those things which are prophesied,” said Victorinus of Pettau, writing at the end of the third century. Augustine, writing about one hundred years later, stressed that Jesus “came first in preaching, and filled the whole wide world. Let us not resist His first coming.” To them and most of the writers in the Early Church, texts like this from Mark on the final judgment and second coming ought to be read for the lesson they are intending to convey rather than for any specific chronology. For even in the midst of the destruction described in such verses, the widespread belief was that God would be restoring the brokenness of humanity by gathering us back unto Himself, back unto what we were created to be. The second coming and the events portrayed in these verses may be frightening indeed, but only if we have not been faithful to follow Christ’s example at His first coming.
The key message in Mark 13:24-37, then, may be “stay alert!”, a phrase repeated three times in the final four verses. And like the earliest followers of Jesus, what does it do to our interpretation of such verses if we see them and others like them less about the second coming of Christ and more about how we ought to live following His first? What does it mean to “stay alert”?
Too many followers of Christ focus on the event of going to heaven, whenever it happens, and not on the preparation for a lived reality of being with God even now. Eternal life, after all, begins at spiritual birth, not at physical death. To focus just on the next life, or just on when Jesus will return, is to ignore the life Christ gives us here and now. And this life, after all, is part and parcel of what salvation is meant to redeem.
As members of a holiness tradition, we embrace a vision of God’s redemptive work in this life that delivers us from the destructive power of sin and liberates us for a life that is truly life. Forgiven by God the Father through the atoning work of Christ Jesus the Son and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to approach life with confidence that we are already acceptable to God even as God continues to transform our character and behavior in ways that cause us to look more and more like Jesus. We are freed to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors and serve the world for the sake of others, because of the love of God. This is what faithful, holy lives look like, and what God is desiring we all would have in our lives.
Matthew 25 has three stories that are similar to this Markan passage in that they often are read as pointing to the end times. The first pericope is about the wise and foolish maidens, the second about the giving of talents, and the third about the judgment of the nations. When in the first lesson the foolish maidens are found not ready, when they are guilty of doing exactly what Mark 13:36 warns when the Master returns and finds them sleeping, the judgment they are given is not that they were lazy or should have worked harder or needed to be doing more Godly work. No. Matthew 25:12 has the harrowing charge from God, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” And in a Jewish context, the unspoken follow-up phrase is, “And you don’t know me.”
Any discussion about end times must revolve around knowing the heart of God. And that is a heart that seeks to have us in relationship with God even now, not just when He returns. May we all seek to live the life God has called and created us to live, such that we will be found faithful, whenever we meet our Master face to face.