Jesus seems to be predicting that “the Son of Man” will show up “with great power and glory” to bring history to a close within his listeners’ lifespans: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” But we’re still here, and it’s been 2,000 years—a bit more than any lifespan.
Then he seems to take it all back: “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.”
First he says he knows when all this will happen, then he says he doesn’t. Which is it?
Let’s shift gears.
This reading is from the Gospel writer eventually named Mark (by a fourth-century writer, quoting a second-century writer—whom he didn’t always trust—got all that?). Mark is writing around three decades later, handing on different sayings attributed to Jesus even when they appeared to clash. Some sayings go back to Jesus before his execution. Some go back to Jesus as his first followers experienced him after his execution. Some reflect Mark’s own experience of Jesus even later. It’s not easy to sort out which is which. As far as Mark’s concerned it all goes back to the original Jesus. That’s what a typical New Testament professor would say about Mark today, and I concur. This drives professional historians crazy, but Mark wasn’t writing for professional historians. Like every New Testament writer, he wants us to awaken to the living presence of God in and through the living presence of Jesus.
Here are the basics of what Mark and his community want us to know: Jesus preached the nearness of God’s reign, but it was in terms that confounded almost everybody’s expectations. It got him killed. But then his followers kept encountering him not just as a memory but as a living reality animating their very lives. It was so life-changing that there was no telling what might happen next. Maybe history as they knew it would come to an end, as many were already predicting back then. In a sense, it did come to an end—with Jesus, they died to their old world and rose to an utterly new one. Something life-changing and even world-changing was happening among them. It defied description.
It’s no wonder that there would be some confusion about details, and that’s reflected in this passage from Mark. We don’t need to obsess about the details. We certainly shouldn’t try making predictions about world events. What mattered then and matters now is awakening to God’s reign arriving as we die with Jesus to an old world and rise with him into a new one. That’s still happening. That’s what matters most. That’s what Mark wants us to see.
Two words Jesus keeps repeating in this passage are “Keep awake.” Pay attention to the dying of your old world and the rising of a new one. Notice the presence of Jesus’ God who dies and rises with you. Keep awake to that. That’s what matters most.