32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[a]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. 35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
I’m coming to the end of a sabbatical, a year’s break from my usual job of teaching. My main focus during this year has not been “Homes Under The Hammer,” as some of my friends have cruelly suggested, but writing, specifically a couple of books. Because I have been based at home, however, it’s also fallen on me to do a lot of the household tasks, like the washing, the washing up, the cooking, and generally keeping our home tidy. Luckily, Claire, my wife, texts me as she is leaving work, so if I haven’t completed all my daily chores, I have a bit of notice to jump to it and get everything done!
The key message in this passage in Mark, however, is rather different; there will be no text message in advance of Jesus’ return, and the time when our saviour will come again is not known. We can’t leave the tasks he has set us to the last minute, because we don’t know when that will be. Rather, we need to work for the Lord all the time.
Every few years, someone or other will proclaim that they know the date the world will end. Most recently, Harold Camping, an American broadcaster, claimed that “the rapture” would occur on 21st May 2011. For one to claim that they know the date of the end the world marks the person out as a false prophet, however, when we consider today’s passage. Jesus says in verse 32, “but concerning that day or that hour, no one knows,” clearly stating that the time of his second coming cannot be known by a mere human. What’s more, to claim to know the date is to elevate oneself above the angels in heaven, and even Jesus himself. “Not even the angels, nor the Son, but only the Father” knows the date when God will call all believers to him at the end of time. Consequently, no matter how much intricate study of the Biblical text or any other source is carried out, we will not find the date of the second coming recorded anywhere; there is no way we can know it.
With this uncertainty, should we expect Jesus’ return during our own lifetime? After all, two thousand years have passed since Jesus last walked the earth, and it could easily be another two thousand before he returns. I hope I have another sixty years left in me at least, so should I really expect to see Jesus return in my lifetime? Who knows? Well, God the Father, and he alone! Despite this, we’re still called to “be on [our] guard, keep awake,” eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus. It wouldn’t do to be asleep, “lest he come suddenly and find [us] asleep.”
Rather than sleeping, Jesus calls us into action. In the parable he uses, Jesus talks of a man going on a journey, but first tasking his servants with jobs to do whilst he is away. The man probably represents Jesus, and the servants probably represent us. Just as the man in the parable gave his servants tasks to undertake in his absence, Jesus, when he went away, left us a specific task to do. At the close of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus instructs his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). This, then, is our task; Jesus has instructed us to continue the work that he started: loving God and our neighbours, spreading the gospel to the world that we live in, and leading people to Christ. This is what we were told to do before he ascended into heaven, and this is what he expects us to do.
Is this all that we need do? Almost certainly not. In verse 34, the man who is going away leaves each of his servants with a particular assigned task. Similarly, each of us has received specific gifts that enable us to do particular tasks. Maybe we’re gifted musicians, or writers, or preachers. Perhaps we’re really good at dealing with pastoral concerns and supporting people. Maybe we’re called to full-time ministry within the church or a religious organisation, or maybe we’re called to live out our faith and model Christian living in the secular world. Wherever we believe our gifts and skills lie, it is up to us to identify the “assigned task” that Jesus has delegated to us. Not only that, but it is vital that we carry out that task, day after day. We never know when Jesus might return, and we wouldn’t want him to catch us taking a break, sleeping or wasting our talents when he does!
The final word of this chapter also issues us with a direct, single word instruction, “watch!” Jesus says. Indeed, he stresses that this instruction is for everyone, not just for people with a particular skill. We’re all called to actively watch for Jesus’ return. This means keeping his return at the uppermost in our minds.
I wonder how often you think about Jesus’ return? I suspect probably not very often.
I wonder how often you find yourself watching for his return, with eager expectation? If you’re anything like me, you get so involved in every day life that you watch hardly at all, if ever.
The words of this short passage of Mark’s Gospel provide us with real challenges. Do we pay attention to the false teachers who tell us they can name the date of Jesus’ return, or do we point them in the direction of this piece of scripture, and say that there is no way they can know? Do we make sure that we carry out the general and specific tasks that Christ left us, or do we neglect his calling? And do we carry out that last instruction, to “watch!”?