The Christian year begins with the first Sunday of Advent in early December. Each year, we follow the story Jesus’ life and ministry from the days before his birth all the way through to the end, as told by one of the Gospels. This year we have been working through the Gospel of Mark.
The Christian year actually ends next Sunday, but we finish Mark today. And we end not with the resurrection—we heard those passages back in Easter—but with Jesus’ Second Coming.
Jesus goes on at some length. We hear just the first couple of paragraphs, but it is enough. Christians have been fascinated with, and a little unnerved by, the Second Coming ever since. Ever since, Christians have wondered exactly what will happen and exactly when it will happen.
As we see in our reading, the questions began right away. After Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Jesus privately both when it would all go down, and how they would know that it had started.
Jesus gives them a typically cryptic answer. The end will come, he says, when there are wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famine.
That is not very helpful! It sounds a lot like today. But it also sounds a lot like every other year in all of human history, which is why people in virtually every generation have assumed that Jesus was about to return in their own time. So far, they have all been wrong.
Not a lot is clear about the Second Coming. But at this point, it does seem clear that we don’t have any idea when Jesus is going to come back. It may be in our lifetime. It may be in two thousand years. We can’t know because Jesus doesn’t tell us. Apparently Jesus didn’t think we need to know.
We also can’t know exactly what will happen. Plenty of people have developed plenty of theories, drawing on passages from all across the Bible. But nobody has ever figured it out, at least not in a way that makes sense to everyone else. It is possible that somebody sometime actually guessed right, but we won’t know until after the Second Coming has happened.
So Jesus didn’t think we needed to know exactly what will happen any more than Jesus thought we needed to know exactly when it would happen.
But there are a few things we can know about the Second Coming.
The most important thing of all is this: the Second Coming is good news.
People often focus on the tribulations that come first: the wars and rumors of wars. If you flip through the Book of Revelation, which I don’t necessarily recommend!, you find a LOT of tribulation.
But the story ends well. Jesus comes back. A little after our Gospel reading, Jesus promises that people “will see ‘the Son of Mon 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 earth to the ends of heaven.” That’s good news!
Even Revelation ends with good news: a long and glorious description of the new heaven and the new earth, when God’s kingdom comes and “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” because God will dwell among us (21:3-4).
We didn’t get resurrection without crucifixion. In the same way, we won’t get kingdom without tribulation.
But Christ’s promise to return in power is something to celebrate and to anticipate with great joy. Particularly in the midst of the wars and rumors of wars, the trials and tribulations that beset us, we can take comfort in Christ’s victory. God wins in the end. Love and life win in the end. I say again, that is good news!
We don’t get all that in our passage for this morning because we don’t make it all the way to the end. But what we can see in our passage for this morning is the way the good news of Christ’s final victory can ripple backwards into our lives today, even in the midst of trials and tribulations.
Life is not all wars and rumors of wars, of course. Next Thursday is Thanksgiving, and I have a lot to be thankful for. I’d like to think all of us do.
But even the most fortunate among us experience wars and rumors of wars. What I mean by that, what I think Jesus means by that, is suffering of all kinds. And wonderful as Thanksgiving and Christmas can be, for many of us they are hard. After Church today, Father Domenic will lead the fourth of his sessions on grief, and he will focus in part on coping with the holidays. For some of us, now is a time of real tribulation.
It is especially in the challenging times that the good news of the Second Coming ripples backwards into our daily lives. This is what we get in our reading for this morning.
First, Jesus acknowledges that life is sometimes hard. There will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, bad diagnoses and financial hardship, times of loneliness and disappointment. That is a fact of life outside of God’s kingdom. Would that it were not so. But since it is so, it helps to acknowledge the reality of our suffering.
Second, Jesus warns us to beware of people offering simple solutions, people who say, “I am he,” people who tell us, “I have the answer to all your problems.”
My internet feed is full of that kind of thing. Diets that allow me to eat as much as I want and still lose weight. Credit opportunities that magically reduce my debt to zero. Foods that prevent all sickness. I sometimes wonder what about my internet habits suggest I need all that!
In our reading, Jesus reminds us that things that sound too good to be true, usually are. We should not allow ourselves to be led astray by quick fixes that are not fixes at all.
But the real good news comes at the end of our reading. Bad things will happen. But, says Jesus, everything that we experience today is “the birth pangs” of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom, and all the joy and life that it brings, is in process of becoming even now.
We see this in Jesus himself. On the cross, Jesus cried out in agony. And yet, Jesus’ crucifixion leads on to resurrection, to Christ’s ultimate victory, to the coming of God’s kingdom. The crucifixion was definitely a birth pang of God’s kingdom.
Christ invites us to see everything that happens in our lives in the same way. Bad stuff really is bad. But in some mysterious way, God is at work in the midst of all the bad stuff, bringing forth new life. In some mysterious way, everything that happens in our lives is a birth pang of God’s kingdom.
Pain still hurts. But our pain is somehow taken up into God’s redemptive and loving work as we move towards God’s kingdom. Pain becomes potentially fruitful. And, at the very least, we can look forward to that day when tribulations will end and Christ reigns among us.
Every day I pray that God will ease the suffering that so many people experience. But on this day, I also pray that God will help us all to see our challenges as birth pangs of God’s kingdom.
In the name of the One for whom we wait in hope, Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Mark 13:26-27