I recently watched a documentary series by Stephen Hawking about the beginning and end of the Universe. This is serious “end times” stuff. And it isn’t very nice at all. We could be blasted by a passing giant asteroid (last time the dinosaurs went extinct, but this time it could destroy all life on Earth). Or a nearby star could explode in a supernova and finish us off… in fact it could already have happened, and its devastating shock waves could be heading towards us this very minute. Or we could be sucked into a giant black hole. If we avoid all these, there are other charming possibilities. Within the next few billion years the Sun will engulf the Earth, then shrink and burn out. We could survive this – by finding another world and another sun. But eventually the whole Universe will either collapse in on itself with enormous heat, like the big bang in reverse, or just expand infinitely getting colder until no life can be sustained. As T. S. Eliot’s poem “Hollow Men” puts it, the world could end not with a bang but whimper. Biblical end times seem a walk in the park compared to scientists’ predictions of doom.
Mark 13 could very well be taken straight from a documentary or an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. In fact, I think Biblical apocalypse has had a big part in inspiring such movies. The popularity of these movies and documentaries suggest that people today are quite curious about the “end times”. In Mark 13, we find the disciples are curious too. They ask Jesus “when will these things be, and what will be the signs?” But there is an added element of warning and caution in the passage we read, as Jesus repeatedly uses the words “beware,” “be alert,” asking his disciples to “stay awake”. Was Jesus inviting his disciples to scan the skies, read the signs of the heaves? Was he asking them to keep watch and be on red-alert for the end times? More importantly today for us, how are we supposed to respond? As Alice in Wonderland would say, “it gets curioser and curioser”. And just what is the point of the fig tree?
Let’s start with the fig tree. Today’s passage is part of a long series of events that begin with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In Mark 11, a cursed fig tree enters the drama. To us, this seems rather random. Fig trees are not a familiar sight, and we understand the cursing business even less. But the Jews knew their fig trees both literally and metaphorically. The fig tree was a common metaphor. When in leaf and blossom, it depicted peace, prosperity, and God’s blessing. In Micah 4, a poem about God’s restoration and reign, we see the people of Israel each “sitting under their own fig tree”. The fig tree also symbolised God’s judgement. In Joel 1, the fig tree is splintered, stripped of its bark, and its branches turned white.
In Mark 11, en route to the Temple, Jesus curses the fig tree. It is no accident that this preceded Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and his declaration of judgement on it. And on their way back from Jerusalem, the Disciples saw the tree had withered.
Most commentators agree that the cursing of the fig tree was a symbol of Jesus’ judgement of the temple. But it was more than just a symbol. When Jesus cursed the fig tree, there is a curious comment. Mark tells us that Jesus’ disciples “heard it”. An odd comment, I thought, until I began to wonder if it meant that they “heard” something specific in the curse. This was no ordinary cursing. Earlier, In Mark 8, we have a central declaration made by Peter: “you are the Messiah”. If a withered fig tree was a symbol of God’s judgement, perhaps Jesus, in cursing the fig tree, was enacting the metaphor, and making a statement about who he was. He was demonstrating the judgement of God within himself.
The fig tree reappears in the passage we have just read, together with the discussion about the end times. Jesus tells his disciples “from the fig tree learn its lesson… as soon as it puts out leaves.” Jesus had already associated himself with God’s judgement in cursing the fig tree. He was now using the fig tree to talk of a blessing. The curious event of the cursed fig tree would have been very much in the disciples’ minds. Jesus was talking about the reversal of the curse. If they knew their Micah – and 1st Century Jews certainly did – they would have understood the significance of the statement. It was a statement about the reign of God, the desperately awaited time when God’s kingdom and house would be restored. The signs of the return of the King are wonderfully portrayed in C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In Narnia, where the White Witch had cursed the land to be always winter but never Christmas, signs of Aslan’s return begin to ripple across the land. The snow melts, Father Christmas arrives, and tender shoots of grass begin to emerge through the snow.
But what we are supposed to do? We can be aware of the signs – but remember Jesus’ warnings that no one knows the day or the hour, except the Father! There is a paradox in Mark 13. Jesus, while talking about the signs of the end times, simultaneously warns the disciples against misreading the signs. As a teenager I was traumatised by the film Left Behind – which depicts a world where the Christians have been taken by God, and the unbelievers are left to a dreadful fate. I have a rather vivid imagination, and life got fraught as at the drop of a hat I kept assuming the rapture had happened – and had the terrifying feeling that I had been left behind. I was literally scanning the skies with anxiety. My nerves were shot to pieces for a long time. The Omen didn’t help at all either.
Jesus calls his disciples to be alert. To keep awake. To watch. But this is no passive watching – no scanning of the skies in panic. In the passage we read, Jesus tells us a brief parable to explain. A master goes on a journey and puts his slaves in charge. Each slave, we are told, has their own work to do till the Master returns. No one, Jesus cautions, knows when the Master will return.
In the parallel account of the end times and the fig tree in Matthew, Jesus tells three more parables about waiting for the Kingdom to come. It is like ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom, five of whom have their lamps ready to light on his arrival. It is like a man going on a journey and giving each of his slaves a sum of money. Two of them invest the money and energy working for the Master, but the third does nothing. The final story talks of the Son of Man returning in glory as judge. He separates the crowd before him into sheep and goats.
I think the parable suggests what we should be doing as we wait. We are to bring a foretaste of the Kingdom into the here and now. There is a particular metaphor used by the Greenbelt Christian Arts festival one year as their theme that I really like: Standing in the Long now. Preaching Christ as King, but making a better world; following his footsteps as we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. Serving the Master, as we await his return is to be doing the work we have each been given. Using the resources that we have to the best of our ability. Keeping ourselves ready for Christ’s return at any time.
When watching the documentaries about the end of the Universe, I found myself speculating about the connection between the scientific and biblical end time “signs”. I got to the point of thinking that the black hole route might be the closest to Biblical end time and trying to work out how the return of the Son of Man would fit in. Would falling down the black hole mean we emerged on the other side into eternity and a new Universe?
I suddenly realised that I was doing precisely what Jesus had warned us not to do. It might work for science fiction, but it is a bit pointless for faith. Both Jesus and Science tell us that that there will be an end. Knowing when and how makes no difference. What matters is that, when Christ returns as King, we are living the Kingdom life. Standing in the Long Now we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven”. As the words of the hymn put it, “Till he returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I stand.”