And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
(Preached on Sunday, December 3, 2017)
Days of suffering; sun, moon and stars going dark; and Jesus appearing in the clouds surrounded by angels doing his bidding. Not the sort of stuff you probably came to church this morning hoping to hear. This Gospel reading is not the kind of passage we automatically think about when we’re kicking off Advent and turning our attention to “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Of course, for a lot of people this isn’t the most wonderful time of the year. Many people, probably some of you, are dealing with various struggles: the loss of a loved one, the sudden loss of a job, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce. Then there are the concerns layered on us by the political theater taking place in our country: the threat of loss of healthcare; confusing statements about a tax reform plan that may lower taxes or may raise taxes; continued fear about nuclear threats from North Korea; constant worries over terror attacks and mass shootings. All of these things, on both the personal and national level have people feeling like the world is ending.
So, actually this is the right passage for us to hear this morning. Contrary to how passages like this in the Bible are often used today – to spread gloom and fearfulness and to scare people into faith and moral behavior – that is not the way these passages were intended when first written. Actually, Mark probably wrote this passage with the intent of nurturing hope in his readers. He knew that the people most likely to read his Gospel were under great threat and persecution from the Roman authorities. This passage is intended to bring to those oppressed people a message of hope: “Do not despair!” Yes, things look really bleak and dark right now. There is danger for you whichever way you turn. But God is going to right the wrongs of history. In spite of all the talk about the woes and the spasms of creation, the message that rings loudest is that Jesus is coming back! The end of it all is in God’s hands. History often seems lost and pointless, but God has a goal and a design for the progression of time. God is still active in the world and God is bringing a new time into being – very soon!
That is why Jesus urges us three times in this passage to “Keep awake.” Sometimes it is hard to stay awake! I have resumed a very good practice of getting up before dawn, about 6:00 a.m. to go on a 4 mile walk. It is good for me physically, mentally and spiritually when I can do that. The only problem is that it has cut into my TV watching! Thankfully we watch most of our TV from recorded shows, not live, because by about 9:30 p.m. no matter how interesting the story we are watching, invariably I miss about half of it because I have drifted off to sleep.
In truth, there are many ways we fall asleep in our lives. We fall asleep by falling into a routine, never changing what we do in life, never taking risks or trying something new. Often we do this because it is too threatening and frightening to try new things. We fall asleep by shutting down creative thought, never challenging our perspectives on life and the world and God, accepting what some authority, some preacher, some politician, some teacher tells us to think. We fall asleep by numbing our minds, our hearts, our feelings, through mindless entertainment, or alcohol, or drugs, or repetitive activity, moving through life in a zombie-like trance.
“Wake up!” Jesus says. None of us ever knows when the end will come – for us, for those we love, for the church, for the world. None of us ever knows when and where God will do something new and make God’s presence known. So “Wake up!” Jesus encourages us to wake up to whatever life is bringing to us – as a person, as a people. Wake up to pain, if that is what is there for you; wake up to the love you will not let yourself have because you are afraid to lose it; wake up to the future you are so furious about because it is not the one you ordered; wake up to all the possibilities for newness and excitement and life!
This passage may be about Jesus’ return to earth, but I think it speaks to us also about the here and now. We are called to be on the lookout for the big return, but we are also to be aware of the many ways God appears in the present. Are we alert to see where God in Jesus arrives, breaking through time and space to be present in our lives and the lives of others?
A clergy colleague tells the story of running into an agnostic friend whom he admires very much. That friend told this colleague of his bi-polar son, who descended to the pits of hopelessness, living at times on the streets of the city. But it seems that now this over-sensitive young man has his life back under control and is working on a Ph.D. in philosophy. A critical moment came when one day, hungry and homeless and in total despair, he was standing on a subway platform, preparing to throw himself under a train. He thought no one was watching him or would guess his intention. A little old lady (his words) approached him and said: “I would not do that, please. Here, son, take this money and get yourself some lodging and food.” She walked off and left him gaping. That moment turned his life around. The grateful father (agnostic, remember!) said to my colleague: “That is how Christ comes again to us today. That little old lady was Christ to my son.”
That is the other question for us from this passage: are we willing to be the hands and feet, the presence of Jesus, for others in our world today? For that is the other piece of this lesson. At the end of this teaching Jesus tells a short parable about a man who goes on a trip and leaves his servants in charge. Each servant is given a job to do, but the head of the household never tells them when he will return. He only tells the doorkeeper to be alert. The household staff is simply to keep doing their jobs. The gardener was to garden, the tutor was to teach the children, the cook was to do the cooking, the secretary was to answer letters for the master, the accountant was to pay the bills, the cleaners were to clean the house, and the doorkeepers were to keep awake and watch. To fulfill their calling no matter how long the master was away.
As we wait for Jesus to return; as we look for the presence of God in our world today; we have jobs to do. What are those jobs? In Mark 6, Jesus gives his disciples authority to preach repentance, cast out demons, and heal the sick. The church today is called to preach to people to change their hearts and lives; it’s called to speak out against injustice and to help the sick, the lonely, and the forgotten. This passage offers a twofold message: Be busy with what Jesus has called us to do as you wait for his return. And be alert to how and where Jesus appears in your own life.
A famous author tells a story of his very first job in a small town General Store. This was in the days before malls and supermarket chains. At age thirteen he was hired as a handy boy. He would sweep the floor, bag items for customers, put up stock. One Saturday he heard the owner say to one of the clerks “It’s that time of the year again. It’s time to take inventory.” Not knowing what that meant, he went up to the owner and asked, “Sir, what is an inventory?” Patiently the owner explained that it was a time when you made a list of everything that you had – from groceries on the shelves to wrapping paper and string. Still somewhat puzzled, the young man asked, “Why?” “Well,” responded the owner, “it’s easy to forget exactly how much you have each year. Every now and then you have to take an inventory just to see what all you have.”
That is the opportunity Advent offers us: to take stock of our lives. Questions such as these can help us do that:
“How have I walked with Jesus this year?”
“What can I do in my life to show the love of God and to be Jesus for someone else?”
“How have I devoted my life to God?”
Such questions and the reflections they lead to can help us be more awake to the presence of God in our world – in the people we encounter and in our own souls. Advent is here once again: that time of the year for inventory. It is time for us to wake up and take stock of our lives.