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“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man 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 the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“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. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)
Have you been losing sleep these past several months? Do you find yourself lying awake around 2 or 3 AM? Insomnia is apparently a side effect of pandemic stress. Researchers have even coined a term for it: “Caronasomnia”.
The problem with this kind of sleeplessness is that our bodies and our minds never really get the rest they need. We depend on good sleep to let our brains “reboot” and our minds to refresh. Losing sleep creates “brain fog” – we are sluggish and easily confused. We can’t think creatively. We aren’t as effective at our work. We have a hard time staying alert.
So here we are at the beginning of a new church year, diving into the season of Advent, when we should be looking forward with anticipation to Christ’s coming, and all we really can think about is how much we’d like to take a good nap. Jesus’ admonition to “keep awake” just isn’t very appealing, is it? Until we realize that the kind of exhausted sleeplessness many of us have been experiencing isn’t what Jesus has in mind at all.
It’s the first Sunday in the season of Advent. That word “Advent” means “arriving” or “coming toward” – God is coming toward us in the person of Jesus Christ, as we come toward God through Christ’s grace. And we do that “coming toward” God by means of hope.
I think it’s interesting that we begin the first Sunday in the new church year near the end of Mark’s gospel. Over the last few weeks, we heard Matthew’s version of Christ’s final teachings, and here we get Mark’s recollection of the same timeframe. Both accounts focus on the ‘end of the age’ or ‘end times.’
While these words sound apocalyptic, Jesus is making it clear that he isn’t predicting when the end will come – no one knows the day or the hour. That word “apocalypse” really means “revelation,” and this passage seems to obscure more than it reveals. So it might be more helpful to understand what Jesus is saying by remembering he is actually talking about his own end, the completion of his own ministry on earth.
One clue that we should hear this as a farewell discourse is the way Jesus uses so many imperative verbs: learn, beware, keep awake, be alert. Christ is giving instructions for his disciples to follow after he is gone. Paul does the same thing in his late writings. So perhaps we should take these words of Jesus personally, because he is speaking to all his disciples, and that includes us here and now.
So what does it mean to “keep awake” as we wait for Christ’s return? How do we demonstrate our hope for Christ’s coming with alert anticipation? The first Sunday in Advent is traditionally called the Sunday of Hope. Where do we find hope in these difficult times? How can we see light breaking into our darkness?
The prophets of the Old Testament weren’t fortune tellers, they were truth tellers. They didn’t predict the future so much as they announced God’s presence in times when people couldn’t see it for themselves. The prophets showed God’s people where to find the light when they despaired in darkness.
We are in a time that seems quite dark. I used to check the COVID Situation Update website every day – now I don’t want to know how bad it is, how many more deaths there have been, how many more people are sick – because now I know some of those people. They aren’t statistics any more; they are friends and family.
We are all suffering from pandemic fatigue. Remember when we hoped things would get better soon enough we could celebrate Easter together? And then we hoped for summer to settle things down.
By October, we were struggling with decisions to cancel or limit traditional Fall activities like a bazaar or trunk-or-treat. Now we are so tired of being vigilant, so weary of staying isolated, so stressed that – even in our weariness – we can’t sleep through the night. Where has our hope gone? Some have given up, and abandoned safety measures altogether. Others have given up and slipped into depression. Where is the light shining into our darkness?
Part of the problem is that, while we know we must keep alert and be ready, we have no idea when Christ will come. These months and months, which we all thought back in March would be maybe a few weeks, have given us an opportunity to train for this kind of alert anticipation.
In the first few weeks of closing businesses and events, we learned how to pace our response to the COVID virus spread, realizing we were heading into a marathon, not a sprint. We learned to curb our anxiety as we sheltered in place. We found ways of adapting our normal routines to maintain safe distances from others, while we washed our hands and put on our masks. We became more disciplined. We started to pay better attention to others.
This is exactly the kind of ‘being awake’ Jesus asks of us. Instead of fear and worry, we respond with discipline and compassion. “There’s a difference between “keep awake” because everything is out of your control, you can’t fix most of what happening, and it’s getting downright scary—and “keep awake” because God never ceases to be at work, the Spirit is doing a new thing, and you don’t want to miss any of it!” (Diane Strickland)
In today’s epistle reading, Paul greets us with those familiar words we hear every Sunday: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,” and we wonder if he knew, nearly 2000 years ago, just how much we would need to hear those words now.
Then Mark interrupts again with the admonition to “Keep awake!” Another way to translate this is “Be awake” – Jesus isn’t telling us to wake up from sleep, but to stay alert. Be in a state of readiness. When Christ comes – and we learned last week in the parable of the sheep and goats that Jesus comes when we least expect him, in ways we least expect him, and through people we least expect to bear his image – but when Christ comes, we are to be ready for him, because he does come. Your hope is in the Christ who comes to you in the here and now, bringing light into your darkness, calling you out of despair and weariness into his strength and peace.
Four times in this passage, Jesus says, “Be awake.” He doesn’t say, ‘drowsily prop your eyelids open’ or even “wake up!” with a jolt. He says, ‘remain in a state of readiness, of eager anticipation for the joy that is to come. Live in hope.’
Hope gives us the fuel we need to stay alert. Hope gives us the energy to remain ready to welcome Christ into our midst. It is hope that keeps us awake and rested.
Have you ever watched a Texas A&M football game? Did you notice the entire student body standing for the entire game? The spirit of the “12th man on the team” goes back to 1922, when the Aggies had suffered so many injuries, there was no one left on the bench. One version of the legend says that a student jumped down from the bleachers to take the field when the next injury occurred, running in the final touchdown to win the game.
The facts aren’t quite that dramatic. E. King Gill had recently left the football team to concentrate on basketball. He was at the game that day, and put on an injured player’s uniform, standing on the sidelines for the entire game in case another player might get injured. But he never had to go in. The Aggies rallied and won the game, and from that time on, the student body stands throughout each game, partly to honor Gill’s selflessness, but also to demonstrate their readiness to hit the field if needed.
This is the kind of ‘staying awake’ Jesus asks of us. It’s the kind of alert attention that anticipates victory, and remains willing to participate at any moment. Over the next four weeks, we will celebrate Advent in ways we never have before. Traditions we hold dear will be laid aside, as we look for the light of Christ to shine into us in a new way. We need to be awake to see that light. And there’s another kind of alert wakefulness that demonstrates our hope as we move from darkness into Christ’s light. A mom was driving along when her 8-year-old asked,” Do you want me to throw the confetti in my pocket?” “No, not in the car! Why do you have confetti in your pocket?” the mom asked. Her 8-year-old answered, “It’s my emergency confetti. I carry it everywhere in case there is good news.” (private Facebook post)
As we move from darkness to light during this season of Advent, this time of ‘coming toward,’ may your hope be anchored in the good news that Jesus comes, just as he promised, and when he comes, he hopes for something, too. He hopes you will be alert, that your supply of emergency confetti will be ready to announce his coming.
November 29, 2020 Advent 1B