Tag Archives: Son of Man

From Darkness Into Light: Awaking to Hope – Sermon on Mark 13:24-37 for Advent 1B

Watch a video of this sermon.

“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

Keep Awake – Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44 – Advent 1, 2013

When my older brother, David, first moved out of the house and was living on his own, we looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, in the hope that he would come home for a day or two, and our family would be together for the holiday. To understand how much this meant to us, you need to have a little background. My brother is the eldest child in our family. He is my only brother. We four girls have always adored him. As a young, single adult, David enjoyed driving the latest, fanciest car he could afford. I remember well his first Corvette, a white 1959 model with a removable hard top. Then he moved up to a midnight blue 1963 Stingray with the fiberglass body and the headlamps that rotated out of sight when not in use. By 1972, he was driving a Porsche. So, whenever David came home to visit, part of the excitement was discovering what he was driving, and arguing over who would get the first ride in his new car.

But the real excitement came with trying to figure out just when David would arrive. You see, David liked to play tricks on our mom. He would call a day or two before we expected him, and sadly explain that he just couldn’t come this year. He was really sorry, and he wished he could get away, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Then, he’d pull into the driveway the next day, and we’d run out to meet him with shrieks and squeals, our disappointment turned to instant joy.

One year, he called on Christmas Eve, and mom started the conversation with, “Don’t tell me you can’t come home for Christmas!” He assured her that he would be there, but he was still about an eight-hour drive away. Five minutes later, he was walking in the door. He had called from a gas station less than eight blocks away.

One of the reasons this ruse worked so many times, however, was that sometimes, David really didn’t show up. Some years, he didn’t even call. So we never knew. Is he coming this year, or not?  And if he comes, when will he arrive?  We just never knew.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard Luke’s take on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples, as they asked him “When will these things happen?  What will be the sign that the end is near?”  As we begin a new church year with this, the first Sunday in Advent, we move from Luke’s gospel to Matthew’s, and his version of the story asks the same question. How will we know, Lord?  What will be the sign?  When will your Kingdom arrive?  Jesus answers that we must stay alert, because we just never know when the Lord will return.

Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, verses 36-44.

 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

In music, we call the form this passage takes a “rondo” – the main theme keeps coming around again. There may be other ideas tucked in between repetitions, but the main theme keeps coming back over and over. It becomes very familiar. You’ve probably figured out by now that the main theme in this passage is:

No one knows when the Son of Man will come again.

It must have been difficult for the disciples to understand that even Jesus didn’t know when the second coming would take place. They knew that Jesus was certainly the Messiah, the Christ that God had promised to redeem Israel. They had seen God’s power working through Jesus as he healed and performed miracles before their very eyes. They had just begun to grasp what it meant to be following the Son of God, and they believed with their whole hearts that Jesus could do absolutely anything. So, why couldn’t he tell them when the end would come?  How could he possibly not know?

Jesus tells them that the day and the hour cannot be known, but there will certainly be signs that point to the time as it draws near. For example:

Just as in Noah’s time, people were carrying on their daily business and were surprised by the flood, so the coming of the Son of Man will be a sudden surprise.

The reference to Noah hints at the work of God in the baptismal waters we have just witnessed today, as we baptized Savannah Leigh into the family of God. The same water that held up the ark, saving Noah and his family, also destroyed those who were unprepared for the disaster of the flood. Remember that Noah had been building that ark for many years when the flood finally came. Though he had been faithfully telling them to get ready for it, people ignored him. Then the floods came, and there was no time for the people of Noah’s day to change their minds, to repent and turn to God. As they went about their daily business, they failed to notice that the ark was getting finished, that the animals were gathering two by two, that dark rain clouds were forming in the sky. The signs were all there, but the people didn’t see them. They weren’t prepared.

No one can know the day or the hour, but there will certainly be signs that point to the time of Christ’s coming as it draws near. For example:

Whether working in the field or the kitchen, those who belong to Christ will be separated from those who do not, and there will be no time to change camps then.

Just as the people in Noah’s time carried out their daily routines, so people will be going about their regular tasks when the Son of Man comes. Jesus gives examples of men working in fields and women grinding grain, so we know there is no gender advantage at play here. We will all be about our daily work when the time comes.

A lot of attention in this passage has been given to “one taken and the other left” but we must be careful about how we interpret this example. I don’t think Jesus meant that exactly half of the world would be saved, and half of the people would perish. I also don’t think that the “Left Behind” series of books and movies, with their focus on a “rapture” of believers and a frightening portrayal of life on earth after that event, did much to help us understand the point Jesus is trying to make. We must recognize that Jesus is speaking, once again, in parables, to help his listeners understand a deeper truth about the coming of the Son of Man. The point is not to speculate about a final day of judgment some time in the future, “but to confront us with God’s radical claim on us here and now. Each day is a day of judgment, so I should always be asking myself, “Am I living in the way of Christ?  Am I trusting in him alone?”[1]

Whatever you are doing when the time comes, you won’t have a chance to change your mind about Jesus then. It will be sudden, and it will be final. Since we have no idea when it will occur, we need to start living our lives right now for the possibility of that moment. We need to make sure that the daily tasks we are performing when Christ comes again are the sort of tasks that will prepare us for that time. As we work our fields and grind our grain, we need to be doing it as faithful followers of Jesus who are eager for him to come again. As we go about our daily routines, those routines should reflect our hunger for God, and our desire for his Kingdom to come in its fullness.

Jesus warns us to be alert and faithful, so that we will be ready when it happens, because – here comes that main theme again – “you don’t know when that day will be.”

In case we still haven’t understood the message, Jesus gives one more example:

Just as a person’s constant vigilance protects his home from a break-in, you must be vigilant, for the Son of Man will come at an unexpected time.

While the homeowner’s vigilance may be born out of fear of being robbed, our vigilance is more like a young couple expecting their first child. They don’t know exactly when their lives are going to abruptly change, but they look forward with joy, watching with care as they prepare the nursery. Even when the house is ready to welcome the new baby, they wait in anticipation of those first labor pangs, the sign that birth is about to begin.

So, how do we get prepared?  How do we stay awake?  How do we watch for the Lord to come again?

We go about our daily work, filled with expectation. We do not live in anxiety, afraid of being left behind, but we live in a state of joyful preparation, as we anticipate Christ’s coming. We do not wait passively, but we are actively engaged in the work of the Kingdom, our hearts and lives reconciled to God, living out our faith in expectant hope. We trust in the future, not controlling or even knowing the details of what is yet to come, because all our hope is founded in God alone. Just as the lesson from Romans 13, which we heard earlier today, describes:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:11-14

We are expectant and hopeful – this first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of hope, after all. We live into the hope that God will keep his promise, just as God has always kept his promise. We develop the art of watchful living, as we faithfully pursue the purpose to which God has called us here and now. It is from this here and this now that we remember the history of God’s promises kept, even as we look ahead toward the time beyond time, when Christ will come again in glory and all things will be made new.

In the meantime, we are being made new. Hope is bubbling up here at 1st UMC. We are beginning to find a renewed hope that God has something in mind for us. We must live into that hope, as we look expectantly for what that something might be.

We need to stay alert, hoping and faithfully living into the future of God’s kingdom. We must be ready, prepared to meet Christ when he comes, because we don’t know when that will be. Jesus tells us three times in this passage that the burning question isn’t “when?” but rather, “are you ready?”

Are you ready to let him change you into a new person?  Are you ready to give up quarreling and jealousy, greed and anger, gratifying your own desires?  Are you ready to give up the habits that keep you from living a life that is rich and full of hope and promise?  Are you ready to give up everything that keeps you from giving your life to Jesus?  Are you ready to do that every day, and every hour of every day?  If not, if you aren’t ready to turn over your life to Christ, what’s keeping you from it?  I invite you to examine your heart, and to surrender to God anything that is causing you to live in fear instead of hope.

Because this is the good news, people! God loves us so much, he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes on him will not perish, but will have eternal life (Jn 3:16). Eternal life isn’t something you have to wait for. It doesn’t start the instant you die, or when Christ comes again, whatever day and hour that might be. Eternal, abundant life can begin right now, right here.

For “you know what time it is,” the Apostle Paul writes, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we [first believed]; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

No one knows when Christ will come again, but he’s coming. We can wait in fear. We can ignore the signs that tell us the time is near. Or we can wait, faithfully prepared and expectantly ready, living into the hope that God will, once again, keep his promise. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

[1] John P Burgess, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, 24.