Keep Awake (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Mark 13:24-37


There was a tone of desperation in his voice as he approached me after worship several years ago. As I recall, Advent was just around the corner. Maybe the next Sunday. And he was new to our church. “How about we sing some Christmas carols during Advent?” he asked. “The pastor at the church where we used to go wouldn’t let us sing Christmas carols, at least until it was Christmas. It was all these hymns like ‘Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus’ and ‘Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel.’ That kind of stuff. We need a little Christmas cheer at this time of year,” he continued. “So let’s sing some Christmas carols. Please!”

Maybe this is one reason why our Hanging of the Greens celebration tonight is always a hit. We sing mostly Christmas carols at that event when the sanctuary is readied for the season. There is always a “Merry Christmas” tone in the air. Which is just fine with me. We need some cheer. Some happiness. Some joy. I’m on board with that.

But, alas, this season of Advent that begins today is not so joyous in tone. It lacks the Christmas spirit. As a matter of fact, as the years come and go, I find myself approaching this first Sunday of Advent as a preacher with some dread. I know the gospel lesson is always going to be apocalyptic, as was our scripture from Mark for today. It draws from Old Testament images in Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and Daniel to paint a rather dire image of catastrophe. While I got a kick out of the recent eclipse of the sun, that was natural and expected. This business in Mark’s gospel that speaks of the sun being darkened and the moon not giving its light and the stars falling from the sky is serious. It’s a catastrophe of the first order. And it doesn’t exactly put me in the mood to decorate the house or send out holiday cards or go out Christmas shopping or wish people a Merry Christmas.

But the idea is that people were looking for someone like Jesus for a long time. They were looking for and expecting a Messiah. And, when he first came, most people didn’t recognize him. We sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” every year on Christmas Eve. But a lot of people didn’t expect the Messiah to come in that way—to come as the child of peasants born in a manger. They didn’t expect him to be the child of a carpenter. They didn’t expect him to come as one who brought good news to the poor. They didn’t expect him to spend so much of his life around people who were considered society’s rejects—blind beggars like Bartimaeus, rich and lost swindlers like Zacchaeus, prostitutes like the one who fell at his feet in tears, a woman suffering from a hemorrhage who had such faith that she was healed and saved by Jesus. People didn’t expect the Messiah to run afoul of the religious leaders and political powers of the day in such a way that he ended up dying on a cross. So, when Jesus came, they didn’t recognize him for who he was. When Jesus was born there were no Christmas parties or Christmas presents or Christmas lights, except for one strange light in the sky.

And so people like Mark were concerned. We missed him the first time. Will we miss him when he comes again? Will we be so preoccupied with the duties of life that we don’t notice him when he comes? Will we be so worried about the travails of our time, the wars and rumors of wars, the crazy and corrupt people who seem to be running much of the world, all the stuff that seems to be going wrong in our personal and collective lives, that we won’t think to look for him?

When we are reading the gospel of Mark, it might be well for us to remember what the students of Mark and his time tell us: that Mark is a wartime gospel. It reflects trauma. It reflects destruction. It reflects the revolt of the Jews against the Romans in the years 66-70 that left the temple in Jerusalem destroyed and Jerusalem itself in ruins and lots of people killed. And so Mark thought about what the prophets Isaiah (Isa.13:10) and Joel (Joel 2:10) said about the the sun and the moon and the stars becoming dark. That must have seemed like what his world was like. That must have seemed like what was happening to his world.

But then he remembered his reading of the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13) as well. He remembered that in the midst of the darkness the vision of one, “the Son of Man, coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:26).

Something I recently heard the great and now deceased preacher Fred Craddock say in one of his recorded sermons is that people have often thought that “wherever Christ is there is no misery.” But one of the great realizations of faith for many of us is that “wherever there is misery there Christ is.”

And I think that is what Mark is getting at in his gospel that is before us today: “Wherever there is misery there Christ is.” In this Jerusalem mess, with its temple that is supposedly the hot spot where God can be found, torn to the ground, Christ is there. In the struggles of each of our lives, where all the bright lights seem to have been extinguished, Christ is there. In the moments when we don’t know where to turn next for help, Christ is there.

A few years ago someone, one of our members that has moved away to another city, came back for a visit. Her husband, who was a friend and very dear person to me, had died years before by his own hand. We talked and exchanged pleasantries for a while, and then I asked her about her grandchild, how she was doing. Her face lit up. A beautiful and talented girl, she was doing fine.

“What is her name?” I asked. I guess I should have known. Perhaps I had been told. But I had forgotten.

“Her name is Grace,” her grandmother responded, somewhat impatiently. “What you preached about at the funeral,” she said. “Grace.”

And I thought that out of the tragedy of the past, grace has come. In the midst of misery, there Christ came.

And so we are reminded in Mark’s gospel to keep awake. We don’t know when or how Christ will show up. No one knows, except God. So keep awake. Be alert, Jesus tells us. This is truly the central message of Advent: Keep awake. Be alert. Christ came once. He’ll come again. It may be in some glorious way at the end of time. Or it may be in some way you consider small.

You may be mulling over some problem that seems insurmountable and all-consuming. And then an answer will come, a way forward will present itself as if it comes from beyond you. You may be in the midst of a life situation that leaves you feeling sad and discouraged, and then something will come assuring you that you are not alone and that what you need most will be given. You may be at the end of some rope, life as you have known it will have ended, and then the cloud will lift and grace will come.

Keep awake. Christ has come. Christ will come again. Advent is that time of year for us when, yes, maybe we will hear and sing some Christmas carols. But it is most especially a time of year when we tap into our longings. What is it in us that cries out for the coming of Christ again? What is it in us that cries out for Jesus to be revealed anew? And then we are invited to stay alert. Keep awake.

As Jesus says in the gospel of Mark, “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.” For indeed the good news of this season is that Christ is coming.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, December 3, 2017

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