Stay Awake

Mark 13:24-37

But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]!
You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Stay awake!’”

Stay Awake
The Congregational Church of Easton – December 10, 2023

I was surprised at what the lectionary suggested for this gospel reading. On November 26, we heard Matthew talk about the second coming, when Christ will return and separate the righteous from those who fail to give him food or drink or visit him in prison. You’ll remember those who were condemned asked, “When did we not take care of you?” And Jesus answered, “Just as you did not do it to one of these one of the least of these sisters and brothers of mine, you did not do it to me.”

So I was surprised when I saw that today’s passage talks about the second coming again. This passage in Mark is often called the “little apocalypse.” Here the focus is on staying alert and awake because you never know when Christ is going to appear.

I’ll read a little of our passage again:
Stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the morning or at daybreak. Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping.

“Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting…” People in Mark’s community were expecting Christ to return. They were waiting expectantly and were wondering why it was taking so long. Many were losing faith. Most likely, some had given up waiting.

Waiting. That’s why it makes sense for the lectionary to include another story of the second coming, because Advent is a time of waiting. We are waiting for Christmas, just like the early Christians were waiting for Christ.

That’s the point I’d like to make in this meditation — the difference between waiting for Christ and waiting for the joy and good cheer and good food of Christmas. Advent is the season of waiting, but I never think about waiting for Christ in December, do you?

That may not quite be true. Maybe we are waiting for Christ to come without even knowing it.

What I’d like to do this morning is show how we’re actually more similar to those early Christians than we usually think we are. They longed for Christ’s return, and there is a way in which we do too, without calling it that.

I’ll focus on the part of today’s reading where Jesus tells early Christians — and US — to stay alert. Christians in every age have believed that Christ is yet to come – AND, as Matthew told us, he is already here in the face of each person we meet.

I’ll suggest that we need to stay alert to Christ’s coming in each person who needs our care.

Let me go back to the idea that during Advent you and I really do wait for Christ to return — the resurrected Christ, not just the baby Jesus. As I said, we’re more similar to the early Christians than we often think. Enormous social upheaval is common to their times and to ours.

Mark’s listeners had just survived a long war between the Romans and Jewish freedom fighters. The Romans finally put down the rebellion, destroyed the temple — the center of Jewish life — and slaughtered many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Our times are not as gruesome. And we too live in a time of political divisions and huge gaps between rich and poor. We too fear violence. Both early Christians were and people today are filled with longing for a better world.
Think of what you long for in our world. What are you hoping for? What are you waiting for? If you’re like me, you’re longing for a world in which our grandchildren and nieces and nephews will be safe — not threatened by environmental catastrophes or by violence.

If you’re like me, you’re expectantly waiting for a world in which extreme poverty is rare and the earth’s resources are distributed more fairly. If you’re like me, you’re waiting expectantly for a world in which people are not suspicious of each other because of their political differences. If you’re like me, you’re looking for a world in which people can work together to build a good life for future generations.

Both conservatives and progressives long for these things. And so did early Christians. Their name for such a world was the Kingdom of God.

As we hear in Mark, nobody knows when that reign of peace and kindness and security will happen. So, it is hard for us to do what Jesus tells us to do in today’s reading. He says,
Don’t let [the master of the household] show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: Stay awake!

But it’s hard keep our hopes up while we’re waiting for a better world to emerge. It’s easy to fall asleep and stop hoping. It’s hard to wait and be awake.

During Advent we are asked to pay attention to waiting. Jesus wants us to be alert, to wait actively. There’s a difference between passive waiting and active waiting. Active waiting is what little children do as they wait for permission to go downstairs and see what Santa brought them. Passive waiting is what you do when you stand in line at the store to return something.

Jesus is commanding us to engage in active waiting. He tells the early Christians, and he tells us: “Stay awake!”

Staying awake is hard! I took a break from writing this sermon and went to the gym, where I listened to a podcast that was talking about paying attention. When I got home, I couldn’t find my cell phone. It’s a long story, but the crux of it is that I wasn’t paying attention.

A couple of other mistakes happened later that afternoon. Even though I practice mindfulness meditation and tell myself to be mindful, I go too fast, and I stop paying attention to what I’m doing.

Stay awake, Jesus says. Stay alert. Don’t be thinking about a dozen other things. Stay focused on what is in front of you, right here and now. Wait for Christ’s arrival the way children wait to see what Santa brought — alert expectation of Christ’s arrival.

Early Christians believed he could come any day. We can have that same sense they had of Christ’s imminent return. To do that we need to be awake to the ways Christ IS present in ordinary acts of kindness that happen every day. What we need to do is be alert enough to notice them.

One of our friends lost her husband. Another friend put out the word asking for remembrances of the fellow who died. She assembled them into a book and presented them to our friend at the memorial service.

Is Christ present in a situation like this? Of course! Two weeks ago we heard Jesus say that when we care for vulnerable people we are doing that unto HIM. Christ is in the grieving widow. And how about the woman who assembled the book of memories? Is Christ in her – in her act of kindness?

Of course! Stay alert. You never know when Christ will come. While we wait for Christmas, pay attention to acts of kindness that you see or hear about. In this season of waiting, watch for signs of the Kingdom of God – especially for acts of kindness.

Let us pray. Thank you, God. for sending your son to usher in a world where kindness rules. Thank you, God, for helping us stay awake to the little and big acts of kindness that surround us every day. Thank you, God, for the presence of Christ among us. Amen