Sunday, November 29, 2020
“Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come,” Jesus tells us today. I have never liked Jesus telling me to stay awake, which annoyingly happens quite a bit in the gospels. When the disciples fall asleep in the garden of Gethsemane before Jesus is arrested, I have always sympathized with the sleeping disciples, because I really like my sleep. Even as a teenager, I did not like sleepovers with friends because I didn’t like to stay up all night. Sometimes I just went to sleep anyway while my friends stayed up. I hate feeling tired. You know, when doctors tell you to eat right, exercise and get enough sleep to take care of yourself, I don’t always do great with those first two, but I feel a great sense of accomplishment in getting my eight hours of sleep a night! And as many of you know, as a young parent, you definitely don’t get as much sleep as you need all of the time, and when you get older, it gets harder to get enough sleep at night as well.
So for all of us who like our sleep, here’s some good news: Jesus is not asking us to stay sleep deprived, literally, until he comes again. Being aware, keeping alert, staying awake are all ways that Jesus encourages us to be spiritually, not physically, awake. “Pay attention!” Jesus says. Christ is coming again! We don’t know when, but we can be on the lookout, attentive spiritually to Christ’s presence among us now and to his second coming. This is where it gets a little fuzzy. What does it mean to be “spiritually awake?” It may be encouraging to know that even Jesus’ closest disciples don’t always understand what Jesus is talking about in looking for signs or do very well in staying awake. I think one of the silver linings of a more low-key, subdued Christmas season this year is that it does help us pay attention to what really matters in our lives and for our faith. We can’t simply go through the motions of our usual traditions, which makes us think more deeply about what we can do and why we are doing it – gift giving, cooking and baking, worship, counting down the days perhaps around an Advent wreath or calendar at home, spending time with family virtually or in-person – how do these traditions help us pay attention to what God is up to and what God’s purpose is for us? Where do we see signs of Christ among us now, and where do we signs of hope for our future? Perhaps we see it in the support of our families, for notes of encouragement from good friends, in the news of not just one, but several vaccines on the horizon. These are all ways we try to keep awake spiritually.
Christmas decorations started coming out even earlier this year, more like the day after Halloween than the day after Thanksgiving, and in my opinion, whatever works for you to find holiday cheer amidst the difficulties of this year, go for it! We have signs in our neighborhood already that Christmas is coming. That’s part of what Advent is about: preparing to celebrate Christmas, the good news that the Son of God came to us as a baby in a manger. Today’s gospel from Mark is the other side of Advent, the hope and assurance we have that Christ will come again. To be honest, I was more than a little glad to be leaving the gospel of Matthew behind with the constant references to weeping and gnashing of teeth, and when I first read this gospel passage from Mark, I said, “Oh shoot.” More of the same. Stars falling out of the sky, the moon and sun darkened. This section in Mark is sometimes called “the little apocalypse,” and haven’t we had enough apocalyptic stuff happening in our world already this year! Pop culture associates the end of the world and the word “apocalypse” with horrifying events, as a bad thing, but Christians have the audacity to eagerly long for and welcome Christ’s coming again. Part of being spiritually awake is to place our hope and trust that Christ WILL come again.
Perhaps that is a question that Jesus words in today’s gospel asks us to consider: what is so good about Christ coming, both for that first Christmas and for a second time? “This too shall pass,” has been a common encouragement I’ve said and have had others say to me about this year. Certainly, more than some years, we long for our lives to be different. We are ready for our “new normal” to be over. Jesus says “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The good news of Jesus’ first coming at Christmas and his second coming is that the suffering and difficulties we endure now IS temporary. All the things we long for to be done with and over will indeed pass away, but the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ, lives and reigns forever.
We may try sometimes in vain to stay spiritually awake and alert, attune to God’s presence among us now and hopeful for Christ’s coming again. Jesus admits that it will be hard for us to know when the time will come. It’s easy to get distracted and pay attention to our day to day activities without considering what this all means for us spiritually. The holiday season, ironically, can get so busy that we forget the true meaning of the celebration of Christmas.
Jesus also gives us hope in that as much as we try to see, to see God at work in our situations now, to see the hope we have in Christ for our future, no matter how fuzzy we get on what all this means for our lives, God sees us. God is paying attention to us! God sees our situation and responds. And God never sleeps! This is why God sent his only Son into the world in the first place, to live among us, to teach us, to go to the cross to die and be raised for us. And in the end, when everything else passes away, Christ will come again to transform us and all creation for the better. And so we wait, and watch, and pray: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. Amen.