November 30, 2014
William G. Carter
“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.”
It is always risky to title a sermon, especially if you title the sermon “Stay Awake.” It reminds me of a man in town who grew up in this church, but he never attends. I think he joined as a member when he was fourteen, at which point his mother stopped badgering him about coming. Sometime around age 55, he told me why he still never shows up in church: “I can’t stay awake, and it’s embarrassing when I start to snore.” When I suggested he could have a couple of cups of coffee before he got here, he thought for a minute and said, “No, that wouldn’t do any good.”
Stay awake. That is the admonition of Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times in this passage. It’s a word that all of us understand, especially if there is any time in the past few days when we have eaten a big fat meal.
Why is it so hard to stay awake?
Say you’re behind the wheel on a late night drive. There is no moon in the sky, a gloomy rain is falling, and the trip is taking a good bit longer than it should. You tap your fingers on the steering wheel and lean forward to peer into the dark. You are anxious to see familiar lights. Then you blink and swerve, which jars awake one of the passengers. “Everything OK?” You don’t want to confess it’s hard to stay awake.
Picture the student in the dormitory. It’s Sunday night and she is leaning over three books. Time is short. The paper is due at 9:00 a.m. sharp. The professor was clear about that, and threatens to lower the grade of anybody who gets it in late. She yawns and looks at the clock. One o’clock, and there’s still music blaring from down the hall. But she has to get it done. There’s that can of Red Bull that the cute guy dropped off. Maybe that will help her stay awake.
It’s his turn to spend the night in the hospice room. He squirms in the chair, readjusts his pillow, but it’s hard to get comfortable. Two feet away is the mother who gave him birth. He listens to her breathe one more. Now she’s laboring more than an hour ago. She struggles. At first he shrugged off sleep, not wanting to miss the last possible moment to say, “I love you” one more time. Now he believes a short nap would do him so good. But he fears shutting his eyes and losing her.
Stay awake. We have our stories, you and I. Last night I took a decongestant and tossed two or three hours into the dark. I may be talking in my sleep right now, which means all of you could be in serious trouble. And here I am, repeating the words of Jesus: stay awake.
He will repeat them himself. Less than one chapter later in the story, he will have eaten the Passover meal with his friends. It is the closest thing Israel had to a Thanksgiving banquet: a multi-course meal with at least four glasses of wine. Jesus breaks the bread, pours the cup, then gives them some words. They sing the Passover psalms and walk down the hill to Gethsemane. He takes with him Peter, James, and John, and says – not once, not twice, but three times – “Stay awake while I pray.”
It is the most difficult night of his life. He wrestles in his prayers about the toughest decision he will ever make: is it the will of the Father that I go to the cross? And as he sweats this out, his closest friends keep falling asleep. Stay awake. When Jesus says it, it sounds like more than loneliness or lack of support. If they fall asleep, they will miss the moment.
Ah, we know something about that, too. In a few minutes Kevin and Holly will present their little boy Dean for baptism. Sometime after today, they are going to blink and their son will skip five years. They will look at one another and say, “Where did the time go? Did we nod off?” Meanwhile, their fathers Chris and Tim will look at one another, shake their heads with a smile, and say, “Yes.”
To quote the great movie philosopher Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
So why does Jesus want them to stay awake? To be alert? We have to take the passage in its larger context. Jesus and his twelve disciples have just come out of the Jerusalem Temple, when one of them says, “Golly, aren’t these the biggest building you ever have seen?” Well, of course they were. For a group of up-country fishermen who lived in one story hovels, the Temple was enormous. Not just as a building, but the whole institution.
Scholars say the Temple was more than the center of the people’s religious faith. It was the center of commerce and the important trade businesses, much like a cathedral in Ye Olde England. The Temple kept track of your ancestry. The Temple dictated your moral life. The Temple gave stability to your life and answered questions you never dared to ask. But Jesus says, “You see this Temple? The whole thing’s coming down.”
That turned out to be a prediction for the people who read the Gospel of Mark in 70 A.D. Mark also declares this was the judgment of God: the Temple is corrupt, it has to come down. In its place is the Kingdom of God that Jesus has been speaking about for most of this Gospel. In place of priest and sacrifice, there will be a direct relationship with God. In place of professional ritual and hierarchy of social status, all people have direct access to God. Through the death of Jesus, which rips open the Temple curtain that separates the holiness of God from the filthiness of the world, there is no buffer to keep God away from you or anybody else.
Stay awake, says Jesus. Watch for this. Keep your eyes peeled for God to come and dismantle every human system that separates God’s healing power from the needs of the world. Jesus has come as the bearer of God’s new Kingdom. And as he faces his own cross, he will pay the one and only ransom payment to take back the world from the powers of evil and give it back to God. Watch for this, he says. It will come as a great disruption to all business-as-usual.
But if you stay awake, you will see God claiming the world and healing what only God can heal.
So I was reflecting on this just the other day. And I wondered, “Is there a Presbyterian Church in Ferguson, Missouri?” Turns out, there is. First Presbyterian Church of Ferguson has 133 members. They do a lot of the things that we do: Christian Education classes, Women’s Association, and choir practice. They have a Boy Scout troop, and next weekend they will decorate the sanctuary for Advent. But there’s more, of course. The church is a few minutes away from where Michael Brown was shot and killed back in August.
Well, what else is interesting about that modest sizedchurch? They hand out food in a pantry to the hungry. They host a community prayer breakfast, recently featuring a speaker from Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta. And they open their facility to any church group in the country that wants to come for an Urban Mission Work Camp. In a week when people across the country are divided over a grand jury decision in Ferguson, the Christians in that church declare there is another way to live. Violence has no place in God’s Kingdom. Stay awake to see it, to live it.
Advent is when we are reminded of a whole new world, a Kingdom of truth, a Dominion of justice, where people are called to step outside of their judgments and fears, and to live as neighbors. It is a Kingdom of mutual respect, where the anthem is “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of violence. It is a national addiction, and like any addiction, it is killing a lot of innocent people on the sidelines. Putting more guns in people’s hands is no kind of answer. Smashing up the neighborhood stores is not an answer either. Call me Christian, but I would rather baptize a baby, and raise him to love his neighbors, and call him to live as peacefully as Jesus.
Isn’t that what we are staying awake to see? We stay awake to see the world as God intends it to be, as God comes to mend it. In that sense, we stay awake, not with caffeine but with clarity. We pray for hearts and minds that see clearly what it means to be gathered by the Son of Man, and not merely to be scattered to the four winds of what everybody else is doing.
I couldn’t believe it. Some television reporter had the courage to post an interview with a Black Friday shopper. That dear lady cut short her Thanksgiving meal to stand in line at the Mammon Emporium, waiting all night to get a discounted TV and a lot of other stuff she was putting on the credit card. At dawn, they stick a camera in her car window while she’s trying to drive out of the mall parking lot, and they ask, “How do you feel on Black Friday?” Her car is stuffed full of stuff and they ask, “How do you feel?” She said, “I’m kind of numb.” Then she started to cry. She said, “I hope I bought something to make somebody happy. I don’t know.”
The very next news story: two women got into a fist-fight over a Barbie doll in a California Walmart. Oh, really? Is that what life is all about? Or have a lot of people fallen asleep? Come, Lord Jesus!
Advent is a call to wake up. To wake up and see what is real. To wake up and see that the coming of Jesus Christ is to restore dignity to each person, to heal what is broken in each of us, to declare what is fair for all of us, and to wean us from all the lies of a world that merely wants to use us up and wear us out.
So we gather, and we pray, and we care for those most vulnerable, and we declare, “Lord Jesus, we are yours.” We belong to you. Not to a tangled, selfish, unfair world, for we belong to you. Not to a culture addicted to violence, for we belong to you. We don’t belong to the weariness of all-night shopping, but to the God who announces Christmas is so much more than all of the hustle and hustling.
Stay awake, little flock. Love, the Lord, is on the way.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.