Keep Awake

Sermon – November 29, 2020

This morning we turn to the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus and the disciples were leaving the Temple when one of the disciples pointed out the Temple’s large stones and building. In response, Jesus asked (read Mark 13:2-4.)

We pick up midway through Jesus’ answer to their question. Listen again for God’s Word from Mark Chapter 13 beginning with verse 24.

Read Mark 13:24-37. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and I was fifteen years old. My parents had finalized their divorce just a few weeks earlier, so it was sort of a different Christmas for my family that year. My grandparents came to visit us in Atlanta for the holiday week. On Christmas Eve, the four of us had a quiet dinner, went to worship, and then we all went to sleep. 

About 5:00 in the morning, I felt someone nudging my shoulder. It was my grandfather. In all my life, I’ve never known anyone who anticipated Christmas more than my grandfather. My guess is he had been lying awake all night, waiting for Christmas morning to arrive so he could wake up the rest of us – and I was his lucky first victim. “Time to get up,” he said, “it’s Christmas morning! Hurry! You don’t want to miss it!”

I mentioned I was fifteen, right? If you are a teenager or if you’ve ever had a teenager in your home, you know that, given a chance to sleep in, a teenager won’t see morning. So I pulled my blanket over my head and mumbled, “OK, Papa, I’ll get up; just give me about five more hours.” 

Not only was my grandfather enthusiastic, he was also persistent. “Go wake your mother,” he said. I got up, trudged down the hall, and called into my mother’s room, “Mom, Papa says it’s time to get up.” “It’s 5 am,” she said, “Go back to bed.” Never in my teenage years was I ever so eager to obey my mom. I walked back down the hall, passed my grandfather on the way, and said, “Mom said go back to bed, and you know I always do what I’m told.” 

Not to be defeated, my grandfather said, “Fine, I’ll go make breakfast.” Now I’m not much of a cook. I don’t know nearly as much about cooking as my chef of a husband does. But I do know this: Making breakfast does not require pulling every pot and pan out of the cabinet and dropping them on the floor. After about ten minutes of listening to metal clanging, my grandmother, my mom, and I gave in and reluctantly walked down the stairs.  There on the table were hot coffee and Pillsbury biscuits my grandfather had made, and there he was, sitting in a chair, holding a piece of paper on which he had written this poem:

‘Twas Christmas morning and in the town of Atlanta, nothing was moving, not even Santa.  So I got the paper and made me a cup and sat at the table waiting for all to get up. Not a sound could be heard, not even a peep. All were upstairs, trying to sleep. I thought to myself, “Why sleep?  For you know, if you close your eyes, there’re not too many Christmases to go.”

Why sleep? That wasn’t the question the disciples asked Jesus, but it was definitely the question he seemed to want to answer. Upon hearing Jesus tell them that the temple would be thrown down, the disciples asked when these amazing things would happen. Before answering their question, Jesus told them all kinds of horrific things. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines. Oh, and after that suffering, in those days, there will be more suffering: The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

The disciples were thinking, “Gee, sorry I asked.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jesus said.  “About your question: When will all these things happen? Yeah…no one knows.”

The disciples were thinking, “Again, gee, sorry I asked.”

The only answer Jesus gave them was this: “Keep awake.”

They seemed pretty awake to me. They were walking and talking with Jesus. They were awake enough to notice the temple’s large stones and building. They were awake enough to ask him when all this stuff would happen.  

But were they awake enough to hear his response: “Keep awake”?

The disciples asked Jesus about when they could expect these things to happen. Jesus’ response called into question whether they still expected anything to happen. They had been expecting a Messiah for so long. They’d seen many would-be messiahs all of whom had disappointed them. A few Sundays ago, we looked at a passage in Luke where John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:19). You can almost hear the fatigue in their question. They’d been waiting and hoping and expecting so much for so long that, after a while, they’d given up expecting anything at all. 

Lower expectations lead to less disappointments.

Almost nine months into the pandemic, I can relate. I imagine you can, too. When everything first shut down in March, we expected life would return to normal soon. But then one day turned into the next and the next – until we couldn’t distinguish one day from the next, and every day began to feel like what a friend of mine calls “blursday.” I mean, when we’re stuck at home all week, how many of us have forgotten at some point this year – or maybe multiple points this year – what day of the week it is? When Monday is just the same as Tuesday, and Tuesday is just the same as Wednesday…every day is blursday. 

When every day is blursday, it’s easy to get lulled into a stupor.

And that’s just what’s going on in our individual lives and our individual homes. Then we turn on the news. We hear of vaccines and rumors of vaccines and think, “Are you the vaccine that is to come, or are we to wait for another?” We hear of ongoing vote recounts and ongoing virus counts. With every political update and COVID update, we wonder when the other shoe is going to drop. Many of us have started tuning it out, thinking, “If we close our eyes, there’re not too many 2020 days to go.”

When we’re most tempted to tune out, that’s when Jesus says tune in: “Keep awake.”

I remember in seminary preaching classes we were taught always to find the good news in a Scripture passage. Some passages were harder than others. Like this text, when what Mark calls “those days” feels more like “these days.” When we may not be experiencing nation against nation, but it feels like we are a nation against ourselves as a nation. When we’re not just experiencing earthquakes and famine, but we’re experiencing West coast fires, East coast hurricanes, and coast-to-coast sickness and death. Then to read in Mark about more suffering and no end in sight? Where’s the “good news” in that?

It’s there. It may be hard to see, but maybe that’s the point: Jesus said, “Keep awake, and you will see it.”

Jesus gave us three ways, or rather, three reasons to keep awake and believe the good news. First, Jesus flat out tells us the good news: The Son of Man is coming in clouds, with great power and glory, and he will gather up all of his beloved and beleaguered disciples from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. Who knows when all these things will happen? No one knows – except for one: the Father. In ways we can’t understand, in ways we can’t even see, God has planned the perfect time for all these things to take place. We may not know when that time is here, but we know that time is near, for Jesus told us so. “Keep awake,” Jesus said, “for I am near.”

Jesus next told the disciples a way to see that he is near. He told them to take a lesson from the fig tree. When its branches become tender and it puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is coming. 

It sounds like a “take time to stop and smell the roses” moment, but it isn’t. It’s something much more powerful. I don’t know about you, but in this year of sickness and death, fires and hurricanes, nation against nation and nation against itself, it’s been so easy to get preoccupied with the bad news and miss any sign of good news. Every now and then God gives us glimpses of it. 

On Friday, May 29th, protests and riots broke out downtown near the CNN Center and throughout our city in reaction to George Floyd’s death. As we live not far from CNN, my husband James and I were awake most of the night listening to sirens and screeching cars. The following afternoon I was sitting on our back deck praying about the racial injustice in our nation when I heard a rustling sound. It was the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. The leaves were that of a tree that has been sick and on the verge of dying for quite a while. But, by golly, that tree keeps on standing – it just won’t give up – and the wind blowing its leaves was a reminder that, no matter how dark or lost things may seem, new life is blowing where we least expect it.       

Jesus said, “Keep awake, and see that I am near.”

The past few weeks I’ve seen several signs that Jesus is near, two in particular. First, over the weekend our Children’s and Family Ministry Team delivered an Advent devotional, calendar, crafts, cake mix, frosting, sprinkles, and candles – the makings of a “Happy Birthday, Jesus” cake – to the children in our congregation, as well as the children in our Azalea Village and LaAmistad missions. We normally would do these things together in person at our “Advent-ure” event. We can’t this year due to COVID-19. But that didn’t stop our ministry team from celebrating his coming because they know God’s presence and power are bigger than a pandemic. God’s Spirit is more widespread than a virus We may be six feet apart, but by God’s spirit we can be closer than ever.

A second and similar sign of Jesus’ presence is our poinsettia mission. We set a goal to collect funds to give out 20 poinsettias to homebound members of our community. This Sunday we will give out three times that amount – over 60 poinsettias. God once again showed he can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

Jesus said, “Keep awake, and I will show you that I am near.”

In answer to the disciples’ question as to when these things would happen, Jesus closed with a second parable: that of a doorkeeper. A doorkeeper’s number-one job is to keep awake. But the doorkeeper doesn’t just keep awake for his own sake. He keeps awake for others’ sakes. If he sees danger, his job is to go and tell the others in the house. If he sees good things on the horizon – in this case, if he sees the master is coming back – his job is to go and tell the others in the house. 

The disciples had expected so much. After expecting so much and being disappointed too often, they’d probably forgotten to expect much of anything anymore. They’re like many of us, and they’re like many of those around us. We live in a world that hopes for little and expects less. We live in a world that desperately needs a door keeper to alert it to God’s presence among us.

Jesus said, “Keep awake. Be that door keeper. And when you see signs of me, go tell someone.”

It is the first Sunday of Advent, the season when we celebrate that the Lord has come and look forward to his coming again. In this year 2020, perhaps most fervently we long for that coming again. That’s God’s greatest promise and our greatest hope. So keep awake, for the Lord is near. Keep awake, and see that he is near. Keep awake, that the world may know he is near. 

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