Waking and Watching

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Advent 1
November 29, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Sermons Proclaim

Summary: Jesus concludes his discourse to his disciples about the future with a brief parable and the lessons they are to draw from it. We are to be alert, knowing what is going on in the world and thinking God is there. We know something that those first disciples didn't realize at the time: that God's work of new creation has already begun with the cross and resurrection of Christ. Knowing that, we are to watch for the signs that God is completing that work.

WAKE UP! No, that's not me trying to open the eyes of some sleepy people out there in the congregation. Wake up and stay awake is what Jesus says in today's gospel reading. Being awake and alert is to be a key feature of the Christian life.

This comes after Jesus has spoken to his disciples earlier in this chapter about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, and they ask him when this is to happen. He tells them that there will be natural disasters, persecutions, "wars and rumors of wars,"1 cosmic catastrophes and finally the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven.2 We need to be aware of what's happening in the world. The conclusion to all of that, our text for today, is a short parable and the lesson we're to draw from it. We are to stay awake, to keep alert and to watch.

In this brief parable, Jesus is sketching how Christians are to understand their lives in this world in the time between his ministry on the earth and the end of history when God will wrap everything up. The point here isn't the theological views we're to hold, the ways in which the Christian community in the world can be structured or how its mission is to be carried out. Those things are important, but the focus here is living our lives in the world.

We could modernize the imagery of the parable a bit. There's a large estate with a number of employees. The owner of the estate is going on a long journey, and he gives the various employees different tasks to keep things running properly while he's away.

The estate's staffers have a variety of tasks. Some are to take care of the grounds, others will prepare food, still others will handle business affairs and so on. They will, in fact, be doing their regular jobs as they await the owner's return. And as we think about the significance of this parable for ourselves, it's natural to wonder what doing our everyday jobs has to do with waiting for the return of Christ. If we knew - not just guessed or speculated but really knew - that God was going to wind everything up tomorrow, should we just continue to do our ordinary jobs today?

Yes, that's exactly what we should be doing! An essay by C.S. Lewis titled The World's Last Night makes that point.3 If we knew for sure that this coming night would be the world's last, we should spend it doing the things we're called to do in the world. Firefighters should be at the fire station and ready to go, because fires may break out even in the world's last night. Parents ought to take care of their children even in the world's last night. You can go outside and look for signs in the heavens if you wish, but make sure that the kids are okay first. Soup kitchens need to stay open even if the world will end tomorrow because there are homeless people who are hungry today.

Now and not yet

When we hear Jesus' words about the future in this chapter of Mark's gospel, we're in a situation very different from those of his disciples who first heard them. That was just a few days before Good Friday and Easter. Even though Jesus had told them three times that he would be rejected by the authorities, put to death and then raised to new life, the disciples just didn't get it. (Mark portrays them as rather dense about this.) On the other hand, we have heard the message that Christ was crucified and is risen beyond the power of death. We know that death doesn't have the last word.

The resurrection of the dead, which many Jews in Jesus' time looked forward to "on the last day,"4 has already begun with Jesus. That "last day," the end of history, has already begun to break into the world. Even as we stay alert to the "new heavens and a new earth" that scripture speaks of,5 Paul tells us that "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation."6 God's work of new creation began when the Son of God came to be born of Mary, to live and die and be raised on the third day - and it is something we still look forward to. It is, as is sometimes said, "now and not yet."

We await the "not yet" and are not going to build the kingdom of God here and now as if that were to be some utopia achieved through our wisdom and skills. But as God's people living in the "now," we are to care for the world as God's garden, as the Genesis story of creation suggests.7 That means to live and work in the world in ways that are consistent with the pattern that has been given to us in Christ. We do that by loving and serving God and our neighbor in our callings in the world. And we are to do that, even if this coming night will be the world's last.

At the same time, we remember that improvement of conditions in this world now is not our ultimate goal. The promise of Christ's resurrection, which we will share in, means that God still intends to bring about what is not yet.

Awake, alert - and watching

There are actually two different Greek words in our text that are translated in modern English versions like NRSV as "be alert" or "stay awake." But they can also have another sense. Older English translations like the King James generally chose "watch." The words are related because you can't watch if you're asleep. In a military unit, being asleep when you're supposed to be watching on guard duty is a serious offense.

In Jesus' parable, the members of the estate's staff are all to be alert to their tasks. We're to attend to our callings in the world rather than spend our time watching for signs of the end of the world. But there's someone else in the parable who is supposed to watch - the doorkeeper. That's the person who is to be alert for the boss's return, so that the staff won't be taken by surprise. The message seems to be that some of us should be watching for Christ's return.

Over the past 2,000 years some Christians have taken upon themselves the job of trying to figure out when that return would be. But that's a fruitless task. In the first place, the signs that Jesus spoke about earlier - wars, natural disasters and persecutions - have been pretty common occurrences. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on our world, but it is no more significant a sign than was the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.

Secondly, Jesus says in the verse just before our text that "neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father"8 know the time of the end. Since Jesus didn't know "that day or hour," it is presumptuous to think that we can puzzle it out.

So who are the watchers, and what are they to watch for? Well, those who study nature and human society can help us to discern what God is doing in world events. They can warn us of dangerous trends and help us point the way toward improving the state of the world. We'll then be better able to maintain the estate in top condition for when the owner arrives. And those who preach and teach the Christian message have the task of calling attention to God's ultimate sign which is always new, the cross and resurrection of Christ.


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