Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 30, 2014

2014.11.30 “Stay Awake! Be Ready!” – Mark 13: 32 – 37

Central United Methodist Church
Stay Awake! Be Ready!
Pastor David L. Haley
November 30th, 2014
The 1st Sunday of Advent
Mark 13: 32 – 37
Advent-1

“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.”Mark 13: 32 – 37, The New Revised Standard Version

As we begin another Advent season, I remembered a story Rev. John Buchanan, the former Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, once told about his granddaughter.

He set his story up by noting that as a rule, no preacher should use his or her children as sermon illustrations. However, when it comes to grandchildren, there is no such rule. Buchanan said he had one preacher friend who – after he had his first grandchild – managed to work her into every sermon he preached. When Buchanan suggested that since she wasn’t a new baby anymore, perhaps he ought to let up a bit, his friend said, “Why?” “She’s new to me, and besides she’s the most wonderful child on the face of the earth and I see it as my duty to keep on telling people about her.”  We who are grandparents understand.

At this point I should probably tell you a story about my grandson, Logan, who was out shooting pretend turkeys on Thanksgiving, but I won’t, and will instead tell you the story Buchanan told about his granddaughter. At that time she was attending a parochial school. One night around this time of year her mother was tucking her into bed and asked if she had learned any new songs, at which point she sang in the dark from her bed:

“Stay awake. (clap-clap)
Be ready. (clap-clap)
The Lord is coming soon.
Alleluia! Alleluia! (hands waving in the air, like a Bear’s wide receiver after scoring the winning touchdown)
The Lord is coming soon.” (clap-clap)

Buchanan said his granddaughter loved that song and would sing it at a drop of a hat, with the result that, at their house, it was Advent all year long. (Rev. John Buchanan, Hope for the Long Haul, Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, December 2, 2001)

Too bad she is not here to sing that song for us today, because it is a great introduction to the primary theme of Advent: “Stay awake. Be ready. The Lord is coming soon.”

Is it just me, or are there others for whom Advent is our favorite church season?  Here are some reasons why that may be the case.

Advent is the beginning of a new church year, when we start another cycle of telling the story of Jesus. We begin a month earlier than the calendar year, today, and end the year with Christ the King, which we did last Sunday. By the way, Happy New Year!

In this new year, our Gospel will be the Gospel of Mark; in many ways, my favorite. For one thing, it was the first Gospel, and also the shortest. Yes, there are a few problems, like no birth stories, a major oversight as we celebrate Christmas. And then just wait until we get to Easter, where Mark’s ends his resurrection story with the women running from the tomb, saying nothing to anyone. Is that anyway to run a resurrection?

Another reason I like Advent is because it is anticipatory and preparatory of Christmas. Out there, Christmas begins the day after Halloween, and every store is now playing Christmas carols, such that long before Christmas arrives we will be overdosed on dogs barking “Jingle Bells.” Given this, it may seem ironic that the Church, of all people, throws on the brakes, resists instant Christmas, and says, “No, not yet, hold it . . . hold it! First we must wait, watch, and prepare ourselves, so that when Christmas comes – when God arrives – we will be spiritually prepared for it. Before the Light of the World arrives, we need to experience sitting in the darkness. Before we hear the angelic choruses, we need to experience a silent night. Before the Word comes down, we need to do some waiting and watching, as God’s people waited, for so long.

Another reason Advent is important is because it is a season that encourages spiritual alertness. Remember Rachel’s song? “Stay awake. Be ready. The Lord is coming soon.” These themes are so appropriate for us here in the northern climes. It’s cold and we want to hunker down, eyes down, maybe not even get out of bed. It’s dark early, which can be so depressing to many of us. And as we enter the holiday season, which we did on Thursday, we often eat more and exercise less, which can leave us in a state of somnolence.  And last but not least, there can be so much to do: go to work, go to the doctor, run the kids around, go to the store, sit in traffic: life can become a blur, and we become so dulled to the routine that we also become dulled to that which is important. We get to be like people who live near the train tracks, who no longer hear the train going by, not to mention the bells and whistles. All the more reason to regard the warning of Advent: “Stay awake! Be ready! The Lord is coming soon.” 

And so, some of us are excited to find ourselves here again in Advent, with its waiting and watching, with its songs and candles in the dark, with it’s theme of staying awake and being alert for the Advent of God in our lives, not just at Christmas but all the time.

These same themes are what the Scriptures of Advent are about also. I always find it so hard to choose between them, because they are all so challenging, so beautiful, so important.  Did you hear the prophet Isaiah, the way he talked to God, expressing the way we feel as we begin another Advent:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence —
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil —
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

Did you hear the plea of the Psalmist, in Psalm 80, with its themes of expectation and salvation, of light and darkness:

“O shepherd of Israel, hear us,
you who lead Joseph like a flock:
Enthroned on the cherubim, shine forth . . .
Rouse up your might and come to save us.
O God, bring us back; let your face shine on us,
and we shall be saved.”
 
And what of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark? Can we get any closer to the theme of Advent than that?

“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.”

But what did Jesus mean, “keep alert,” “keep awake?” We are not sleeping, are we? (Well, maybe some of us are).

Does it mean looking for God and God’s advent and God’s presence in the events of our times, as those who wrote Scripture looked for God in their times? Where was God in Ferguson, Missouri, not only on the day when Michael Brown was killed, but this week when the findings of the Grand Jury were announced, and in the subsequent protests that followed, not only in Ferguson, but across the country? Was God absent or present there, and how?

Does it mean looking for God and God’s advent and God’s presence in the lives of others, with whom we come in contact? Think of all the people you have interacted with this week, did God come to you in any of those people? Wednesday night we had a sanctuary full of God’s people: Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, Jews, Muslims, surely God was present here. Friday morning, I went to our former janitor, Joe Hayes’ visitation, and had some heart-to-heart talks with members of his family, including Joe’s sons, was that a divine opportunity? Friday evening I had a man walk up to me at the gas station and ask me if I might help him with some gas. I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any extra money with me.” He said, “I don’t need money; I just need some gas.”  Did I miss a divine opportunity?

Does being spiritually awake and alert keep us awake to what God is saying to us through our friends, our families, even our bodies and minds? One of my friends had to go to the ER a week ago, with chest pains. He discovered he needed a quadruple cardiac bypass (CABG), which he had last Friday. But in the process, he also discovered maybe more than ever before how surrounded and supported he was by the love and care and prayers of family and friends and even strangers, through whom he felt the love and care of God.  Though I would not recommend that process as a way to find that out, I would describe him – though healing – as spiritually awake and alert as never before.  I guess sometimes God does what God has to do, to get our attention.

You say, “I get it.  How could I miss any of this?”  Well, you could miss it, like they missed it then. That God would come to them in the birth of a child to poor parents, in an insignificant town in 1st century Palestine?  That God could show up in a poor rabbi who hung out not with the high and mighty, but with the poor and outcasts, who called as his followers such as fishermen and tax collectors and women? That God could be present most powerfully of all, in a way that appeared most forsaken and hopeless: a man nailed to a cross, with nothing left at all, except his trust in God?

Through the centuries, others have learned what it means to live in this Advent attitude of waiting and trusting and being spiritually alert and awake. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned by the Nazis and eventually executed by them just before the end of the war, wrote in 1943 from in his Nazi prison cell to his fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer:

“My dearest Maria, by the time you receive this letter it will probably be Advent, a time especially dear to me. A prison cell like this, in which one watches and hopes and performs this or that ultimately   insignificant task, and in which one is wholly dependent on the doors being opened from the outside, is far from an inappropriate metaphor for Advent.” [21 November 1943, Love Letters from Cell 92, 118].

Unless we approach Christmas in an Advent attitude of waiting, watching, and being alert, not only Christmas – but much of life – loses its meaning. Because it is in our waiting and watching and being ready, in our not knowing WHEN, WHERE, or HOW God is going to appear, that we prepare ourselves for WHEN, WHERE, and HOW God comes to us.

“Stay awake. (clap-clap)
Be ready. (clap-clap)
The Lord is coming soon.
Alleluia! Alleluia! (hands waving in the air)
The Lord is coming soon.” (clap-clap).  Amen.

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