Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Keep Awake"

Message preached December 1, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Mark 13:24-37

Order of Worship

            I was new to this preaching business, serving a pair of small churches as a summer pastor over twenty years ago. It was my second or third Sunday in the pulpit, and I was in the middle of trying to share a good word from the Lord. All of a sudden there was a sound similar to that of a freight train coming into my right ear. It seemed to be originating over where the choir was sitting. I donít recall being flustered by this distraction, but I do remember that it came to a stop quite suddenly.

            You see, that sound was the snore of brother Willard. His wife directed the choir, and you could tell this was not the first time heíd fallen asleep in church, for like clockwork the choir passed down Mary Aliceís elbow in the side. Now, in all other ways Willard was and is a spiritually alert person. I know, because I lived in his home that summer. As an ordained minister himself, he shepherded me through my first pastorate. Some of the lessons he taught are still with me. Itís just that, as a dairy farmer, Willard had been up much earlier than the rest of us on that day, and by the time I was ready to preach, he was ready for a nap.

            When Jesus told his disciples to "keep awake," I donít think he was asking them to ignore the needs of their bodies for sleep. I marvel at those folks who can get by without much of it, for Iím one of those in the opposite camp who need a full night of rest.

            Twentieth century Bible scholar William Barclay, for instance, would get up in the middle of the night to study. He lived on only a few hours of sleep. Evidently for him, as well as for others, keeping awake in the middle of the night made him very productive. While he was a university professor, he also wrote a daily devotional for the newspaper which eventually became a 17-volume commentary on the New Testament. And that was just a portion of the multitude of books he wrote. He was also a good preacher. Iíve read that few would sleep through his sermons.

            Even so, I donít believe that living on little sleep is what our Lord meant when he said "keep awake." Granted, in the very next chapter of the gospel of Mark, the disciples of Jesus just couldnít keep their eyes open as the Lord prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. "Are you asleep?" Jesus asked when he found them snoring away. "Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (14:37-38). Now the word in Greek translated as "keep awake," could also mean "watch," "be alert, "be vigilant." I donít know about you, but there are many times that I may be awake, but Iím not very alert. Even with lots of caffeine, these eyes donít catch what they apparently need to see. In order to be vigilant, I need to be rested up. How about you?

            In the setting of Mark 13, it makes sense for Jesus to call his disciples to "keep watch," to "approach life with their eyes, minds, and hearts wide open," and not just merely refrain from sleep. Why? Because this chapter is full of all sorts of apocalyptic and eschatological stuff. It talks about great suffering and destruction which will take place in the lives of Godís people. By the way, the word "tribulation" means "suffering." Unfortunately, for some Christians this word has become a point of "doctrine" instead of being an "expression" of dire hardship. As some argue whether they are "pre-tribulationists" or "post-tribulationists" in relation to the second coming of our Lord, I wonder if they really grasp the suffering of real people behind the word.

            In these verses, Jesus speaks of "wars and rumors of wars" (13:7), of "earthquakes" and "famines" (13:8), of how believers will be persecuted (14:9-11) and betrayed, even by their own families (13:12-13). Did he only predict the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in this chapter (something which did occur in the lifetime of many of his original listeners), or were his words looking far off into a future which has yet to take place? (13:14-20). Probably some of both. What is crystal clear, though, is that Jesus called his disciples then, as he calls us today, not to be led astray by falsehood (13:21-22), but to "be alert" in the middle of all this suffering (13:23).

            Advent, which begins today, is a time of watchfulness. These are "eyes open wide" days, as we approach the celebration of the first coming, the first advent of our Lord. Now, this is not merely a matter of refraining from sleep, though if I recall my younger years correctly, Christmas Eve was a hard night for this child to sleep. Having to wait for Christmas was about all I knew of hardship back then, for which I am very thankful. Others are not so fortunate. During Advent, we "keep awake," we pay special attention to, we watch with eyes, minds, and hearts open wide to what is happening around us. In the process, we prepare for the second advent of our Lord.

            You see, this world is not a "closed system." There is more happening before our eyes than what we read in the newspapers. Yes, this is a fearful time in which to be living. The economy is kind of shaky right now (then, again, when is it not?). Folks have lost jobs. Many have lost money - for some their whole retirement savings - in the stock market. Terrorism continues to gnaw away at our sense of security. Is a war in Iraq just around the corner? Could be! The gap between the rich and poor in the world continues to widen. Religions are in open conflict. Diseases, like small pox, which we once thought were eradicated are presently getting more headlines than diseases, like AIDS, which continue to overwhelm many continents. And, of course, famine is on the rise, as we were reminded this morning. And all this is just the human end of things. What about the rest of the environment?

            Am I starting to sound like a Jehovahís Witness knocking on your door, getting you to agree about how bad things are? Thatís not my intent. When I said that this world is not a "closed system," I meant that God is part of the equation. We tend to forget that, you know. We get so caught up in seeing things from our own particular angle, that we canít imagine other possibilities. From a human perspective, things may look real bad at the moment, especially for those caught in the middle of their own tribulation, their own suffering. However, donít count God out. Even now, God is on the move. The Kingdom is coming. The Lord is on his way.

            Thatís the hope behind all our talk of Advent. As I like to broaden that word out, the "Advent"-ure is just beginning. Wake up! Open your eyes, lift them up, and see. The Lord is in the process of opening up this worldís system. Is everything inevitable? Well, in one sense, yes. As Jesus said "you always have the poor with you" (14:7), and "there will be wars and rumors of wars" (13:7). However, is that all we can count on? Well, no. Why? Because of the One who said "blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven" (Luke 6:20), the One who is the Prince of Peace - heís already on the road.

            In the days before the first Advent, people were awaiting the coming of the Messiah, but most couldnít think outside the box. For them, the expected Messiah, the Christ was to act in a particular way that fit their "closed system." Itís interesting that Jesus did not openly claim to be the "Messiah," or the "Son of David," or even the "Son of God." For the most part, itís other people who connect him with these titles. He preferred to use the phrase "son of man." Why? Perhaps because these other titles were all wrapped up in the political and religious system of the day. People had certain things in mind when they used these terms. The Messiah, after all, was to be a warrior arriving victorious on a battle steed. People werenít awake to other possibilities.

            The title "son of man," however, was kind of out-of-the-loop. It was a term used heavily by the prophet Ezekiel, but only found a few times elsewhere - in the Psalms and the book of Daniel. That was it. Ezekiel, furthermore, was not a mainstream taste in the religion of Israel. Jesus used that title a lot. Yes, according to Mark, when Jesus stood before the high priest after he was arrested and was asked, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus answered, "I am." But in the very next breath he added, "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Mark 14:61-62, cf. Daniel 7:13). The religious authorities could only see within their little box. Jesus just called them to open their eyes. God was and is not limited to their boundaries.

            Thatís something to remember when we get overwhelmed by all the troubling things we see around us. Tribulation / suffering is not the final word. God is on the move. "At that time" of greatest distress, Jesus said, "people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens" (Mark 13:26-27). God is not finished. There is more to come. So, "keep awake," "be alert," keep your eyes, minds, and hearts open.

            Okay, so as we look at the world around us, and see - for instance - people dying of starvation in portions of southern Africa, what are we supposed to do? Are we to just see this tribulation merely as a sign of Godís advent, and think, "well, the end must be near"? Perhaps we need to remember what Jesus said - that even the Son (i.e. himself?) doesnít know the day or hour when that time will come to pass. Just God, "the Father" (13:32). Regardless, God is on the move! Itís not a closed system. Think outside the box. The great adventure is already started. "Wake up!" And stay awake! Why?

            Our Lord provided an excellent parable for us in this regard. "It is like a man going on a journey," Jesus said. "When he leaves home, he puts his servants 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" (13:34-36).

            What are the servants to do in the masterís absence? Are they supposed to be idly passing the time, goofing off in the house? Are they supposed to be staring out the window for signs of their masterís arrival? No, they are to do what servants do - take care of things. They have responsibility for the masterís house and the authority and power to act. We, likewise, are called to care for Godís house. When we hear of tribulation around us, are we to idly sit by and goof off? Are we to make suffering people into an "object lesson" by saying that they are a sign of the second coming? Of course not. We know better. We have a responsibility and the authority and power to act in the name of our Master.

            The good news is that Christians can be very good at thinking outside the box, exploring new answers to old questions, new ways of responding to trouble, seeing possibilities that only our faith in God and the Holy Spirit open up. Hey, the sky is the limit. After all, didnít Jesus say, "they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds..."

         Are you awake? Alert? Ready? Good! Cause weíve got a new hymn that weíre going to sing for the first time, #295.          "Christ is coming! Let creation"
online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Mark.

©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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