In today’s reading, Jesus encourages his followers to look forward to the day when he returns in power and glory to end all suffering.
24But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then 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.
28From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Grace to you and peace, people of God, in the name our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The season of Advent is upon us, my friends. The turkey is gone. The trees are up (if they haven’t been already). The Black Friday madness is behind us (at least hopefully). Santa Claus is making his yearly comeback tour and children are frantically trying to decide what to add to their list and how they can make their best bid to be on the “nice” list again. And soon, the celebration really begins. Gifts will be unwrapped and food will be eaten and travelling will happen and the Christmas parties will begin. But first, before that, we have one very, extremely important detail and task to take care of. Before any of that can happen, we all must do one, crucial thing. We must…wait.
We wait and wait and wait and that wait can seem like forever. I think we can all remember as kids, and if you have kids you are constantly reminded, seeing that gift under the tree, you know, that gift. The one with your name on it. The one that contained, within that paper thin wrapping, a world of possibilities. We would look at that gift and close our eyes and clench our fists and wish with all our might that it would just be Christmas already! We want to get into it. We want to open that gift and see what’s inside! And before you sit back and say, “Yeah. Glad I’m not like that,” you should know that you’re probably not too happy about waiting, either. Our culture is one that really doesn’t like to wait. We can easily hear that anytime someone tells us a story about a delayed flight, a doctor’s appointment, or most stories involving any kind of customer service over the telephone. We can see it pretty clearly in the fact that the Christmas decorations started making their appearance while Halloween costumes were on the clothing racks. We can see it pretty easily in the use of technology, like smartphones, instantly connecting us with all the information we could ever need and a lot of information we don’t need. We don’t like waiting. It feels like wasted time, doesn’t it?
Part of it is probably the result of our shortened attention span (heaven knows I certainly feel those effects sometimes), but part of has to be the fact that we aren’t used to waiting. We aren’t used to sitting, waiting, and watching anymore. We don’t know how to be alone with our thoughts and anticipate the event to come. We’d much rather distract ourselves than wait with our own thoughts. Want some proof? Go to a waiting room and look around. If people aren’t watching TV or reading a magazine, they seem to be hunched over their smart device of choice, surfing social media or playing a pretty mindless game. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.
The thing to remember is this: waiting does not have to be passive. Waiting does not have to be wasted time. Waiting can be a very important act of worship which prepares our hearts and our homes to welcome something much bigger than ourselves. As we wait for “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”, we are really engaging in a profound act of worship. The process of waiting is difficult, as we all know, but without it, we lose the magic that this time is supposed to have. Without anticipation, we miss out on the chance to engage and connect with a group of people who only could wait.
You see, the Jewish people waited for years and years for a Messiah. And early Christians waited earnestly for the ability to worship without fear, with many Christians still waiting for that today. And we, now, wait for the Christ to come again in glory as we also wait for the Christ to come in the form of an immigrant’s child in a feeding trough in a barn. You see, we are still waiting and we are still hoping and we are still anticipating the full gift and reign of God.
Jesus tells his disciples in Mark to “keep awake.” Don’t assume that waiting is easy. Waiting is hard. It’s hard to keep awake. It’s hard to be on alert at all times. We’ll want to fall asleep. And maybe, in a big way, a lot of us have fallen asleep. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve experienced this period of waiting before. You’ve gone through Advents past and come out feeling completely underwhelmed by the whole thing. Maybe the gifts didn’t turn out as planned or conflict occurred. Maybe God didn’t show up in a way that was deemed suitable or maybe we all just got distracted by the bright lights and the tinsel and the egg nog. We all have fallen asleep, at times, to the joy that should truly come in this time of Advent. We can take it for granted. We can simply see it as the time to shop before Christmas. We can just see it as some silly tradition made by silly people centuries ago. But all of that thinking does not stop Advent from coming each and every year, beckoning us to stop…to reflect…to wait…to keep awake. Because the presence of God is not missing. It may have simply gone unnoticed.
That’s the best part about this time of year, if you ask me. It comes on its own, without our deserving it, every year. We are given the chance, each and every year of our lives, to wait again. We have the opportunity to experience God’s love and grace in the image a baby Jesus, lying in a manger. That is why we wait. We wait because, at the end of this waiting, we have hope. We have a love and forgiveness like the world has never known outside of Jesus Christ, whom we eagerly wait for. We don’t wait with foreboding or dread, but with eager anticipation.
In the time Jesus was living, watching and waiting could basically be a profession. To keep a city or town safe, a watchman would be positioned at a gate, sometimes on a tower, and his job would be stay alert, keep watch, and alert anybody if he saw anything or anybody that he thought would be suspicious or important. If he did his job right, disaster could be diverted. He would alert the town to an oncoming military or a visiting member or royalty. He could make or break a town’s reputation or safety by making sure they were ready for whatever he saw coming. And, in essence, Jesus is commissioning us to the same duty. Speaking to his disciples, he says, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” And guess what! You are part of that all he was talking about! You are invited to participate in the waiting! You’ve been invited to keep watch and alert others to what is coming, what we know now to be hope and peace.
And this revolutionary stuff. I mean, imagine, in the midst of rioting in Ferguson, bombings in Syria, Ebola, corruption, and heartbreak, standing up and telling people, “Stop! Wait! Hope is coming. Peace is coming.” That seems crazy, right? How can we say that, how can we even think that, in the midst of our world right now? Because we know it to be true. We know it to be true. We trust the promises of God and God promises, as Paul writes, to “strengthen you to the end.” It’s not by our own power that we can wait and hope in God, but it is in God that we find our strength. It is in God that we can find our peace. It is in the little baby, born of a teenage, immigrant mother and lying in a feed trough in a barn. And even then, when we know how the story ends this Advent season, we wait for the story to end.
It doesn’t end at the cross, as you may already be thinking. It ends when that hope and peace and justice and mercy flow together in an endless stream that washes away the stains of sin and death and despair and hatred of this world. No, my friends, we are in the middle of the story, waiting. But, while we wait, we are not idle, just as being alone with your own thoughts is not idle. We wait, but we also work. We anticipate, but we also participate. We are encouraged and we also encourage. That’s what this time is about. We are preparing for the birth of a child, a baby boy, who in time will save us from what we could never save ourselves from. We wait, like expectant parents wait for the phone call that they have become grandparents. We wait, like the wedding guests for the bride to enter. We wait, like the desert waits for rain.
So take this time, this sacred season of Advent, and take the waiting seriously. Take it as seriously as the watchman. And know that we do not wait in vain. Hope is coming. Peace is coming. Jesus is coming.