My sermon for this week.
You might just be getting the feeling that Jesus is trying to tell us something. Three weeks ago his message was ‘keep awake’ followed by two weeks of reminders of the need to keep active and busy as Christians. And here we are again, just in case we hadn’t got the message on this Advent Sunday: keep awake!
It is difficult to stay awake – to stay alert – when nothing is happening. Those who drive will know the problem of driving long distances on the motorway, especially if you are on your own. It’s easy – and dangerous – for tiredness to creep up upon you. And to avoid falling asleep at the wheel, you have to stop to rest or to get a cup of coffee. Sometimes it is hard to stay awake. I’ve often wondered how the household calvary, when mounting the guard at Horseguards, manage to sit so still for so long on their horses without falling asleep. They sit for long stretches of time with nothing to do. They have to stay awake – but the boredom must be a real problem. Not allowed to talk to the passers-by, or even to look at them, they sit for hours just staring straight ahead. The temptation to drop off – in more ways than one – must be overwhelming at times.
But who on earth, on Advent Sunday, needs to be told of the need ‘keep awake’ when we are entering what must be the most frenetic period of the year – both in the church and outside it. The countdown to Christmas has begun, presents to buy and wrap, cards to send (don’t forget to have a look at those on sale at the back of church,) family visits to sort out, parties to organise, Christmas trees to buy and put up, carol concerts to put together and rehearse and perform, mince pies to make, turkeys to order, school nativity plays and carol services to sort out and attend, and when’s the last posting date and where’s all the money going to come from … I could go on. Who on earth has any problem at this time of year of trying to stay awake! There’s far too much to do! Finding time to go to sleep is more of a problem!
The problem is, of course, that the Church has picked up the rhythm of the world, and is now facing the rush of Advent. And while the world’s and all too often the Church’s busyness may seem to be pointed to Christmas it is seldom pointed toward the coming Christ child. And here we have Jesus saying ‘keep awake!’ Not a problem we think. Perhaps it even feels at this time of year that Jesus doesn’t understand what it’s really like, that it’s Jesus who is not in touch with the reality of this time of year. And yet, in reality, it is we who are not in touch for the ways of the world have taken over and we have forgotten to listen to what these Scriptures from long ago – today’s and those that we hear over the next few weeks – tell us during this Advent season. We may not be physically asleep; quite the opposite. But in our frenetic wakefulness as Christmas approaches we fall asleep to the spiritual season, and so we need a wake-up call. And in our Gospel lesson today there it is. Jesus calls us to stay awake – to stay alert – to keep watching. First, he pictures the day when he will return in glory.
Then he says: “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.” The implication is that, if we are found asleep, we will be in serious trouble. But how can a person stay awake all the time? God made us so that we need sleep. Most of us need eight hours of sleep every night, and some of us need a nap now and then as well. There may even be a person here or there who will need a little nap to get through this sermon. But of course Jesus is not telling us that we are required to stay awake 24 hours a day.
In the Gospel of Mark, wakefulness is a metaphor for faithfulness. This parable about a master going on a journey and telling his doorkeeper to keep watch is really a call to us to be faithful while we await Jesus’ return – to live faith-filled lives. Jesus knew that he would be going away after the resurrection, and he wanted to encourage us to remain faithful. It was difficult for those first disciples to stay alert, because they expected Jesus to return any day – but by the time Mark wrote his gospel it had already been 35 or 40 years and Jesus had not yet come back. How could they remain expectant day by day? How could they stay prepared? How could they be faithful?
It is even more difficult today. It has been two thousand years now, and Jesus has not yet returned. How can we remain expectant day by day? How can we stay prepared? How can we be faithful? Which raises the question, Expectant for what? Prepared for what? Faithful to what? In our Gospel lesson, Jesus was calling his disciples to prepare themselves for his coming. He was calling them to faithful discipleship so that, when he returned, they would not be found wanting. That is a message that Christians today find difficult to hear. We have succumbed to the danger of thinking that Jesus’ return isn’t a real event that’s going to happen at some point in the future – and if we do think about it we assume it’s at some far off time in the future, or that Jesus didn’t really mean it literally.
But Jesus said “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” And if we don’t believe that he is going to return – if we don’t believe that he meant what he said – then nothing that we are doing here in our worship makes much sense. Jesus says to us today, “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” And just like the doorkeeper who must continue to do his job even when he doesn’t know when his master will return, then we also must always be about our master’s business. For Jesus is warning his disciples – and us – that he will return. And that we cannot know when. That it could happen at any time – and that it makes a great difference whether or not we are prepared. And being prepared, in Mark’s Gospel, is as I’ve already pointed out a metaphor for being faithful – for living faith-filled lives. Will Jesus, when he comes, find us to have been faithful – doing his work – doing his will. That is the big question we must face up to when we hear this gospel reading – that each of us must face up to this morning.
And that has been the message over the past few weeks – that we must be awake and active in the world because that is what God expects of us. Not busy and active the way the world is, but busy and active in the service of God so that when Jesus returns he finds us carrying out his Father’s will. And on this Advent Sunday we are given a wake-up call – keep awake and use the time that is given you to seek God in his world and to take God into his world.
In a season that is gearing everyone up to shop we are called by Jesus to stay away and engage with the natural world, the world of people, the world that God created, rather than with the world of shopping centres and sales and bargains. This life is precious and its seasons are short. Let us not have Advent slip away only to realise that we spent it shopping for Christmas rather than preparing ourselves and those around us to receive Christ.
On this first Sunday of Advent there is still time to wake up from that bad dream that this time of year can all too easily become. There is still time to encounter instead the presence of Jesus in our waking hours. Amidst the Christmas parties, late-night shopping trips, desperate Christmas card writing sessions, the gospel reminds us to be awake – awake to God in the world and awake to his call and ready to greet the coming of the Christ-child. And this is a way of being awake that might in the end actually be restful and give us peace.