If I’ve told you once…

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We’ve been away for a while. Well – since the pandemic started disrupting everything including church services here in the UK. But we’re back – yesterday was Advent Sunday, we’re back in church each week, and now seems a good time to start posting our weekly sermons again.

So, here goes.

Mark 13.24-end

One of my mother’s favourite phrases was, “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times…”. Being just as pedantic then as I am now, what immediately went through my head was, “No you haven’t!” But even as a child I knew better than to actually say so.

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. 

And I don’t know about anyone else, but the last few weeks of lockdown, and having to just stay in most of the time with no opportunity to go out to for a meal, or to a concert, museums and historic houses closed; not even being able to go out and see real people at church meetings instead of staring at them on a computer screen, leave me feeling far more tired than normal. 

But – says Jesus, over and over – stay awake. Stay alert! Don’t go to sleep!

And in our Gospel reading today there it is again. Jesus calls us to stay awake – to stay alert – to keep watching. Because although he had already come among us, when he spoke those words – he wanted his followers to know and to understand that one day he would return – and that they should be ready and waiting.

First, he pictures the day when he will return in glory. Then he tells a parable about a man going on a journey. 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 would like a little nap to get through this sermon – it’s alright, I don’t mind! But of course Jesus is not telling us that we are required to stay awake 24 hours a day. This is a prime example of why Biblical texts so often cannot be taken literally, but must be interpreted. If we were to taken Jesus literally here, we would deprive ourselves of much needed sleep and completely miss the point!

In the Gospel of Mark, from which our reading this morning comes, 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 after the resurrection when Jesus ascended into heaven 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 we think that that Jesus didn’t really mean it literally. And so we put off until tomorrow the good things we could do for Jesus today.

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. Because there’s not a lot of point in worshipping the Jesus who told us he will return at any time, if we’ve already decided that he isn’t going to and that therefore his words cannot actually be trusted!

And so Jesus says to us today, Jesus warns us, “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, as I’ve already pointed out, is a metaphor for being faithful – for living faith-filled lives at each and every moment. Will Jesus, when he comes, find us being 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 from our gospel readings 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 will find 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 us to seek God in his world and to take God into his world. Not to wait until tomorrow to start bring God’s love and God’s justice to people, not to wait until tomorrow to ensure that the hungry are fed and the homeless find a roof over their heads, not to wait until tomorrow to speak out against bigotry and speak out for the marginalised and oppressed, not to wait until tomorrow to start thinking about how we care for our planet.

And not because we are told to, but because we love this diverse world God has created, because we love the people it, and because we can think of nothing better than to share the love of Jesus with each other by working together in his service.

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