Keep Awake!

Community United Church of Christ (Saint Paul Park, Minnesota)

Scripture: Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

My oldest brother Eb and his wife Wilma recently announced that they were expecting their first child. Earlier this week I got a text from my brother. He wrote: “It is a boy.” This learning—the sex of their unborn child—is disclosed to Eb and Wilma and so many other couples with the help of modern medicine. A baby’s overall health, susceptibility to diseases, and even genetic makeup can also be determined through advanced prenatal tests. Yet there’s still at least one thing that remains a mystery of every birth—the date and time of delivery. For pregnant women, the fact of giving birth is all but certain—it will happen, barring some terrible and rare circumstance. But when will it happen?—that’s the question every expectant mother wants to know, even those who have an appointment for a C-section. Giving birth—like puberty, menopause, and death—has the quality of being both inevitable for human beings, yet impossible to pinpoint at an exact date and time. It’s no wonder that Jesus used “birthpangs” as a metaphor for the Apocalypse. The End of Days is another experience that is certain, yet its timing is quite unknown.

Jesus is in the last days of his life, and today’s text has him talking about the last days of the whole world. He does so using words, phrases and images that go back for hundreds of years. They’ve been used by other Hebrew prophets and seers throughout history, any time the status quo is so bad that deliverance must certainly break in like a supernatural rescue mission. Speaking here, Jesus conveys both a sense of confidence in God’s kingdom coming in an ultimate, final sense “on earth as in heaven”, and a sense of peace amid the uncertainty about its timing. In so doing, Jesus calls us to find a middle path between two human temptations.

The first temptation is to think that we know with certainty when the end of the world, or of any season in our lives, is at hand. Every time we act with supreme confidence of when a future change will take place, we’re bound to get in hot water. I’m certain I’ll be offered that job next week, so I can tell off my current boss today. The stock market is going to tank tomorrow, so let me sell off our assets today. I grew up in an apocalyptic cult whose leader convinced us that the end of the world was always just around the corner. Therefore, no need to plan for pensions, work for better job prospects or worry about who would take care of the elders. Unsurprisingly, the cult leader thought it best to just sell off our possessions now and give the money to him. We did that with farm implements and livestock more times than I can count, whenever he received supernatural assurance that the world was going to end next Tuesday. History is littered with examples where people were so convinced they knew the date and time of the end that they mortgaged their futures or took their own lives. Yet in every single case, those people misread the signs of the times. To that temptation, Jesus says, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And earlier: “Beware that no one leads you astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be afraid… This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” In other words, don’t be like expectant parents who rush to the hospital every single time the baby kicks.

The other temptation that Jesus warns against is complacency. This is to think that the current season of my life and of the world is all that there will ever be. I’ll always be stuck in this job that I don’t care for. I can count on this relationship staying just like it is, forever. There’s no hope for our politics—it’s always been this way. History is just an endless Mobius strip, constantly repeating itself. To that temptation, Jesus says, learn the lesson of the fig tree—change is coming soon! As inexorably and as hopefully as spring follows winter. Whatever we’re going through at the current moment, I guarantee it won’t last forever. This is good news for those going through hell, and a caution for those who have it well. When you see the signs of change, Jesus says, pay attention! Keep awake! In other words, don’t be like a pregnant woman who assumes that her melon-like appearance is the new normal and will always be this way, so she doesn’t need to find a crib, gather blankets or make a medical plan.

Between the temptations of apocalyptic hysteria and enervating boredom lies the responsible, active faith to which Jesus calls us. Do diligently the work that’s before us now, not being so heaven-minded that we’re of no earthly good. Live as though each day is our last on earth. Those who have had a brush with death teach us the vitality that comes with treasuring every moment. But also don’t prejudge or court death before its time. Prudent disciples conserve enough stamina, energy, perspective and wisdom to look at the long-term and prepare as best we can to be here for awhile. “Being a faithful Christian does not just ‘happen’ like crabgrass or dandelions popping up in the lawn,” one writer remarks. “It requires the care, attention, and cultivation of an expert gardener.”[1] We neither assume that what is will always be, nor assume that what is will pass away so soon we can have no lasting impact.

Jesus models this for us, in the last days of his life. He can read the signs and interpret what’s to come in Jerusalem—a reckoning of earthly powers against him that will lead to his death. He’s told the disciples about it three times already. However, he does not live in dread of imminent arrest, torture and crucifixion. Rather, he goes on: teaching, healing, leading, and serving. Actively doing what he’s called to do for as long as he’s got. This is what it looks like to live watchfully, keeping awake. Jesus sets the example for each day of life, and for the end of life.

The story is told of “an eclipse in colonial New England during which state legislators panicked and several moved to adjourn. But one of them said, ‘Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought.’”[2]

That’s what it looks like to keep awake. Though we don’t know the day or the hour we know with certainty that our lives will end and we will meet our Maker. We live with confidence that whenever that time comes, there will be enough grace to cover our faults, and enough love in the divine heart to welcome us all in. Therefore, we don’t need to rush the clock on our lives, nor do we need to linger if the time has come. But until that moment arrives let us live with active faith, so that when the eternal knocks we will not lament what laziness has left undone. Keep awake now, so that we might hear God say then, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your eternal rest.”

Let us pray: God of heaven and earth, your glory fills creation and awaits each one of us. When we are tempted to cry, “Disaster!” grant us faith to look farther, to anticipate your coming with the hope that overcomes all fear. Grant us courage to tackle that which you have set before us in the meantime. Amen.

[1] Pheme Perkins, “Reflections” on Mark 13:32-37 in the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary series, volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 695.

[2] Lamar Williamson, Jr. Mark, in the Interpretation Bible commentary series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 242.

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