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“Stay Alert”

Mark 13:24-37 (CEB)

“In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.

“Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, at the door. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

“But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only God knows. Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. Don’t let him show up when you were not expecting and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”

A word of God, for the people of God…Thanks be to God.

First Sunday in Advent
December 2-3, 2017
“Stay Alert”
Mark 13:24-37

This is the first Sunday in Advent and the beginning of a new church year. This is the beginning of four weeks of hopeful waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas.

Yet, our sermon Scripture today from the Gospel of Mark is often referred to as “the little apocalypse.” The word ‘apocalyptic’ comes from a Greek word meaning “uncovered” or “revealed.”
The OT book of Daniel and the NT book of Revelation are both apocalyptic style writings. These types of writings are often hard to understand and filled with disturbing images; and have at times been misused through the centuries to incite fear and doom.

Yet, words like we will hear in our Gospel Scripture are also offered as words of hope and invitation for how to live in today’s world, especially at the beginning of yet another Advent season when we are asked to keep awake and stay alert to God’s presence.

(Read Mark 13:24-37)

I don’t know about you, but keeping awake is getting harder and harder for me to do at certain times during the day…I’m becoming more and more fond of naps.

Think of what is the hardest part of the day for you to keep awake…For me it’s a little bit after lunch…a power nap would really come in handy from about 1:30-2:00 in the afternoon.

There is the relatively new industry of helping people get a nap during the day in an effort to rejuvenate enough to keep awake and stay alert longer.
One of the latest nap-aids is called the Ostrich Pillow (picture #1). It’s like a bean bag with holes in it that covers your head, but still allows you to breath. The commercial I have seen for this napping pillow (picture #2) says that the material provides amazing comfort on nearly any surface. It goes on to say that you can comfortably nap on benches, public transit, on an airplane, or even against a light post. The Ostrich Pillow allows you to nap anywhere!
One High School in New Mexico is even experimenting with helping tired, anxious and stressed out teenagers catch a 20-minute nap during the school day. One teenager says, like many teens struggling to get good grades and maybe even a college scholarship, she does not get enough sleep. When students in this high school feel tired, anxious or stressed, they can get a hall pass to head to a room with space-like capsules to take a nap (picture).

Statistics from the Centers of Disease Control show that about one-third of Americans are sleep-deprived. We are an exhausted people.
Whether or not we actually get the opportunity to take a nap during the day, most of us, experience our attention waning or drifting at some point during the day and we find ourselves half listening to conversations or fighting to keep our eyes open
(back to title slide).

So, what calls you back to attention when you are drifting off? What wakes you up or keeps you awake?

Jesus warns three times in our Scripture today to “Stay alert.”
But the command of Jesus is not to stay alert and keep doing, doing, doing. Rather it is to stay alert and to wait…and wait…and wait some more.

In its location in the Gospel of Mark, the warning is stated before Jesus goes to the cross, but in the context of Advent, it is a call to expectation, and preparation, and heightened awareness of God coming into our midst.

But, after so many humdrum, run-of-the-mill Advent seasons and Christmases, it seems like we don’t really expect much to happen or be different from every other year in terms of God coming among us.
With some radio stations and shopping malls playing constant Christmas music since early November, we’ve already been lulled into a semi-sleep state and hardly hear or see the sounds and symbols that prepare and point us toward the coming of Christ at Christmas. In Advent, we are indeed asleep to much of what matters and so we need a wake-up call like we get from the Gospel of Mark.
It may be a bit disconcerting that the Gospel reading to begin Advent this year is from the Gospel of Mark, which has no birth story of Jesus and this particular reading from Mark calls in Advent with chilling images of a fading sun, a moon that does not give light, stars falling and the heavens shaking.

By the time the author of Mark’s gospel wrote his words down some decades after the death of Jesus, the headlines and news of the day was as troubling as it is now.
Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple had been destroyed. There was oppression, civil unrest and violence among the people; and religious and political authorities were being persecuted.
Everything seemed to be falling apart and the people seemed to be living in an elevated state of fear. And when fear, rather than hope is the watchword of the day, we start to believe that every disaster or scene of human tragedy is the beginning of the end.

In some circles, predicting the end of the world is very much a present reality. Things were no different in the time of the gospel writers…there were those that had an overwhelming need to know when Jesus was coming; they were not content with simply knowing that Jesus was coming.
A search on Amazon.com reveals nearly 300,000 books, movies, and other types of literature written that relates somehow to Christ’s return and the end of the world.
All these predictions seem somewhat remarkable given that we are told in Scripture that not even Jesus or the angels in heaven know when that day or hour will come; only God knows.
So, rather than being a description of the end of the world, our Gospel scripture is much more a lesson to remind us that you and I are not in charge of the timeline of when or how God intervenes and comes into the world and into our lives.
In the meantime, our job is to stay alert, to wait and to watch…not to watch out, but to watch while we wait for God’s coming into our midst.

Advent involves the intentional work of waiting. But it is the kind of waiting in which we are waiting in a state of readiness.

Several years ago I was planning to take my 4-year-old neighbor girl to the zoo on a Saturday. I was talking to her on the phone the Wednesday before our trip and I said something like, “Are you ready to go to the zoo?” Then we talked about the animals we were looking forward to seeing; what snacks we would take, what we were going to have for lunch, and what kind of souvenirs at the zoo we might purchase.
We said goodbye; then about an hour later her father called me and wanted to know what I had said to her. I tried to think what my conversation had been with this 4-year-old. Then I asked, “Why?” Her father said, “Because she’s sitting in the living room by the front window with her jacket on and her backpack full; ready to go, waiting for you!”
Then I remembered…I had asked her if she was ready to go. That’s the kind of active, expectant waiting Jesus commands of us. He wants us to live ready to go and to stay awake, be alert and on the lookout for the movement of God.
This looking for the movement of God can be in the big things like peace talks, an end to war, good news from the oncologist, or finding a job after a long search. It can be in the little things like an unexpected phone call that brightens your day, a note of gratitude, a visit that brings joy, or an opportunity to laugh.

Our Scripture contains some of Jesus’ last words before his crucifixion. They become our first words in this Advent season. They become a call to stay alert to what is happening in our world and in our lives.

There is much to be done in our Advent waiting; and our job is to stay alert in our waiting without losing hope.

It really doesn’t matter what else is going on around us, the news of the day, the circumstances, distractions and preoccupations of our own lives, or the business of the season; the most important discipline for Advent is to stay alert to God’s presence, so we can better live in relationship with God and bring hope to God’s people.

When we spend our time stuck in the details of when and how Christ will come again, we fail to see the truth that Christ has come not once, not twice, but hundreds and hundreds of times as Emmanuel…God with us…our Savior.

Obviously, we know when Christmas will arrive and what it will be like when it does. We know the script. But waiting for Christ to come; or to come again, requires something more of us…it requires an expectant, active, hopeful readiness that calls us to stay alert.

By God’s grace, may it be so for each of us this Advent season.

Thanks be to God.