Sermon Message for Saturday, December 2, 2023 & Sunday, December 3, 2023
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Sermon Message: “Keep Awake, For God’s New World Is Coming”
By Kathleen Howells, Lay Minister
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, the last of the leaves have fallen from the trees, and any still holding on look dry and dead. Our Thanksgiving celebrations are over, the kids have all gone home, and we even saw snow flurries this week.
And now we begin a new church year which is the first Sunday of the Advent of our Lord. The season we await the arrival of God-made-flesh while simultaneously preparing for His coming again and the fulfillment of what has been promised.
Stir up your power and come! This psalmist plea has become a familiar prayer in the season of Advent. And in our first reading Isaiah wants God to rip the heavens open and come near. Both readings cry out for an apparently distant, angry God to show up, to save, and restore. And then we hear Jesus describing the coming of the Son of Man in Mark’s gospel with stars falling from heaven, it sounds apocalyptic, not like anything we would ever hope for. But when we really look at the suffering people all around who God loves, it’s then, we can share the hope that God would tear open the heavens and come.
Now the promise of Advent is that God is always at work in the world, bringing new beginnings and a new creation to people and powers who are bent on destruction. Yet, because we live in between the “already” of Christ’s resurrection and the “not yet” of God’s full restoration of the creation, we cannot know when that final day will arrive.
And so often we may think, “Since the time of Jesus’ second coming cannot be known, I don’t want to think much about it especially at the time of year when our minds are busy with endless Christmas to-do list. I just want to prepare for Jesus’ birth and focus on that.” After all, it could be hundreds, or thousands, or millions of years from now.” But, as Jesus said, “what if it’s this evening, or at midnight, or at dawn?”
So, instead of becoming preoccupied with the end times, Jesus counsels us to live our lives in a state of preparedness- trusting that our home is God’s home, and that God is coming once again to dwell with us. Just as he did when he sent baby Jesus. 1 Corinthians tells us, this trust is the strength that sustains us as we “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In my training at Gettysburg, we often ended the evenings with compline, an evening prayer service which included a closing prayer: Keep watch, dear Lord with those who work or watch or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, sooth the suffering, comfort the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.
Now, compline by design, is a service of completion where you reflect on the day that has passed and entrust yourself to God’s keeping as you prepare to enter into sleep. But compline also holds space for those who are not preparing for sleep, “those who work or watch or weep.” For blessed are those who rest, and blessed are those who keep awake.
“Keep awake,” Jesus says in our gospel reading, for God’s new world is coming. And this call comes to us during a season of rapidly shortening days and early-falling nights. As we approach the winter solstice, and our bodies crave more and deeper rest, the call to keep awake can feel impractical or ironic. But of course, Jesus is not speaking literally about our sleep hygiene. (Rather, he is speaking about attentiveness and vigilance, about being spiritually prepared for the arrival of God’s eternal reign when it breaks into the world.)
So, many years ago, I was the third shift receptionist at a state hospital. While the rest of my family slept comfortably at home in their beds, 30 miles away, I held vigil over the switchboard and everyone who came in and out of the facility. As the night got longer and there were fewer calls, I found ways to keep awake. Often my mind kept returning to thoughts of people elsewhere who also remained awake: to those upstairs working the floors to be with the vulnerable patients there, and those keeping watch at the bedsides of dying loved ones, mothers tending to their babies, ICU nurses and first responders, other night-shift workers like me, those suffering from insomnia or night terrors, night owls finally moving toward rest, and early risers already on the move.
I considered each of them as they kept vigil in their own way and remained attentive to their needs as well as the needs of others. I imagined how they remained watchful, encountering each mysterious movement of the night.
It was then, I considered how the practice of keeping vigil is not merely a nighttime exercise. For we can watch and wait and anticipate God’s future and encounter divine beauty at any time of day or night, in joy or in sorrow. Because the wakefulness that Jesus ask of us is nothing other than the spiritual practice of paying attention.
In her book, “An Altar in the World” by Barbara Brown Taylor is a chapter called, “The Practice of Paying Attention.” In it she speaks to the art of reverence, of paying attention to the world and encountering all that is sacred, holy, and beautiful. She writes, “Regarded properly, anything can become a sacrament, by which I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual connection.” She goes on saying, “To regard something properly is to engage in the practice of paying attention, which is as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore…It is one way into a different way of life, full of treasure for those who are willing to pay attention to exactly where they are.”
It's true, for many, life in this world isn’t very pleasant. We see and experience these people every day. But even those fortunate to have a life filled with joy and blessing should not be satisfied to the point of complacency because there’s more! There is better! And it’s the church’s mission to continue the work Jesus began and endure until all is accomplished. By reaching out in love to those less fortunate and in need, and bringing them hope in Jesus’ name, we are preparing God’s Kingdom here on earth. Because hope does not disappoint, and salvation is a reality.
Now we get no explanation why there is suffering before Jesus returns, but we do get a promise: when all is said and done, we will have a happy ending and it will never end. Mark tells us today that this is the faith that must permeate our daily lives.
Today, Jesus urges us to keep awake, and remain prepared for the full and final in-breaking of God’s reign when it comes. And when we commit to the spiritual practice of staying awake, we find that we can catch glimpses of this reign each and every day in the here and now.
Because God’s reign is found in the dancing of a candle flame, lighted in prayer at the end of the day. It’s in the deep questions that only come to us when we are frustratingly unable to stay asleep at night, in the wonder of the stars that rise at night. It is embodied by the weary ones, dozing in hospital recliners, beside loved ones who are sick or dying. And it can even be found in the twitching of a cat’s ears. For God’s reign is present in the holy gift of keeping alert for his endless and bountiful grace which brings us hope and allows us look forward to his coming again.
Each day, Jesus again whispers this directive into our hearts: Stay awake. God’s kingdom will come, and we will be ready to welcome it if we have already been paying attention by holding vigil for this world. Amen.