The Rev. Jay Lawlor
“Keep Awake” – 1 Advent, Year B, December 3, 2017
St. John’s Episcopal Church – Speedway, IN
Today we begin the season of Advent. It is a time of waiting and expectation. A time to reflect on the already and not yet of Christian life and witness. We already have Jesus in our lives – he was born, lived, died, and rose again over 2,000 years ago. And yet we wait and prepare to celebrate the magnificent miracle of his birth. We wait and reflect on the significance that Jesus – the Christ, the Messiah, Emmanuel (God with us) – entered into the world in meekness and humility, served those most on the margins of society, died at the hands of oppressors, and rose again to shatter the bonds of death and destruction. And we wait and prepare for a time when God in Christ will make all things whole as God’s righteousness will reign everywhere.
Our reading from Mark on this first Sunday of Advent, in Year B of our lectionary cycle, offers us what is often referred to as Mark’s “little apocalypse” in chapter 13 of the gospel narrative. While Mark appears as the second gospel in the Bible, it was the first gospel written. Scholars place the date of authorship in the late first-century, around the year 70 – the same year the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This is particularly significant to our reading from Mark this morning as Jesus’ discourse is to be understood as addressing the reality of the Temple’s destruction as a real crisis for Jesus’ late first-century followers. As one biblical commentator, Professor David Schnasa Jacobson of Boston University School of Theology, suggests:
The Temple crisis is important for Jesus’ apocalyptic speech in Mark. The destruction of the Temple represents a catastrophe of divine presence and continuity with the past. The Temple is a center of religious life, but also political and economic life, too. When we read apocalyptic texts generically, it is helpful to think of them as crisis literature. Something about a given moment calls into question the righteousness of God. (David Schnasa Jacobsen “Commentary on Mark 13:24-37” www.workingpreacher.org)
So while Mark’s late first-century audience are Gentile-Christians, the destruction of the Jewish Temple in the year 70 sent shock waves throughout the Roman Empire. For the faithful in Judaism and Christianity – be they Jewish-Christian or Gentile-Christian groups, it was a time of real crisis and persecution. Life was hard and it would have been easy to question God’s divine presence and righteousness. For Christians they had to wonder what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in such a time of crisis. One of destruction, oppression, and persecution.
The narrative in Mark’s gospel of the “little apocalypse” is offered in direct response to address the situation of late first-century Christians. Mark’s Jesus tells of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the crisis to follow. The very crisis the hearers of Mark’s gospel were experiencing. Those early Christian communities needed to know that all was not lost; that despite all that was happening around them, God was still with them. Those early Christian communities were being reminded that Jesus was with them, and that they still had work to do as disciples. They needed to “Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37 NRSV)
Being part of the Way of Jesus, being a member of the Jesus movement, meant those late first-century Christians needed to continue to share the Good News of God in Christ. They needed to continue to serve as the heart and hands of Jesus even, or especially, in a time of crisis. It was not a time for burying their heads in the sand because it could be too much to take. It was not an option to throw up their hands in frustration. It was not a time to just sit around and wait for the manifestation of God’s righteousness, because God has called God’s people to be about the work of God’s righteousness in the here and now.
David Schnasa Jacobsen again offers insightful commentary when he writes:
The purpose of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark is not scary Nostradamus-like timetables or garish National Enquirer headlines, but a promising call to a [practice] of wakefulness to keep on keepin’ on in the face of a “gathering” [the full realization of God in human experience]. (David Schnasa Jacobsen “Commentary on Mark 13:24-37” www.workingpreacher.org – The * are my substitutions for more scholarly language used by the commentator in his original text)
Martha Simmons in African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy suggests:
Eschatology is where the sweet bye and bye meets the nasty here and now. (Martha Simmons, “Introduction,” in 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy, eds. M. Simmons and F. Thomas (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2001)
Isn’t that such a wonderful phrase that speaks to gritty reality of a nation, a world, in crisis?: “the sweet bye and bye meets the nasty here and now.” My friends, we know all too well the nastiness of the here and now. We know all too well of living in a time of crisis. As a society we have been traumatized enough in recent months. Violence against innocents, oppression against those on the margins, economic assault on the poor and middle class families struggling to get by, and increasing acts of political malpractice.
We are living in our own time of crisis. And all of us, in one way or another, feel the impact of the cumulative toll this is taking on our society. But while we may have moments of despair, Advent reminds us to live in hope as we wait and prepare.
While we may experience a sense of whiplash as we are lurched from one moment of crisis to the next, Jesus tells us to “keep awake.” It is our call to continue the work of Jesus in the messiness of the here and now. A reminder, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Just as Jesus spoke to an early church striving for a sense of God’s righteousness and justice in a fragile and unfinished world, so he still speaks to the church today. Advent is a season in which we reflect on God’s promises, what God has already done in the world, and how God continues urge us onward in the midst of our own fragility and the incompleteness of our future.
So, my friends, this Advent, as in every Advent, we take time to pause, reflect, and prepare to celebrate again the miracle of Christ’s birth, and the already and not yet of God’s righteous reign. And as we do, we are to keep awake so we may proclaim that in the messiness of the here and now, in the reality of any crisis we may face, we press on. We press on as followers of Jesus called to continue God’s work of bending the moral arc of the universe toward the fullness of God’s righteousness and justice. Amen.