Sermon 11-29-2020: “How to Stay Awake”

Scripture: Mark 13:24-37

Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. While the rest of our culture rushes headlong into the monthlong Christmas shopping season, preachers like me are supposed to say, “Hold on! Not so fast! It’s not Christmas yet! It’s Advent… it’s a season of preparation for Christmas.” And traditionally, on this First Sunday of Advent, we preachers prepare you for celebrating the first coming of Christ by focusing on the Second Coming.

So… While I’m not oblivious to the fact that our culture has already started the Christmas season, I’m hoping that preaching these traditional Advent texts will help us celebrate Christmas more joyously when the time comes!

I think I can safely say that most of you—not all of you but most of you—can remember the terrorist attacks of 9/11, including the collapse of the two World Trade Center towers, the attack on the Pentagon, and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania. If so, you remember that in the days, weeks, and months of its aftermath, we Americans were vigilant. We were watching and waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s how it felt! We were fearful. We were expecting further attacks. If you watched that show The West Wing, about a fictitious president and his White House staff, they even filmed a special episode in which they had to scramble and go to an underground bunker—because the producers of the show envisioned a future in which these attacks became commonplace.

And you may also remember things like daily color codes, which told us what the “threat level” for a terrorist attack was on that particular day. And then… you may also remember the wild rumors, urban legends, and crazy news stories associated with potential terrorist attacks. Remember the anthrax in the mail… That was a real thing, of course. But I remember hearing the story, just before Halloween in 2001, of some Middle Eastern men who walked into a Costco in New Jersey, I think, and bought a suspiciously large amount—like tens of thousands of dollars of Halloween candy… and they paid with cash so no one could trace their identity… and so the rumor was going around that Halloween candy was going to be poisoned. Of course it wasn’t true, but that’s not the point… After 9/11—in that fearful, urgent, hyper-vigilant state we were in—the idea that terrorists could attack our children through Halloween candy seemed plausible. 

Why? Because we had a war-time mindset. Nothing was more urgent and more important at that moment than preventing another attack.

But as our experience with 9/11 demonstrates, it’s hard to maintain that kind of mindset. I have no idea, for instance, what the color code is today, and neither do you.

When it comes to the Second Coming of Christ, I’m not about to argue that we should live in fear, like we did back when we were worried that another terrorist attack could happen at any moment, or that we should constantly be thinking about it. I mean, we all know that there are Christians, including more than a few best-selling Christian authors, who seem obsessed with the Second Coming. But let’s face it: that’s not our United Methodist temptation: our United Methodist temptation is to not think about it enough—aside from reciting words about it in the creed each week in the traditional service: I mean, literally every Sunday we say, “I believe… in Jesus Christ [God’s] only Son our Lord… who sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” That’s a reference to the Second Coming. 

We say we believe it, but does our life reflect that belief? We tend to ignore the doctrine of the Second Coming, or minimize it, or spiritualize it… I had a Sunday school teacher one time, for instance, who said that the Second Coming was just a “symbolic” way of describing how Jesus comes and lives in our hearts spiritually when we believe in him. [make gagging motion

I mean, where do you find that in scripture?

But I get it… Perhaps the single biggest challenge to believing in the Second Coming is the fact that it hasn’t happened yet. And let’s face it: today’s scripture includes one of the most difficult verses in the whole Bible, verse 30: Speaking to his closest disciples, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

This generation will not pass away… And yet, it’s clear that that generation did pass away. And there have been about 70 generations since then. And the Second Coming still hasn’t happened. 

So… Was Jesus wrong?

Skeptics and atheists and people who refuse to submit to the lordship of Christ like to think so… But not only them! I hate to say it, but one of my heroes in the faith, C.S. Lewis, thought so, too. Lewis said that Jesus was simply wrong in verse 30… but it’s O.K. that he was wrong, Lewis said, because Jesus goes on to say, in verse 32, that even the Son of God—at least when he became flesh and dwelt among us—didn’t know the day or the hour—only the Father knows.

But here’s the problem: If Jesus was wrong, he was spectacularly wrong: He doesn’t just say, “It might happen in your lifetime,” or “It will probably happen,” or “It seems likely to happen.” He introduces his words by saying, “Very truly I say to you.” In other words, “You can take what I’m about to say to the bank, because it’s going to happen. It’s a rock-solid guarantee.” Therefore it defies logic and sense that Jesus would say that and then turn right around and say, “But I really don’t know for sure if what I just said is true.” See what I mean?

Whatever Jesus was talking about when he said, “This generation will not pass away,” he clearly wasn’t talking about the Second Coming—because he said that his Father hadn’t revealed the time to him.

So what is Jesus talking about?

Well, if you go back to the beginning of the chapter you see that Jesus begins this conversation with Peter, James, John, and Andrew as they are standing on the Mount of Olives—with a terrific view of Jerusalem and the Temple. The context of Jesus’ words is that the disciples are remarking on how beautiful and impressive the Temple is.

That’s when Jesus says—impressive as it is—that the Temple is going to be completely destroyed. And his disciples say, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Notice their question is not, “When will the Second Coming take place,” but rather, when will these things take place—that is, the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple—and how will we know it’s about to happen? And so, in the verses preceding today’s text, verses 5 through 23, Jesus literally gives the disciples signs to look for regarding the destruction of the Temple. 

Notice the disciples ask about these things in verse 4. And notice Jesus makes reference to “these things” twice… in verses 29 and 30. All of the references to “these things” refer not to the Second Coming but to the destruction of the Temple, which took place in A.D. 70, which was between 37 and 40 years after Jesus spoke these words—so that generation didn’t pass away before the events took place.

And we know from history—from documented evidence—that the early Christians did heed Jesus’ warning about the destruction of the Temple and the siege of Jerusalem. They did see the signs and leave the city before all this destruction took place.

Maybe that seems clear enough… But look at verses 24 to 27. Because here, in these verses, Jesus switches gears and talks about the Second Coming. His words about the fall of Jerusalem sort of blend together with his words about the Second Coming. Why does he do that? Because he’s speaking the same way that prophets in the Bible often speak. He’s saying that the events associated with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple are going to be a foreshadowing of the events related to the Second Coming. There was tribulation and suffering in the year 70, there will be greater tribulation and suffering before Christ returns. There were Christians falling away from the faith in the year 70; there will be more Christians falling away before Christ returns. 

In other words, what happens on a small scale before the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 will happen on a large scale before the Second Coming.

Still, you may wonder, doesn’t it seem like a long time has passed? Shouldn’t it have happened by now—if it was going to happen at all?

Not at all! In 2 Peter 3, the apostle writes that “scoffers will come in the last days” with their “sinful desires” and say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” Peter then compares these scoffers to people living in Noah’s day, who also didn’t believe the their world was going to come to an end. The Second Coming and final judgment are coming as surely as the flood came in Noah’s day—even when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! Peter continues:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness…

If, from our Lord’s perspective, one day is as a thousand years, it hasn’t been a lot of time, has it? In fact, given that Christ spoke these words in the year A.D. 30, or thereabouts, it hasn’t even been two days, from the Lord’s perspective. We’re only in the second day.

Back in 1988, a NASA engineer and Bible student named Edgar Whisenant wrote a book called 88 Reasons [the Second Coming] Will Be in 1988. It sold 4.5 million copies! Obviously, he was wrong. So, I kid you not, he revised it, and published an updated version in 1989, saying, “I was wrong about last year, but it’s definitely going to happen this year.” And then when it didn’t happen in 1989, he revised it again in 1993, saying, “Yes, I was wrong about 1988 and 1989, but it’s definitely happening in 1993. And then he revised it again in 1994, saying, “O.K., sure, I was wrong about 1988, 1989, and 1993, but it’s definitely happening this year!” I’m not making this up!

See, another important reason that the Second Coming often seems unreal to us is because there are always Christians out there making predictions about when it’s going to happen, and every prediction since Jesus spoke these words has been wrong! Let me go on record saying that the next prediction will also be wrong, too! Why? Because Jesus warns us in today’s scripture that “no one knows the day or hour… you do not know when the time will come… you do not know when the master of the house will return.” Elsewhere he says he’ll come at an hour when we least expect him. Jesus, Paul and Peter all say that the day of the Lord’s return like a thief in the night! 

I’m a fan of the TV show Parks and Rec, which is about the employees who work at a parks and recreation department in a small town in Indiana. There’s a weird religious cult that lives in the town called the “Reasonabilists.” And every few years, they predict that the world is coming to an end. And every few years they rent out one of the city’s parks in order to prepare to meet their god, named Zorp, whom they believe will come to destroy the world and everyone in it—except for the reasonabilists, I guess. 

Anyway, no one takes them seriously. But whenever they believe that the end of the world is happening, Ron Swanson, the head of the parks department, sells them these wooden flutes that he’s hand-carved—so they can play these songs for Zorp. So in this one episode, when Ron drops off these hand-carved flutes they’ve purchased, one of the cult members writes him a check and says, with a wink, “Don’t cash that until tomorrow,” and everyone laughs because, unlike poor Ron Swanson, they know that tomorrow won’t come. Ron knows, by contrast, that it will—and he makes quite a profit!

So the Reasonabilists are just sitting around staying alert… staying up all night… looking up at the sky… waiting for their god to show up.

I hate to ask, but is this what Jesus means for us to do in this short parable he tells in verses 33 to 37? Notice that five times he says words like, “Be on guard,” “keep awake,” “stay awake.” Is that what he means? We’re simply supposed to waiting and watching the sky?

Not at all! Let me give you two important reasons why…

Jesus’ teaching about the Second Coming in Mark 13 is also found in Matthew 24… except in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew includes more of Jesus’ sermon. See, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus follows this same teaching with three parables, two of which we’ve already looked at in the past few weeks. Remember the Parable of the Talents? Two of the three servants are commended not for sitting still, but for investing the gifts their master gave them… working hard! And the same with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats last week: The “sheep” were those who were out there performing acts of love and compassion to the “least of these.” 

In both cases, Christians are rewarded by Christ for working hard for him and for his kingdom.

But that doesn’t mean, by the way, that we work, work, work, and never rest!

There’s an in Matthew 25 we didn’t preach on—the Wise and Foolish Virgins—ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to return: Five of them are ready to welcome the bridegroom when he returns, and five of them were not ready. Five of them were welcomed into the wedding feast, five were not.

But here’s the thing: All ten bridesmaids, including the five whom the Lord commended for being ready, actually fell asleep waiting for him to return. Yet Jesus uses them as examples of Christians who were awake, and alert, and ready to meet Jesus in his Second Coming. 

My point is, “staying awake” and “keeping watch” and “being alert” and “being on guard” for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with whether we sleep or not. In fact, as one pastor said, “staying awake” often means going to bed at a reasonable hour so that you can get up early enough to pray, to read God’s Word, and to spend time with the Lord, to have a quiet time first thing in the morning—so you’ll be ready to do whatever the Lord calls you to do for that particular day!

In fact, “staying awake” or “keeping watch” or “being alert” or “being on guard” has nothing to do with passively waiting for Christ’s return.

So with these things in mind, let’s look at this little parable at the end of today’s scripture. Verse 34: “Being on guard” and “keeping awake” is “like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake.”

So, Jesus says, the doorkeeper’s job is what…? Literally to “stay awake” and watch the door… to wait for his master to return. So he’ll be ready to open the door. That’s it. That’s the doorkeeper’s only job! Notice Jesus directs this parable only to the “doorkeeper,” not to any other servants. And he concludes by saying, in verse 37, “And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

So Jesus is saying that all of his disciples are supposed to be like the doorkeeper.

And the doorkeeper’s one and only job is to stay awake, to be on guard, and watch the door. And Jesus’ says that if we’re his disciples, that’s our only job, too.

That means that if you’re a Christian, you have one job in this world. Jesus is saying that your job is the same as my job—to “stay awake” and “to be on guard” and to “stay alert” for the Second Coming.

And you might say, “Well, hold on, Brent, that’s easy for you to say! You’re a pastor! It’s your full-time job to ‘serve Jesus’ in this way. It’s your life’s work! It’s not ours!”

But according to Jesus, if you’re a Christian, it’s your full-time job, too! It’s your life’s work, too.  It’s the very reason you’re living. Look at verse 37: What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.Be like the doorkeeper in the parable. That’s what you’re living your life for!

Everything else you do in life—including what you do for a living—is intended to support the life that you live for Christ alone! Because if you’re a Christian, Jesus is your life. Your only goal is to please him, to love him, to glorify him—to make him look great in the eyes of others—and to make him known to others.

Is that how you’re living right now? Because that’s what it means to stay away, to be on guard, and to keep alert!

I like to cook. My dog Ringo likes to play fetch… He’s absolutely obsessed with it. He has a one-track mind. So when I’m cooking, he sits at my feet with a tennis ball in his mouth, waiting for me to toss it to him. And so, as I’m cooking I periodically throw him the ball. My attention is divided. 

He thinks that the reason I’m in the kitchen in the first place is to throw him the ball. But he’s kind of dumb. And he’s kind of self-centered. He doesn’t know that the real reason I’m in the kitchen in is to cook a meal!

So what about you? If this little allegory about the kitchen were to describe your life, which part of it corresponds to your relationship with Jesus? Cooking the meal or periodically throwing the ball? Is Jesus the very reason you’re living, or does he just get a little bit of your time and attention that’s left over to spare?

Because brothers and sisters, the answer to that question will determine whether or not you’ll be found faithful when Christ returns.

And keep in mind: Even if the Second Coming doesn’t happen in your lifetime, the moment of your death may as well be the Second Coming… because for you that will be the last moment you’ll have to be ready for it. It will be the last event before you meet the Lord. And for many of us our death may even be as unexpected as the Second Coming.

When that happens, will the the Lord find us ready, on guard, waiting, and watching for him? 

I pray that he will. Amen.

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