“Stay Awake”

Mark 13:32-37
November 22, 2020
Matt Goodale

Fasten your seat belts. That is the current message of the Rapture Ready Index, which you can easily view online. It is an index provided for Christians to indicate how near we are to the end times and the second coming of Christ, which according to some will surely begin with the rapture of all righteous believers from the face of the earth. In case you were wondering, “fasten your seat belts” is the ultimate category. This index quantifies current events to determine when Christians need to be ready, and according to the index, we are scoring well above the 160-point mark, which is when Christians need to “fasten your seat belts” because the end is imminent.

What is more, the Rapture Ready Index is just one of hundreds of online sites available to give Christians all the information they need to know to determine when Jesus is coming again. A search on Amazon reveals nearly 300,000 books and movies that relate somehow to Christ’s return and the end of the world. All of these sites, books and movies would not exist if people weren’t logging into them, reading them or viewing them. They have a ready audience. Concerning the end times, pastor Rodger Nishioka writes, “It seems to be in our nature to want to know. For some, it is simple curiosity and amusement. For others, it is complete silliness and absurdity. For yet others, it is very, very serious.”

I have a confession to make to you all. That even after seven years of rigorous theological education and biblical study, I usually do whatever I can to stay away from passages like the one I just read for us today. In our passage, Jesus tells his disciples to stay awake, to keep watch, because no one knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man will come again. I confess that I try my hardest to stay away from passages like this one – passages that cryptically mention the second coming or the end times—mostly because I’ve heard so many bad sermons and lessons on them. These preachers I’ve heard usually emphasize judgment. I don’t know about you, but I usually hear Jesus’ words here as if they were threatening or punitive, as if Jesus is saying, “You’d better do it right, or I’m going to get you. You’d better stay awake, or else.”

But in this passage at least, Jesus is not talking about judgment. He’s not threatening us or talking about death. He’s not trying to get us to obsess over when his second coming will occur. In fact, his goal is the opposite of this, which is why he tells us that no one knows the day or the hour, so don’t bother with trying to figure it out. It’s as if Jesus knows that Christians would forever be preoccupied with knowing exactly when he would come again. And indeed, Christ’s second coming is a core part of Christian theology. We find much of our hope in the promise that one day Jesus will return to set all things right, to redeem all suffering, to wipe away every tear. We cling to this hope and eagerly look forward to it. Jesus is pointing his disciples to this hope, but he also warns them against the passivity that comes with waiting.

“Keep awake, be ready; for you do not know when the time will come.” These are not threatening words. They are a call to action. Jesus’ words here are a call to keep your eyes peeled for traces of God’s Kingdom here and now.  Jesus turns his disciples’ attention away from obsessing over knowing the exact moment when he will come again in the future, and he points them towards their responsibility in the present: “Stay awake. Don’t fall asleep. Be ready for anything.”

In high school I had a bad habit of falling asleep in some of my classes. Perhaps it was the stress I was under. Or maybe it was the two cans of Mountain Dew I would drink some evenings that would keep me up until 1am. Who knows! But every now and again in class I would succumb to the “head-bob”. You all know what I’m talking about – I’ve seen you do it during my sermons. It’s that split second reaction when your body catches itself before falling over asleep. Your head drops for an instant and pops right back up, eyes snapped wide open, trying to fight away the sleepiness that’s pulling you under. This was my life in high school Spanish 301.

I enjoyed Spanish, but I always had this class right after lunch, when my adolescent body was in the middle of shutting down into a food coma. I was usually pretty good at hiding my sleepiness and stealing a few minutes of shuteye. But I remember one class period when my Spanish teacher caught me completely off guard. I must’ve been dosing in my chair, because all I remember is jerking awake to realize that my teacher and the whole class were staring at me! She had evidently asked me a question in Spanish and found me entirely unresponsive. It was so embarrassing. But I learned my lesson and I don’t think I ever slept in Spanish class after that.

Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, writes that in this passage Jesus is preparing his disciples for the “forever coming of Christ, the eternal coming of Christ…nowand nowand now.” He writes, “Christ is always coming; God is always present. It’s we who aren’t!” God’s kingdom is simultaneously coming and is already here among us. We await Christ’s second coming, and yet we know that Christ is already present with us. As Christians we aren’t called to sit back in our cozy armchairs and wait for the end when we’ll beamed up to heaven. No, Jesus tells us to always be ready, to be awake, to be fully conscious and expectant. This is the key to all spirituality, because we usually aren’t. Most of the time we’ve stopped looking for Christ in our daily lives. Most of the time we’re asleep, kept comfortable and secure by our routines, our patterns, our wealth, our sense of self-importance and identity. Like me in high school Spanish, we grow too comfortable and we fall asleep to God’s presence; we stop looking for Christ’s coming on this day, in this moment, in this given situation. Because when you’re comfortable and you have your routines, why do you need to look for God?

If there’s one thing that is common to us all as 21st century Americans, it’s our desire for patterns, for consistency, for dependability, to know what I can expect from my day. We don’t like disruptions or surprises, anything that breaks my expectations of what my life is supposed to be like. It’s taken a global pandemic for many of us to see just how much we depend on our routines, and to see how aimless we feel when our life is interrupted and nothing is very dependable anymore. Our jobs don’t look the same for many of us. If you have kids or grandkids, your life is very different without in-person schooling. Church isn’t the same. We now have to think twice about trips to the store or to restaurants. Spending time with family and friends isn’t even a constant we can rely on anymore. Our Thanksgiving plans might be cancelled or up in the air. Life feels like one giant disruption right now…

Yet God is invariably and ironically in the disruptions, the discontinuities, the exceptions and the surprises of life. God is seldom in the comfortable routines and patterns we amass for ourselves. We slumber in our routines, and so God has to literally catch us “off guard”. Like my high school Spanish teacher, life’s interruptions rudely awaken us back to real life; they’re jarring, they leave us feeling vulnerable and aimless. And that’s when God does his best work in us. When we are awake to God’s presence, we see life’s disruptions in a different light. They might still be an inconvenience, but they also become an opportunity to experience God’s life-changing presence in a new way.

All of Christian spirituality (as we practiced a moment ago with our clenched prayers) is about finding Christ in this moment right now, not the next. It’s about finding Christ in this disruption, not once things are back to normal. Once we realize this, we view Jesus’ words in a different light. “Stay awake, be ready.” Jesus isn’t just talking about some future event; he’s talking about right here, right now. Stay awake so that you won’t miss God’s presence and God’s action in your life this very moment.

There’s a new term that’s very popular among young people these days. I’m sure you’ve come across it. The term is “woke.” This is a word used to describe someone who is aware of social justice issues. You’re considered “woke” if you are aware of the realities of injustice and are doing something to fix them. I actually really like this term, because it’s an accurate description of what it means to be educated on social injustices. If you’re “woke”, it literally means you’re “awake” to what’s happening right in front of you; it’s as if your eyes are now opened to things as they really are.

If we were to translate our passage into colloquial English, Jesus would be telling his disciples to get “woke”. He’s giving them a call to wake up to the realities of life as they really are, to move beyond the comfort and security we find in our routines, and to see Christ in all things – the good, the bad and the ugly. To stay awake is to look for Christ everywhere, in everything; it is to trust that Christ can be found in this interaction I’m having, this interruption that is occurring, this fear and anxiety I’m feeling. God is always present. The problem is that we are not.

Wednesdays are typically my sermon writing day. This past Wednesday I took a break from writing this particular sermon to go pick up some milk from the grocery store. I find that taking breaks like this can help me think and organize my ideas.

And as I’m getting in my car with my groceries to drive home, I see an older woman standing outside the store with a walker. She’s holding up a multi-colored umbrella and a cardboard sign written in sharpie that is now smudged from the rain that has started to pour. I think for a second that I should get back out of my car and go see what she needs. But by now it’s raining hard and besides, I have important things to get back to, like writing this sermon.

So I start driving out of the parking lot and suddenly Jesus’ words pop into my head, “Stay awake, be ready.” And I realize that by driving away and ignoring this woman I’m doing the very thing that Jesus is warning his disciples not to do. I was asleep in my routine, my convenience, my urgency to get back home.

So then I turned the car around, parked it, pulled out my umbrella and went to talk with her. Her name was Shyla and there was no more room at the shelters in downtown Spokane so she was trying to pay for a motel for herself and a family member. I bought her a couple gift cards so she could get some food, gave her bus fare and suggested some other resources for her to look into. It wasn’t much and I left wishing I could’ve done more.

But as I got back in my car to drive home, I realized that I had encountered Christ in my interaction with Shyla. And I had almost driven by and missed it. I realized that I needed that interaction, maybe as much as Shyla did. Often when we help someone in need, we see ourselves as being Christ to them, we see ourselves giving them something they need. But often, when we slow down enough from our rushed and frantic living to encounter someone who is down and out, we find that they are in fact Christ to us. We need them as much as they need us. “Keep awake, be ready,” because it may just be Christ’s eyes looking back at you through the eyes of the person you’ve slowed down long enough to notice.

Jesus shares a parable with his disciples in which the master of the house leaves and entrusts different responsibilities to his servants until he returns. Each is to carry out their responsibilities and watch for the master’s return. This parable reminds us that we have more than enough gifts to work Christ’s healing and hope in the world, even in a world filled with global and national tumult. All it takes is being “woke” enough to see our fellow human beings, to meet their needs as we’re able, to extend love and compassion, to have grace for those who are difficult, and to encounter Christ in every moment. Theologian Brian Blount writes, “When we’re down and out, instead of coming to God to look for a pick-me-up, as though God were a spiritual drugstore and we’d written out a prayer prescription for ourselves, perhaps we ought to come looking for ways to identify with someone in trouble, and give of ourselves, even when we feel given out. Perhaps it’s in the giving to others that we [find] the peace we seek.” Indeed, the very peace of Christ.

“Stay awake, be ready” for the forever coming of Christ, the eternal coming of Christ in this moment…and in this moment…and in this moment (Rohr). We don’t just keep watch for the second coming of Christ when he will set all things right and wipe away every tear, we also stay awake for Christ’s entrance into our lives in this very moment, and in this one and in this one. Every disruption, every surprise is a new opportunity to wake up and see that Christ has been with us the whole time, we’ve just been asleep. “Stay awake and be ready,” for Christ, the master of the house, is already here with us. Amen.