Keep Awake!

“Keep Awake!”

mark 13-26-artistic-christian-clouds-

Mark 13:24-27 (13:27) – December 3, 2017

How difficult it is to keep watch! Imagine how hard it is when you know the estimated time of arrival. There is even an acronym for this—ETA. We know about the estimated time of arrival of planes and trains and buses. People give relatives and friends their estimated time of arrival if they are traveling a long way. It is the polite thing to do, even courteous and helpful thing to do. Just so that the people on the receiving end know when visitors or relatives will be arriving.

We know when the Baby in Bethlehem arrived. Two thousand years ago, that’s when! God the Son, the baby Jesus, God made flesh, was born into this world as a helpless Baby a little more than two thousand years ago, as foretold in Bethlehem. He was born into an oppressed people group, in a land that was under occupation, under a conquering power; born to a young woman and her fiancé with very little money, power, or other prestige.

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the weeks the Church sets aside to wait quietly, expectantly, for the Baby in Bethlehem to be born. Yet, these first two weeks of Advent also give us a look at the future: predictions and promises for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Here in our Gospel reading from Mark this morning, Jesus is asked about the timing of the second coming. When will this mysterious time come about?

Jesus—as is so often the case—does not give a direct answer. Instead, listen to His first example: “24 “In the days after that time of trouble the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, 25 the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in space will be driven from their courses. 28 “Let the fig tree teach you a lesson. When its branches become green and tender and it starts putting out leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you will know that the time is near, ready to begin.”

Sure, the people of Jesus’s time were wondering when Messiah would return. When, Jesus? Please, just tell us when! How similar is that to our own time. Many, many people are dissecting both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament writings. They, too, ask when Messiah is going to return the second time? When, Jesus? Please, just tell us when!

Next, Jesus gives His listeners a parable about a householder and his servants. As the Rabbi Jesus says in our Gospel reading today, “34 It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch.”

We know that Jesus often tells His listeners stories about everyday things, with a twist. Somehow, Jesus uses these common, ordinary things to communicate powerful truths. In this parable, we see a bunch of servants working for a boss with a large household, a large piece of property. The boss goes away on a long journey, and his employees do not know when he will be back.

What would people at your workplace do in a situation like that, with the big boss gone for a really long time? Would your fellow employees continue working hard? Or, would some of them start fooling around? Maybe stop working altogether? How might you react, if this happened to you, or to someone you knew? Again, what would you do?

 Jesus totally skips over that part about exactly when the Messiah is coming back.

Instead, Jesus commands His listeners to “Keep watch!” Let’s look more closely at this story. We are not only supposed to wait expectantly, but we need to be alert. Not just to stand around and twiddle our thumbs like a bunch of do-nothings and know-nothings. Each servant—or employee has their own job to do. Each servant—or employee has an assigned task. The door-keeper has just about the most important job of all of them, which is to stay alert and to keep watch, no matter what. Keep an eye on things, and when the big boss unexpectedly returns, we are warned not to cut back or sleep or lie down on the job.

Let us consider today, in modern-day United States. When we think of Advent, what comes to our minds? Advent wreaths? Advent get-togethers after work or on the weekends? Maybe school holiday productions incorporating Advent?

Dr. David Lose, one of my favorite commentators, said “Each and all of it can be wonderful, and each and all of it can become rather overwhelming. So perhaps we might invite folks to make a short list – whether in their heads or on paper – of a few of the things that will occupy their Advent.[1]

What are you going to do for Advent? How are you going to get ready? How are you going to watch and keep awake?

I am not sure about anyone else here, but my December activities are threatening to become overwhelming. Can anyone else relate? Does anyone else have any idea about vulnerability and connecting with others?

The Church around the world is told to keep watch diligently. And then, “to think about how in each of those events and activities they might be more attentive to the vulnerability and need of those around them and more honest and open about their own need that they might receive the care of others.” [2]

Now, wait a minute, Jesus! I thought Advent was a time for us to wait and watch? A time for Advent calendars and Advent wreaths? I wanted to sit quietly in my corner and watch from the comfort of my easy chair. I did not want to step out of my comfort zone!

Guess what? The landlord—the big boss—has given all of us our jobs to do. In last week’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we are to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and visit the people in hospitals and in prison. Yes, this may be a lot for us to take in. However, the commands of Jesus are pretty important! Don’t you think we ought to sit up and pay attention to His commands?

Jesus and His commands can lead us in new directions. Pastor Janet Hunt makes the following suggestion: “knowing that it will all one day end can also set us free, can’t it?

  • Free to speak words of truth and hope and love.
  • Free to reach out in generosity and kindness.
  • Free to forgive what before seemed unforgivable.
  • Free to let go of what we thought we would always need.” [3]

What an exciting opportunity to truly be what Jesus—the householder—the big boss—is calling each of us to be. “How do we “keep awake” in this kingdom time of already-not-yet? Simply by being faithful to the tasks God has given us to do – the tasks of kindness, mercy, justice, faithfulness, and love.” [4] When we are faithful in these things, we will become more and more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/advent-1-b/  “Preaching a Participatory Advent,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/raking-in-the-dark/  “Raking in the Dark,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.

[4] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week One. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Keep Watch!

“Keep Watch!”

Matt 25-12 I know you not

Matthew 25:1-13 (25:13) – November 12, 2017

Just two weeks ago, St. Luke’s Church had its big fall Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. This dinner took quite a bit of planning and preparation. Just ask anyone who worked on planning, preparing, serving, or cleaning up. And, another big thank you to all of those who planned, worked, or ate at the Spaghetti Dinner. It all was much appreciated!

I am a person who is not naturally a planner. Or, rather, I was not the person who would be so very prepared. You know that sort of person. They always plan way in advance. They always bring more supplies, buy plenty of food, and especially are always there in plenty of time, for any occasion. I admire these people. Over time, I have learned how to copy certain aspects of their planning and preparation. However, I am not naturally one of these super-prepared people.

To recap from our scripture from Matthew 25, there are a bunch of young women—strictly speaking, the text calls them “virgins.” They are to accompany the bridegroom and the rest of the bridal party as he travels to the bride’s home, picks her up, and they all go to a large banquet hall to celebrate the ceremony. This was a common feature of weddings in that part of the world, and still is in places around the world, today.

Jesus’s parable from Matthew 25 is all about being prepared. Doing some advance planning. And, at face value, it seems really unfair.      As Dr. David Lose (one of my favorite commentators) said, “All the bridesmaids brought oil, all waited, all fell asleep. And the decision about who gets in comes down to who anticipated the bridegroom would be this incredibly late and so brought more oil. Okay, so maybe it’s not unfair. Maybe it’s just that I’m pretty darn certain that I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids.” [1]

Oh, Dr. Lose, I relate so much! I fear I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids, too! I am afraid I may not be welcomed to the wedding banquet, either.

I have a confession to make. I have never preached a sermon on this parable before. I have always been leery of it. Or afraid of it. I wrestled with the idea of preaching on this parable, and felt convicted by God. So, I decided—with God’s help, when this reading came up as a lectionary Gospel reading that I would definitely preach on it.

Let’s pull back from this brief parable, and look at the larger situation where the Rabbi Jesus tells it. This is sometime midway through Holy Week, where Jesus is being asked when the end times will come. That’s a big reason why He gives this long discourse called the Olivet Discourse, several chapters long in Matthew’s Gospel. Similar to now, people all through the centuries have been aware that the Bible has certain mysterious, even unclear prophecies concerning the end times, just before when the Messiah will come.

Jesus “lets them know that there will be signs, terrible signs, that will give people clues that the end is coming, encouraging them not to listen to idle rumors, but to trust His words. The parable of the bridesmaids compares the listeners to [bridesmaids], entrusted with a role,” [2] while waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Preparation and planning are often mixed up with waiting. Sure, we can plan the menu for a big dinner, and purchase the food for the big event. We prepare everything for the festive table, and get the table centerpieces and flowers and everything else. But sometimes, waiting is somehow involved in this process. Waiting for God to show up. How long do we wait? That was just what the disciples were anxious and worried about. That was one big reason why Jesus told several parables in this particular discourse.

A story one commentator told happened several years ago. Dr. Karoline Lewis relates: “My father-in-law was a World War II veteran and he died a year ago this past April at the age of 96. In the twenty-three years I have known my husband, it was only in the last few that Sam [my father-in-law] ever talked about the war. The last time I saw him was at his bequest to have as many of his grandchildren present, not necessarily for a final goodbye, but as you know, people can sense that death is soon. Of course, that truth elicits its own sense of what waiting is like.

“That day, Sam talked about the war. He talked about the waiting. You see, he had been selected, singled out, not to be sent to the front, but to stay behind. Why? He was good in math. He showed us his notebook in which he had calculated multiple ballistic measurements. And as he worked on his equations, he waited for his fellow soldiers, his friends, to return. Some did. Some did not. He could not understand how he was spared. Yet in the waiting and the wondering he knew God was there, and there was nothing else he could do but trust that truth.” [3]

I wonder how many of us can trust God when we are waiting and wondering? I wonder how many of us continue to have faith in God when things just don’t seem to make any sense? Like in the case of difficult scripture passages like this one, this parable from Matthew where the bridegroom—Jesus—sends the five foolish, unprepared bridesmaids away, not allowing them in to the wedding banquet?

All these bridesmaids were waiting. (As do we. We wait for Jesus to return, and we—the church—have been waiting for centuries.) Five of these bridesmaids were prepared, and had enough oil. Five did not. We can compare that to having extra batteries for your flashlight, like I told the boys during the children’s time before the sermon. But today’s parable does not highlight a shortage of oil for the lamps. No, the oil is plentiful. There is more than enough oil. However, the five bridesmaids forget they are going to need the oil. [4] I sometimes forget I need oil—which God bountifully supplies. Do you sometimes forget, too?

I want to highlight verse 13, where Jesus says “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Yes, there is pain, suffering, loss, grief, sickness, anxiety, and all manner of other difficult things in this world. We are not certain when God will show up. Yet, we can glean some words of advice from this parable: Be prepared. Plan. Watch. Keep awake. And, wait.

“If only we will remember that we have a steady supply of precious ‘oil’ to help light our way. For we have already have Jesus as we await the ‘bridegroom’s’ return.’ We already have Jesus. If only we will pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift, it is already ours. All we have to do is fill our lamps.” [5]

We all have been called to lift our lamps—our lights—and lift them high, shining as signs of promise and hope in a dark world with little hope or brightness or light in it. The oil is provided for us. Jesus encourages us to lift our lights in an often dark world.

Indeed, isn’t this what the world needs most of all?

 

(A big thank you to David Lose, Liz Milner, Karoline Lewis and Janet Hunt for their helpful writings as I wrestled with this challenging text from Matthew 25.)

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/  “Hope and Help for Foolish Bridesmaids,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1534-my-bad-dream  “My Bad Dream,” Liz Milner, Journey with Jesus, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3413  “How To Wait,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[4] http://dancingwiththeword.com/oil-for-our-lamps/  “Oil for Our Lamps,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.  November 5, 2017

[5] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)