For most of our childhood, my brother Caleb and I shared a bedroom. We had a great collection of action figures and, on weekday nights, we would set them up into epic battles. It was a combination of superheroes, Star Wars characters, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles all fighting one another. But on Saturday afternoons, we had to clean our room. Our mother would make us go into the room and we would stare at the apocalyptic battlefield that was our bedroom.
Our mother would then say to us, "Okay, boys. Get to work. And when I come back, I want to be able to see that you were cleaning your room." She would then walk down the hallway and we would start picking up our toys. But after a few minutes, we would sort of get distracted. And before you know it, we were back to doing one of our epic battles where Batman was trying to stop Darth Vader. But then we would hear the sound. The sound that would make us suddenly peer at one another with wide eyes in panic: the sound of our mother's footsteps coming down the hall. One of us would say, "Mom's coming! Start cleaning!" Frantically, we would start shoving clothes under the bed, and throwing toys in the closet, and trying to make it look like we had done at least something.
Maybe you've seen a bumper sticker or T-shirt with the phrase: "Jesus Is Coming. Look Busy!" Is that how we are supposed to feel about Christ's Second Coming? Is Jesus like a mother walking down the hall to check to see if her sons are cleaning their room?
Well, in some sense: yes. At least according to our passage from the Gospel of Mark. Which certainly feels like an odd passage for this first Sunday of Advent.
We are so used to Advent simply being the precursor to Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent many of us are still recovering from our Thanksgiving tryptophan-induced comas or perhaps we're nodding off from having woken up at 4:00 a.m. to snag some Black Friday deals. Culturally, Advent is simply skipped over as we jump headlong into decking the halls, jingling the bells, and rocking around the Christmas tree.
But the Church has a countercultural period of time called Advent in which we do not begin Christmas before its due time. Instead, we do something that most of us spend a lifetime avoiding: we wait.
The Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge says that Advent is not for wimps. [Fleming Rutledge. Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2018), 89.] For the Church, the season of Advent is a season of waiting, a season of shadows, a season of coming to terms with the fact that we live in the liminal time of already but not yet. We remember that the Lord has come, but yet we continue to wait for him to come again.
And that is exactly what Jesus tackles in this passage from Mark 13. This chapter in Mark's Gospel is often referred to as the "Little Apocalypse." It does not have the imaginative characters of the Book of Revelation, but it does have the same themes of judgment, warning, and hope all mixed together. And, just like the Book of Revelation, this chapter remains a mystery to many of us.
Jesus even says that nobody knows the time of his eventual return. Nobody. Not the angels in heaven keeping court. And not even the Son of God himself.
And yet the fact that that timeline is mysterious to even Jesus himself has not stopped countless Christians throughout the centuries taking it upon themselves to try to calculate or even to predict when Jesus will return.
But Jesus does not want us to dwell on trying to map Christ's return on a calendar date. He is much more interested in how it affects the living of our days.
Jesus here tells a small parable of the master of a household who departs for a journey. He leaves his servants in charge of the house and specifically, he tasks a doorkeeper to keep watch for the Master's return. He warns them not to fall asleep lest they miss the Master's arrival. Jesus tells the doorkeeper that the master could arrive "in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn." Rather than simply being a random assortment of times, these four words were the common Roman ways of dividing the nighttime hours. For the first century audience of Mark's Gospel who were reading this story in the Roman Empire, this would have been a clear nod to the fact that Christ is Lord of all time, even in the realm of Caesar. [Ched Myers. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. (Orbis Books, 1988), 347.]
In his parable, Jesus warns that the servants are to keep awake because they do not know when the Master will arrive home. When I was in college I was once asked to housesit for some family friends. They had a nice house and when I stayed in their house I lived - well - like a college student. I didn't do any dishes, I dropped my dirty socks where I felt like it, and I basically lived like a slob. They told me the day they were planning to return, so I figured I would clean everything up that morning. I went out with friends the night before and returned an hour in which most of the world was asleep (again, I was a college student). To my utter horror when I pulled up to their house: their car was in their driveway! They came home early! And believe me, there is nothing as embarrassing as cleaning up someone's messy home after they had trusted you to care for it.
At the end of our passage, Jesus suddenly breaks the fourth wall of his storytelling and he addresses us the readers. He tells us that, like the servants of this master, we are to keep awake.
"Keeping awake" does not seem like the kind of message we necessarily need to hear during this season. For most of us our schedules are filling up fast with various Christmas festivities, children's class parties, and holiday church functions. Maybe a better message for us during this Advent season might be: Slow down and take a nap.
But the busyness to which Christ calls us this season is very different than the overly caffeinated, sticky sweet busyness of our society's Christmas extravaganza.
Christ calls us this Advent season to keep our senses awake to the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Not only are we to keep our eyes peeled for the coming of Christ, but also for the ways that Christ's kingdom pierces through into our here and our now.
We are to keep awake because our absent Lord has given us a job to do. Our job is not to attempt to calculate when Christ will return nor is it to ignore his return completely. [M. Eugene Boring. Mark, The New Testament Library. (WJK Press, 2006), 377.] The Apostle Paul says that we are to be ministers and ambassadors of reconciliation in the world. [2 Corinthians 5:16-21]
The waiting to which we are called during the season of Advent is not a passive waiting; it is the waiting of those who have hope that death and darkness will not have the last word. It is not a passive waiting. It is a waiting that takes discipline, it takes practice. It requires us to keep awake.
It is easy for us to become distracted from this hope. Especially this Advent; we are all still reeling from a contentious presidential election, necessary national conversations on race and justice, and of course, a global pandemic unlike anything in our lifetimes. It is easy for us to become distracted. Like my brother Caleb and I, we mean well, but sometimes we are more interested in Batman fighting Darth Vader than we are in getting our room clean.
The hope we have during Advent is not for wimps. We are to continually place our hope in the coming Christ, but also keep our eyes peeled for the kingdom of God piercing through into our world. To be busy helping to bring God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Perhaps during this Advent season, we can regain the ancient disciplines of looking at our lives with an introspective spirit. Ignatian spirituality has a practice called the Prayer of Examen. It is prayed twice daily and it is simply a prayer seeking honest self-awareness. It recommends we review our day and ask the questions: When did I live out the love of Jesus Christ today? and When did I not live out the love of Jesus Christ today? As we review our days in this Advent season, we could think of it in terms of Advent: How did I show hopeful waiting for Christ? or How did I show hopeless apathy? The prayer ends with a plea for God's grace and mercy as you start the next day. [Tony Campolo & Mary Albert Darling. The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism, and Justice. (John Wiley & Sons, 2007) 92-113.] After all, God's mercies are new every morning.
My three-year-old daughter Charlotte has a very different reaction to knowing when my Mom is arriving. When Charlotte knows that her Gram will be coming for a visit soon, she begins her preparations. She sets aside the books she wants to read with Gram, she queues up the shows she wants them to watch together on Netflix, and she does what her father would not do: she cleans her room.
As my Mom's car pulls into the driveway after traveling from Missouri to North Carolina, Charlotte stands sat the glass front door, she jumps up and down, and she screams, "She's here! She's here!" After giving each other big hugs, Charlotte will immediately take my Mom's hand and say, "Gram! Come see my room! I cleaned it just for you!
No one knows when Christ will return, not even Jesus himself. But the hope we have at Advent is that we know he is coming. We don't know when, but when it occurs isn't really our business. What is our business and what should keep our attention is, like Charlotte, doing everything we can to prepare, anticipate, and hope his arrival.
May Christ find us alert, awake, and busy with the work of the kingdom. May Christ find us feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.
Keep awake, for Christ is coming back, sisters and brothers. Keep awake and let's make ready so that our lives will show our hope this Advent.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus is coming. Let's be busy.
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
Most gracious and creative God, we ask that you would guide us during this Advent season that we might be busy for the sake of your Good News. Help us to be busy practicing resurrection in our world as we place our hope in the coming Christ Child and in your coming kingdom. Amen.