The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Staying Awake
Year B - 1st  Sunday of Advent
Mark 13:24-37

Bargain Hunting Excitement

The alarm clock went off just like any other morning but instead of turning it off, Mary and Tom leaped out of bed and rushed to the bathroom. Tom quickly shaved and Mary hastily put on her make-up. Their movements were quick, intentional, and efficient. Their usually sluggish morning routine had turned into an Indy style pit stop. They were awake and alert because they were on a mission. It was the day after Thanksgiving otherwise known as Black Friday and they were headed to the mall to participate in the annual shopping spree to inaugurate the holiday season.

Shoppers across America not only woke up early on Friday morning but many of them stood in line all night in hopes of finding bargains by the cart-full. Computers and other electronic gadgetry were in big demand and marketing executives made sure that their store had plenty of enticing lures throughout the departments. This required some shoppers to develop intricate strategies to maximize their shopping time. Tara and Bobby had it all planned out. Bobby was assigned the purchase of an Insignia DVD player and Tara the marked down home computer system.

I wonder if Mary and Tom sprang out of bed the next Sunday morning with the same enthusiasm and intentionality that propelled them to the mall on Black Friday. Or, did Tara and Bobby wait all night at the front door of their church, if they attend, to reserve a seat up front, close to the pulpit. Ironically, when we have the proper motivation, we will do extraordinary things. Our bodies pump adrenalin through our muscles driving out even the faint touches of dreariness. We will rush from store to store after having gotten only a few hours sleep but on most Sunday mornings after a good nights sleep, we barely have enough staying power to keep awake through the Prayer for Illumination and Scripture Lesson. If the pastor does not force us to stand and sing the Song of Preparation we just might be in “la la” land before he finishes the introduction to his sermon. We say our spirit is willing but the flesh is weak but I wonder if the temptation for physical sleep is not an indication of another state of weariness.

End Time Warnings

The writer of Mark inserts this morning's Scripture passage at the end of a rather lengthy teaching session. A disciple comments about the beauty of the Temple and Jesus uses the remark to remind his band of followers of the coming judgment of God against that house of worship. Stunned by his words, the disciples want to know more information. They want dates and places. They want a time line. Tim Lahaye and his Left Behind readers are not the first believers to be interested in the conclusion of history.

Jesus provides his disciples with a rather vivid and detailed description of those events. He speaks about the coming siege and destruction of Jerusalem. He is telling them of the pending terror so that when they notice the first signs of the pending doom they will respond immediately. A crisis is coming and they must be ready.

He also warns his disciples that they will be persecuted for their faith. Jesus never attempts to sugar-coat the life of discipleship. They chose the hard way. They will not be able to later say that they had not been warned.

Jesus then reminds his followers that his message will be misinterpreted by many. They will attempt to lead people astray. They will offer creative ways of understanding his message. Their teaching will be attractive. It will fill in the gaps that seem to be missing. It will provide easy answers to difficult questions but the disciples are not be be fooled by these so called teachers.

He concludes his instructions by drawing on imagery used in the Old Testament to describe the coming Day of the Lord. The event will be proceeded by the increase of wars, earthquakes and famines. All creation will be shaken but in the midst of all this social, political, and ecological turmoil, they are to “be on guard,” “be alert” and “keep watch.” If we use a literal translation of the Greek text, his words appear very strange. The Greek term directly relates to the physical act of staying awake by not falling asleep. Literally, he seems to be saying, “when the heavens experience a cataclysmic upheaval; when the whole world is collapsing all around you, do not worry or panic and especially do not fall asleep.

Spiritual Slumber

This is not be the only time Jesus warns his disciples about succumbing to the temptation of sleep. On the night of his betrayal and arrest he uses the same term to encourage them to resist the feelings of weariness. In the darkness of the Garden, the use of the term appears more natural and appropriate. The disciples had endured a long week. They had walked many miles to come to the Holy City of Jerusalem. They had spent many long tension filled hours listening to Jesus answer the challenges and questions of the Pharisees. They were tired. They had just completed a Passover meal and their bodies wanted rest to digest the meal. They want to sleep but Jesus asks them to keep watch, to stay awake.

The use of the term, to stay awake, on the night of his arrest fits the setting but using it right after he tells his disciples about the coming destruction of civilization as they know it, appears out of place. How could a person even think about sleeping with the world in such a state of chaos? How could a person quietly lay there head upon a pillow and gentle close their eyes with such a threatening catastrophe looming?

His warning is more easily understood if we consider that even in the Garden, Jesus use it more for its figurative meaning than its literal. To understand the significance of this interpretation consider these questions. Why warn the disciples to stay awake if he was only using it in a literal sense? What difference does it make if they are awake when the solders come? He does not want the disciples to fight the solders. He does not want his followers to organize an escape plan. Jesus knows that the solders are to arrest him. So what does he mean by the term?

By his admonition, Jesus indicates that he wants his disciples to be more than just mentally and physically awake. He wants them to be spiritually awake so that they will understand the reality that is exploding around. He knows that they cannot control it. They do not have any influence upon it but he wants them to understand the theological meaning of the events that are about to transpire.

In his opening line of an autobiographic essay, the freshman wrote "Last year, I awoke from a coma that had lasted for 18 years. The coma was called 'my life.'" The young man then describe how a particularly gifted teacher had awakened him to a new reality. The teacher got into his face, grabbed him by the neck, shook him up and down, and made him take, for the first time in his life, an honest look at his life. That college freshman discovered that we can be physically awake but mentally asleep.

On the night of his betrayal the disciples were both physically, mentally and spiritually asleep. They did not understand anything that was happening even though Jesus had explained it to them many times. They may have been awakened from their physical sleep by the sounds of marching solders, but they were still slumbering in a spiritual sleep. Unable to comprehend the events, their faith collapsed into a sea of fear and they deserted Jesus.

The words of Jesus do not warn us to keep a physical vigilance but a spiritual one. Their message does warns us to resist the weariness of the world around us. We are not to become so emeshed in the cultural values and lifestyles of our neighbors, friends and even family that we fall asleep to the spiritual reality that is unfolding before us. His message should compel us to discover the complex truth of living in the world but not being of it.

God's coming will not be proceeded by economic prosperity. God's coming will not inaugurate a period of peace and the cessation of wars. God's coming will not be marked by the eradication of hunger and disease. C. S. Lewis once wrote,

God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks onto the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right; but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else - something it never entered your head to conceive - comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left?"1

Jesus tells us to keep watch to stay awake.

1 - C. S. Lewis,in Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations, Sy Safranksy, ed., Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1990, p. 80


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