Preaching: Mark 13:24-37 Part 2
Why is sleepiness such a sin? Why does Jesus, at the end of this "little apocalypse" in Mark, insist that we be so vigilant; that, not knowing the day or the hour of his coming, we, nevertheless, "Watch"? The chapter begins innocently enough in admiring words about the temple and its stones, but it seems to go off the tracks with Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the temple and his even more frightening depiction of earthquakes and famine and persecution, the end of which will be a kind of darkness at noon right before his own coming "in clouds with great power and glory…." The lesson of the fig tree is clearly a lesson of the season, of summer's coming, just as these signs of the end foretell the advent of one who is "at the very gates."
One who preaches from this passage cannot help but note the un-holiday-like mood of the text, indicating as it does, not the coming of a Christmas Carol and holly branch, but of labor pains, suffering, even darkness and tribulation. One need not wallow in the gloom to be faithful to this text, but neither should one hurry to cover over its severity with Christmas cheer. What Jesus is describing here is an encounter, the impact of his life and ministry upon the world. As he will soon ask his disciples to watch with him on the night of his passion, so he tells them here that faith in him is full of such watching, of entering into his sufferings, of being alert to the one thing that matters: his presence. To have missed that is to have missed all; to have missed that is to have become distracted by earthquake, wind and fire, by false messiahs and happier prospects. To have fallen asleep is to have become acculturated to a religion that is comfortable and ready now for Christmas but not for anything so disturbing as Christ's Advent.
What is the danger of becoming so acculturated? Are there, after all, any Christians who are untouched by the influence of such "principalities and powers"? Does Jesus tell us to "watch" out of some puritanical fear that we might become lazy? To be sure, there is in this passage a recurring theme concerning the importance of standing firm to the end, of not quitting or giving in. "It 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 be on the watch,"—almost as if Jesus were telling his disciples, and us, that we are on sentry duty, and that as good soldiers we must do our duty and therefore "watch." Such an injunction is in the text and cannot be ignored. But the passage as a whole is really not a call to duty so much as it is an invitation to hope. Soldiers need that too. The danger of not watching, of falling asleep, of becoming acculturated, is not that we will be poorly drilled but that we will lose our courage, that we will no longer be able to distinguish what is true and good and valuable from what is trivial and silly and even stupid. To "watch" is to know what is important, what is worth fighting for, what is worth the hard work of sentry duty, even worth giving up one's life for. In this respect, to "watch" is to hope for the kingdom when the most anyone else can hope for is a "Barbie" or some other version of the American Dream. In this respect, not "watching" is not so much a shirking of our duty as it is a kind of hell itself, condemning us to the sleepiness of so much of modern life, a life that seeks to anesthetize us with the distraction of endless trivialities. The danger this text foresees is not laziness so much as despair, a kind of spiritual emptiness that is unable to delight in simple gifts or discern the abundance of the gifts of life in service to Jesus Christ. The monks called this illness "acedia," or sloth, and thought of it as that "destruction that wastes at noonday," that is, that spiritual devastation that comes not at 3:00 a.m., when we might expect it, but at 12 noon, when the sky is blue and the trees have budded out and the birds are singing. If we cannot rejoice then, how deep is our darkness! To be called to be "salt" or "light" or "leaven" is not a duty but an honor and a saving grace, giving us the strength to live quite un-trivial lives even in a world of trivial pursuits. "Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.…"
One who preaches from this text ought finally to note its theme of surprise, a theme hardly confined to apocalyptic sections of the New Testament. In this respect, one might want to focus on how Advent is, in its strictest sense, quite "unplannable," that is, how it creeps up on us "like a thief in the night." Kierkegaard was fond of saying that the gospel always "wounds us from behind," and, in that sense, this text might well be best proclaimed as an invitation to pray that we might still be surprised, to pray that we be delivered from that modern insensibility to the mystery of the One who is to come. Another way of saying this is that we pray for the courage to hope. To be hopeless in the face of Christ's advent, as scary and as unpredictable and as stomach-churning as that prospect can be (Cf., for example, Herod "and all Jerusalem with him") is to be hopeless indeed. Which is why what Jesus says to us, he says to all, "Watch," and why that is good news
Thomas W. Currie III
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