The Challenge of Waking Up

Dec 3rd  |  The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming |  Mark 13:24-37

            There is a certain irony to reading a passage from scripture at the beginning of the Advent season that tells us “keep awake.”  It is only the First Sunday of Advent and the most pastoral thing I can think of offering you is short nap!  Frankly, the pastor could do with a short nap too, having already begun his saintly duties in addition to all that the regular round of things requires. 

            For too many of us, this is an exhausting and grueling time of year.  We set absolutely unattainable goals and then do our very best to achieve them in their totality.  We buy into the challenges of the season – both the subtle and the obvious challenges – and pursue meeting those challenges with the dogged determination that the season requires.  We allow others to set the pace and we do our best to keep up with them.  We allow others to set the standard and then knock ourselves out trying to meet the standard they set.  We get cranky and irritable and begin to resemble the words of the old Appalachian carol as become “poor ornery creatures.”  We grow exhausted and the words come to us in our fatigue, “keep awake.” 

            Long before we lit the first Advent candle, I was in the grocery store.  I was standing in the check-out line and the woman in front of me had a cart full of things like flour, shortening, eggs, sugars of various kinds – all of the things that you would need to do some baking and she had them in copious supply.  I said, “It looks like you’re getting ready for some holiday baking.”  (I am the original “Captain Obvious.”)  She replied, “O God, I wish it were done.”  This was in November.  I suspect her plaintive cry – “I wish it were done” – is something we have all thought about and maybe even have said. 

            When did Advent become something to be endured?  When did Advent become a “to-do list” that requires us to check off every item before December 24th?  When did Advent become something we just wish “were done?”  Maybe we’ve sent too much time is an instant-gratification culture where waiting and persisting is no longer valued.  Maybe we’ve climbed on board the Christmas train that starts in October and leaves us beaten down by December 3rd.  Maybe grief and sorrow keep us from fully entering into the joys of Advent.  Maybe we’re just intimidated by the expectations – realistic and impossible. 

            In the face of all that Advent has come to mean, it just makes sense that we would want to curl up under a blanket and go to sleep until December 25th.  But the scripture won’t let us do it.  Instead, they tell us to “wake up.”

             One of the issues we have to face is that we think of Advent as exclusively about Christmas preparation.  When we teach about Advent, we usually say something like, “Advent is the four Sundays and week days prior to Christmas.”  That, of course, is true.  But it does a disservice.

            Advent is also about the return of Christ and the establishment of God’s realm in its fullness and completeness.  The Greek word parousia – which is the word used meaning “second coming.”  Translate the word from Greek to Latin and you get Advent. 

            And a more thorough understanding of Jesus second coming is not to be found in attempting to assign a date or a place.  To fully understand what the return of Christ means is to discover what the Realm of God is all about.  Advent invites us into a conversation and a discovery of what the world would be like if it were the world of God’s creation.

            The realm of God is a realm of peace and wholeness.  There is no hunger or thirst in God’s realm.  There is no want or need in God’s realm.  There is no bitterness, falsehood, or deceit in God’s realm.  There are none who are poor, there are none who are alone, there are none who weep, there are none who are broken in any way in God’s realm. 

            If the world were what God created it to be, it would be a place of justice and righteousness.  If the world were what God created it to be, it would be a place of unity and agreement.  If the world were what God created it to be, it would be a place where all creatures live without fear, without anxiety, without hopelessness. 

            Advent is to be a time of recommitting ourselves to that vision of a world made new.  Advent invites us to think about these loftier goals for human life.  Advent encourages us to move in a new direction.  Advent challenges us to put aside lesser ways of living the life God has given us and begin living the life God created us to live.

            Little wonder that one of the most powerful symbols of Advent is lighting candles in the face of the shadows and gloom that pervades our world.  We light candles to shatter that darkness and to lift up the One who is “the light that shines in the darkness…that the darkness has never overcome.” 

            What if, instead of worrying about shopping and decorating and wrapping and baking, we thought about justice, righteousness, peace, and harmony?  What if we put aside all our efforts to keep up with the Griswolds and instead began thinking about how we can help the world be more of what God created it to be?  What if Advent were more about the coming of God’s realm and less about Christmas?

             And the scriptures tell us: “Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

            Here’s the thing: if we are going to “keep awake” then we first need to “wake up.”  And there’s the challenge.  Have you ever had to wake up a teenager?  Have you ever had to wake up three every morning?  It is not easy.  They are perfectly content with avoiding waking up and perfectly happy to take every moment of sleep available to them.

            In that regard, they are no different from adults.  As adults, we don’t want to wake up to the realities of life around us.  We don’t want to see the ways of God being thrown aside like garbage by a culture, by a society, or by a government that could care less.  We content ourselves by telling ourselves that there is nothing we can do about it and we roll over and go back to sleep. 

            It is time for us to wake up and look critically at our world.  It is time to look at the world and call injustice “injustice.”  It is time to wake up and see how people are being mistreated and beaten down by the very institutions that are pledged to help them.  It is time to wake up and see those who are denied the fullness of their life by others because of their color, or how much they own, or who they love.  It is time to wake up and see the world being poisoned around us.  It is time to wake up and hear the stories of childhood cancer that is disproportionately high in the Ohio Valley.  It is time to wake up and hear the fears of the poor who are being priced out of their downtown neighborhoods in the name of progress.  It is time to wake up and look at the rampant racism in our community that hides behind clever slogans that would make us believe that, in our city, we have a place for everyone.  It is time to wake up and realize that sexual harassment and irritation takes place every day and our wives and mothers and daughters and sisters and nieces are the victims.

            Advent is the time to wake up and see the world around us as it really is.  Where the world is what God intended it to be, we need to be involved in supporting it and sustaining it and celebrating it.  Where the world is not what God intended it to be, we need to be involved challenging it, drawing attention to it, and working to change it. 

            And once we have awakened to that way of living, we must “stay awake,” giving every fiber of our being to the cause of God’s realm.  Waking up is not easy.  Staying awake is not easy.  But it is an adventure – an adventure with God – and the word adventure comes from the same root word as Advent.  Advent is a time to awaken to the world as God wants it to be and to be about the work that will allow that world to break into reality.        

Our worship began with the words:

                  O that you would tear open the heavens and come                         down, so that the mountains would quake at your                         presence -as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire                   causes water to boil - to make your name known to                       your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at                   your presence.

We would love it if God would just do all that needs to be done.

          But God has entrusted that work to you and me.  We are called to make God’s name and way known among God’s adversaries and proclaim God’s Word and Way to those who ignore and even abuse it. 

          Before us is the Table of the Lord – a place where we come to be reminded of what this world is supposed to be and how we are supposed to live with each other.  It is a place where we are nourished for our work.  And it is a place where we are awakened to what God has done, is doing, and promises to do.  It is a place of light in the midst of darkness.  It is a place of hope in the midst of despair.  It is a place of comfort in the presence of distress and disappointment. 

          Good morning.  It’s time to wake up.  And it’s Advent, so it’s time to “keep awake.”

          God is up to something.  Stay awake.  Don’t miss it.

          Keep awake.  For now and evermore.  Amen.