Mark 13: 24-37
Sometimes it is difficult to feel the sense of excitement for the coming of the Lord at Advent; after all, it is a season of watching and waiting; like waiting for a child to be born. It is a season of prophets proclaiming, of angels abiding, of shepherds wondering, of a virgin consenting to an arrangement that changed the world. We cannot push the calendar faster even though children wish we can! As a child, my family believed in Jesus and they believed in Santa! My sister and I would take turns wearing out the pages of the Sears Roebuck Christmas Wish Book that showed all the new toys they carried! Our anticipation of the possibilities sometimes caused me to look through the catalogue after bedtime with a flashlight. I could hardly wait! I have to say I loved Jesus too—the candlelight service when I was allowed to hold a real candle and sing “Silent Night” with others was also special! But the gifts from Santa and others were so exciting!
In his book The Spirituality of Waiting, Henri Nouwen has written that:
Waiting is not a very popular attitude. Waiting is not something that people think about with great sympathy. In fact, most people consider waiting a waste of time. Perhaps this is because the cultural in which we live is basically saying, “Get going! Do something! Show you are able to make a difference! Don’t just sit there and wait! For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place…. The Psalms are full of this attitude: “My soul is waiting for the Lord. I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than a watchman at daybreak.”
[Watch for the Light, Plough Publishing House, Farmington, Pennsylvania, 2001, p. 27-29.]
Now I want to tie watching to waiting. Last week we spoke of the second coming of Christ and the waiting and watching involved with that long process. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul believed Jesus would return in their lifetime. But now Jesus is telling us to watch for signs. Some might still be looking for signs of Christ, but the whole world is beginning to look for signs that Christmas is coming instead. Listen to what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says about the contrast between those two:
The Second Coming of Christ that history is waiting for is not the same as the baby Jesus or even the historical Jesus. The historical Jesus was one man, and Christ is not his last name. The Christ includes the whole sweep of creation and history joined with him—and you too. We call this the Cosmic Christ …. The celebration of Christmas is not a sentimental waiting for a baby to be born, but much more an asking for history to be born. (see Romans 8:20-23) [Preparing for Christmas, Cincinnati, Fransiscan Media 2008, p. 7-8]
Watching and waiting were two things Jesus stressed to his disciples. When Jesus was troubled and went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked some of the disciples to wait and stay alert while he prayed. What was the point of that? To watch for officials who might look for him, or perhaps to get them in practice for watching and waiting? I have learned that although the work of a news reporter may seem interesting, most of the time they are simply waiting, and waiting to share their information at the time of a broadcast. We wait for doctor’s visits; we wait in traffic; and when we do those things, watching is a spiritual practice. Look at others waiting with you; imagine their lives and their concerns. Today in Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells those listening to him to “watch.” “Watch for what?” some might have thought. Of course, to watch when the master of the house will return. Jesus was always teaching with stories. Before this passage, he warned about the destruction of the Temple, the event that would destroy the one thing in Jerusalem that people thought would always be there. “Don’t be so sure,” Jesus seemed to be warning. Especially in this unprecedented time, it is good to watch others as we all try to navigate the shifting sand of this pandemic. Some who have been resilient through other crises are crumbling now with anxiety or sorrow. Some are very troubled by new feelings of being so alone. Our mission: keep watching and waiting, not just for him, but also for others who Jesus would have noticed. Notice for those who are struggling financially or emotionally, for example. What would Jesus do? He would see them; he would connect with them; he would let them know of his care. That’s part of our task as we begin one of the most unusual Advent seasons in our lifetime: watching and waiting takes on new meaning as we are clearly separated.
But let’s remember too: the messages of this season, though familiar to us, were originally unexpected ones. The words of prophets like Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Malachi seem to describe a Messiah. The presence of angels has never seemed as pronounced as it does during Advent and Christmas. The focus on shepherds is almost uniquely in those seasons. And the astounding news of a young woman approached by an angel to be the handmaid of the Lord; well, it takes one’s breath away. These are not ordinary events; they are extraordinary. So we join others, even disciples, who were told to watch; to keep their eyes open; and to wait. God always keeps us guessing about Divine engagements with the world. As a child, my sister and I knew our waiting for gifts from Santa would be over on Christmas Day. No more need to wait! With the command to watch for the coming of the Lord, we have no such end date; we don’t know how the Lord will return, or where, or when. During this season, our call to watch is renewed. We build up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but the call to watch does not end there. We are always on call. And yet we love to look for signs: “Is it now?” people ask. “Does it have to do with looking at figs, or at leaves, or at calendars, or at middle-eastern nations? Remember the words of Jesus:
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates…. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. “
Will you join me in renewing my effort to both watch and wait? Our Lord asks for our faithfulness in doing both. Thomas Carlyle, the English poet, was once bothered by a rooster that would begin to crow every morning. He talked to his neighbor, who owned the rooster, to see what might be done about it. “Does the crowing awaken you?” inquired the neighbor? “No” Carlyle replied, “I lie there in bed waiting for the rooster to crow!” The anticipation we feel, like waiting for a rooster to crow, or a dog to bark, reminds us that something will happen, we just don’t know when. It is as Mark described in verse 35: It is the role of a doorkeeper, having to stay awake, waiting on his master’s return. That was necessary at a time before there were keys; the doorkeeper was also a person’s security system. The doorkeeper dare not fall asleep, as we heard Jesus say in our study of The Chosen on Thursday nights. But we know not when the master will return; not the day; not the hour. Truthfully no one is sure what that day will look like, or even what the master will look like. So we watch; and we wait. This is disciple’s work. This is not Samuel Beckett’s play that premiered in Paris called “Waiting for Godot,” the plot of which is two men talking to each other while they wait for a man named Godot, who never arrives; end of play. No. We know when we will celebrate the birth of Jesus; we do not know when we will celebrate the return of Christ, but he will return! Watching and waiting are spiritual disciplines. Now is the time we work on those, even our Lord asked disciples to do with him, in the garden.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 29, 2020