Advent Apocalypse: Keep Awake

Scripture: Mark 13:28-37

If you were a kid in the early 90’s, or if you had kids in the early 90’s, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with my favorite Christmas movie of all time, Home Alone (followed by Home Alone 2 as a close second). In case it’s been a while, the movie is the story of 8-year old Kevin McCallister, who gets accidentally left behind when his large family goes on Christmas vacation. It turns out some local thieves who call themselves the Wet Bandits, because they always leave the water on, have been planning to rob Kevin’s house while the family is out of town. Kevin discovers their plan and lays an elaborate set of booby traps made out of children’s toys and Christmas ornaments and other household implements to catch them in the act. The bad guys arrive and hilarity ensues, set to a now-classic soundtrack.

I’ve realized, more recently, that while Home Alone may be one of the great Christmas movies of our time, it’s actually also a really good Advent movie, because a key theme of Advent is being ready. And not just ready like we’ve checked the necessary boxes and are ready to move on to the next thing on our holiday to-do list, not just ready for a certain date on the calendar, but ready for something big to happen at any time.

“Keep awake,” Jesus tells his disciples.

We heard part of this passage from Mark 13 last week as we began our focus on the apocalyptic side of Advent for this year. While we tend to focus on these four weeks leading up to Christmas as a time of hope, love, joy, and peace as we wait for the birth of Jesus, that’s only part of the meaning of Advent. Advent is also about waiting for the second coming of Christ, and the end of this age, when everything will be turned upside down and all that is wrong will be made right. In other words, we here in this cozy season of lights and cookies are waiting on the apocalypse. It kind of makes us sound like we should be off in a bunker somewhere, but instead, here we are, going about our lives, hoping to be caught awake when the time comes.

As Pastor Sarah from Central UMC told us last week, Jesus gives this speech to his disciples at the beginning of Holy Week, as he prepares himself and them for his suffering and death. He tells them to watch out that no one deceives them while he is gone, for false messiahs are sure to come. He tells them there will be wars, and earthquakes, and famines, and that all these things will be just the beginning of the end. He tells his disciples that they themselves will suffer, but the Holy Spirit will be with them. After all this, he says, the sun will become dark and the stars will fall and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds, to gather up his people. This is a verse that did not quite make it into most of our favorite Christmas carols, and frankly one we may rather not read as we sip our eggnog and put the finishing touches on our tree. But as Sarah and I said last week, what better year to set our hopes on something other than what is now than this one.

This week, Jesus continues his apocalyptic speech. “Nobody knows the day or the hour” when all this will happen, he says. Keep awake! “It is as if someone took a trip,” he says, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge. Keep awake! You do not know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning. Don’t be caught sleeping when he comes. Keep awake.”

It’s as if a family went on vacation and left their eight-year-old son behind in charge of the house. Keep awake! You do not know when the Wet Bandits will come. (Midnight. They come at midnight.) The Apostle Paul, in fact, says in his first letter to the Thessalonians that “The Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” An interesting image, there, because surely when Christ comes we’d like to greet him with something other than ice on the front step and booby traps concocted from Legos. Surely we’d like to prepare a room instead, and, you, know, vacuum. Still, the point is, be ready. If Jesus is a guest, he’s not calling ahead. Keep awake, Paul echoes, for you are children of the day, and not of the night.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m already tired. It’s been a long year. It’s a busy season. Honestly, the last thing I want to be told right now is to stay awake. Mostly, I’d like to take a long nap. Of course I don’t think Jesus means it literally: it has been 2000 years, after all. So what does it mean to keep awake as we wait for Jesus to return?

Paul talks some about this in that passage of 1 Thessalonians 5 as well. This letter is the oldest New Testament writing we have, probably from around 50 CE, and even then, it seems, people were getting tired. They expected Jesus to come back soon – he does, after all, say in Mark that this generation will not pass away before he does. They didn’t understand why he seemed to be taking his time. So when Paul tells these early Christians to keep awake, he stays, “stay sober, wearing faithfulness and love as a piece of armor that protects our body and the hope of salvation as a helmet….continuing encouraging one another and building each other up, just like you are doing already.”

What does it mean to be ready for the coming of Christ? Only not to tire of all the things Christ calls us to every waking day of our lives: care for the poor, welcome for the stranger, love for our enemies, forgiveness for those with whom we live in community. Don’t lose your hope, Paul tells this tired church, that these things still matter. Don’t lose faith that this way of life will be vindicated. Keep awake.

It’s easy to grow tired, I know, when the world always seems to demand something else of us: get ahead, stock up for the future, divide into camps, let the others fend for themselves. And most days it seems like I have a long time to get it right, if I’m not right now – but I wonder sometimes what it would really look like to live like Jesus could come back anytime. What kind of urgency would that give to my faith? What choices might I make differently? How would I want to be prepared if that thief were coming tonight?

Jesus does tell his disciples that there will be signs. “Think of the fig tree,” he says. When it begins to sprout new leaves, you know that summer is near. Likewise, when things in this world seem like they can’t get any worse, “you’ll know that he is near – at the very gates.”

Fleming Rutledge, the author of Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, writes that a key image of Advent is the watchtower: “Those who serve God stand still in a dark place, but we strain forward with expectation and an unconquerable hope toward the horizon where the Sun of Righteousness will appear someday.”[1] I like that image, our eyes on the horizon. But I like this image from Mark, too: the image of Jesus already at the front gate, getting ready to knock – or to break in, as the case may be. We wait, keeping the faith, knowing all the time that he is near.

Maybe Advent is a time to watch for those signs, that Christ is near, if not yet arrived in all his glory. Signs that when the whole world seems to have gone to hell, love yet wins. Signs that suffering and division will not have the last word. Signs that oppression will cease and tyrants will not occupy their thrones forever. Signs that our hearts can still be molded after the heart of Christ. Signs that our hope is not in vain.

Maybe Advent is a time to watch for those small things, even as we wait for everything to be turned upside down.

So keep awake. Put on your armor of faithfulness and love and your helmet of salvation. Scatter your Legos in the hallways and ice down the front steps. Or, get out the vacuum and make the bed in the guestroom. Whatever metaphor you choose, Jesus is coming. When? I don’t know. But he is near, at the very gates.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, p. 86.

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