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April 24, 2016
A reading from the gospel of Mark:
‘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. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘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.
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 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.’
The deep desert night pulled heavily on my eyelids as I drove across Arizona one more time. The annual event was my trip between Texas and California in my naval officer days, always crossing the desert sand in darkness. The radio had been going for hours. The windows had been opened and closed several times. I had talked to myself more in the last hour than in the previous six months. I had beaten my leg and was now working on my head, following each time I had hit the shoulder of the road, shouting “Keep Awake!”
You have probably experienced the same dilemma as you wondered what sane person would feel compelled to keep driving against such odds. How fierce and demented the desire was to stay awake as one battled its losing fight against the inevitable silence of sleep. And we lose that conflict every time. We are reminded of the Apostles’ words, “What I don’t want to do, I do, and what I should do, I don’t.” It seems so impossible. “Keep Awake.” “Be Alert.” “Wait.”
And for what do we wait? What do we expect to perceive? For what are we pounding our legs and slapping our faces? Why are we keeping awake? What are we expecting?
Samuel Becket’s classic play “Waiting for Godot” reminds us of the tension we experience waiting for something immanent, but fleeting and undefined. As Vladimir and Estragon talk deep into the night in the dark woods, waiting for something or someone they do not know, the silence is overwhelming. They eat, joke, sing, argue and consider suicide as they do anything “to hold the terrible silence at bay,” and they wait for Godot. Why?
Our text exhorts us to Keep Awake, for the Son of Man comes. No Hebrew mind hearing this saying of Jesus could mistake its meaning. It was “end time” language. To the untrained American contemporary, the “Son of Man” language falls on sleepy and dull ears. We are not alert to it. But those of the Old Covenant would immediately hear and understand “coming in glory,” “reigning in absolute power,” with judgment as the first order of business. No meek “son of God” image is in this language. This is Kingdom of God language. The sun is darkened. The moon reflects no light. The stars are scaring us nearly to death. And we have been caught completely off guard. Our heavy eyes and dull ears have ruled the day. Our whistling in the dark has done us no good and pales in comparison to the might of the Son of Man.
This is kingdom language. The gospels tell us over and over, Jesus came preaching the good news of the kingdom of God being at hand. Jesus said the reign of God is almost, but not quite yet. It is like “on the tip of our tongue.” This reality is forming in God’s being, but not fully realized by his creation.
God’s reign and power is breaking into his fallen creation…..into our world….into our lives. The Son of Man is here. The reign of God is certain. And yet, it is not fully experienced by us.
It is like the tension between weariness lulling us into sleep and God saying “Keep Alert!”
And in our weakness and despair, we cry out to God, “Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence—as when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil—“ If you would just do that, we would know you were God.
Oh yeah? That’s what it would take? Something that clear? Something that awful? You mean like a tsunami hitting Japan, or fires burning up a national park, or killing 130 people in Paris, or someone saying “here’s the Lord or there’s the Lord”? Is that all we need to understand that the Kingdom of God is near? Would that solve our problem?
We hear the admonition. Keep Alert! But for what? What is this Godot for whom we wait? How do we know it when we see it? It seems so impossible.
That’s because, for us, it is. We cannot bring in the Kingdom.
This congregation serves people in our community. We offer a food pantry twice a week. Also, each Tuesday we invite about 100 people into the church facility for a breakfast and other services to enable them to work and become independent. We offer funds for acquiring IDs and licenses, work boots and eye glasses, utility and rent help, and a little hope to get through another week or day or moment. These ministries are extremely important. But we do them out of obedience to God. We do them because it is right. We do not fool ourselves into thinking we are bringing in the Kingdom of God. Only God can do that. We are to wait in faith and expectation for God’s reign.
My grandmother was a person to whom everyone paid attention. When she spoke (or commanded, especially at the dinner table), we little kids in the 1950s listened. There were no elbows on the table or hats on heads. She was in charge.
So when she needed surgery, she spoke at length to her surgeon about the procedure he was to perform. She said, “Bill, I have only one fear….that when you put me to sleep, I may still really be awake and experience the pain of you cutting on me. So I have it figured out. When you start that chemical in me, I will move my finger until I am out. So as long as I move my finger, you do not start.” He nodded at her command.
On the morning of surgery, you know how it is. My grandmother was flat on her back and draped. All lights were blinding her eyes and shining brightly on the surgical table. Everyone was rushing around doing his job and ignoring her. And Dr. Bill, at her side, started the anesthesia. And my grandmother determinedly started moving her finger. And everything was going just fine, until she realized that her finger was slowing coming to a halt. Fright bespoke her face; fear gripped her heart as she realized she had caused her own doom.
What she did not know was the anesthesia inhibits muscle movement and motor sensory before it induces unconsciousness. She could not move a muscle, even to speak, but was fully alert. And as Dr. Bill was making his final preparation for his first incision, he looked at her face, knew what was happening, and said, “What’s the matter, Anne? Are you having a hard time moving your finger? Here, let me do it for you.” Those were the last words she heard as she became unconscious.
Only by God’s grace, can we stay alert for the Kingdom of God. We can’t do it by ourselves. By God’s power we are sensitized to little bits of the Kingdom breaking in around us. A child being baptized. Someone having the courage to stand up for the weak. Someone forgiving us when we have hurt or injured them. Someone doing the right thing. Telling the truth and ceasing to live the lie. Every once in a while, we perceive the Kingdom in the midst of our muddle.
Only by God’s grace are we awakened to wonder, seeing something new in the bleakness of the night, feeling the presence of God in an embrace or a kiss. Awaking to a new morning, to a clear moment, to the possibility that God is God. This is gospel. This is good news. Thanks be to God.