You may be wondering what in the world I am planning to do with that text. You may have tuned out a few verses in, when you realized this sounded like it had nothing to do with any reality you are part of. In my defense, I don’t choose this stuff. There is a three-year cycle of readings that folks wiser than me have compiled; I think with the explicit agenda of making us pastors in the local church preach on stuff we’d never choose if left to our own devices.
The good news is that I’ve learned along the way, how to approach an apocalyptic biblical text. You need to begin by remembering that the word apocalypse comes from the Greek and means simply “to uncover” or “to reveal.” When you hear things like: “In those days the sun will darken and the stars will fall from heaven,” it is not a prediction of the end of the world.
As it turns out apocalyptic texts in the bible are not so much about Jesus sweeping down and lifting us out of the mess we have collectively created, not so much about divine judgment as they are an invitation to something new. They provide a means of revealing more fully the active presence of the divine. This text attempts to reveal to Mark’s audience the reality of their day and to place before them the possibility of a different reality, one filled with a holy presence. This is not a biblical foretelling of the coming apart of the world as we know it. This is not the stuff of sci-fi movies. Mark is calling out myths in his community, that is, an early Christian people in Jerusalem at precisely the time the city has fallen or is about to fall, around 70 AD. He doesn’t need to tell them the sky is falling, they can already tell that the world as they know it is about to fall apart. To a newly formed community, in a time of tremendous political and economic uncertainty, Mark has Jesus saying Stay awake because you don’t know when or where or how you will catch a glimpse of my light in the world. With all the talk these days about the uncertain state of our world, it’s not difficult to put ourselves in their shoes.
Advent marks the new year in the church calendar and it always begins with an apocalyptic text. It may be all Christmas out there in the malls and on the streets but here the apocalypse is coming! Advent is not so much about waiting for the baby Jesus to arrive as it is a time to practice showing up to the growing darkness, that is our reality this time of year. It is a season to allow the dark to eclipse all things shiny and bright, all things we cling to give us meaning. It is a time to allow the stories we tell ourselves and the stories the world tells to slip into the shadows so that the light that shines in the darkness can actually come into our sight, a different light, a holy light that offers more hope that the things we usually bet our lives on.
Advent is intended to be this time of active waiting, of reflection and anticipation, a time of pause that we might open to divine possibilities not otherwise apparent. I don’t need to tell you that it’s full on Christmas out there and I’ll admit I’ve all but given up on even trying to live some Advent in my own life. I’ve got a tree that needs decorating, cookies to bake, presents to buy, cards to write, parties to plan, a fridge to be cleaned in anticipation of a turkey, guilt to sort out about the sacrificial lives of both the turkey and tree and all this is intended to happen with bells on. Please tell me I’m not alone!
To this reality we hear the repeated imperative in this biblical text to stay awake. Stay awake? Seriously? Keep awake? I need some sleep! A friend asked me last week what my perfect life would look like and my honest to goodness from the heart answer was simply this: I’d like to take one whole day off per week. That’s it, that’s all I ask. I don’t want to leave my marriage, trade in my kids, quit my job, make more money, all I want is a day off per week mostly so I can sleep and rest and walk and pray and really fill up for the next week.
Keep awake, I feel like I’ve been perpetually awake for the past fourteen years, since the birth of my first child, awake at night with worries about the state of the world, worries about how my children will make a life for themselves in these uncertain times. I awake at night with the same self defeating mantras I picked up in adolescence and hold on to like a kid with her favourite stuffy. The old mantras of not good enough, not smart enough, not wise enough, not successful enough, not as good as, not loveable, not enough time or love or dreams to go round and certainly not enough power to make a difference. You’ll have to excuse me if I pick up this good book and declare – you have no idea what you’re talking about!
We are busy people, there is no problem staying awake, with phones that can’t be put to bed at night without the technological knowhow of a teenager, news cycles that flow one day into the next with a litany of doomsday declarations, anxiety rates through the roof, unprecedented. The more we stay awake, the more we feel disconnected, the more the world tells us to turn inward to find our way out. Do you not find it odd that world’s answer to the epidemic of disconnection is a self-help book? Look inward to find your way back into connection with community?
We stay awake all right because the unknown dark scares the life out of us. Because as many have said over generations, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, which I suppose is the precisely the thing an apocalyptic text endeavours to reveal. This world that never sleeps is killing us. Our hyper active, fill every moment with busyness, keep doing, keep consuming, keep constantly awake and eventually you will be so numb that the only thing that will save you is a God falling from the sky to pick up the broken pieces.
“Keep awake,” Jesus declares, “you don’t know when the master will return.” What if this isn’t so much about Jesus returning in some supernatural way but an invitation to see that Christ is being born in the world even today, especially when Jerusalem is falling, especially when terror is being proclaimed as the only story we can trust, even now when “natural disasters” feel like everyday news.
Keep awake to the ways God is at work in our world, keep awake not in the conventional sense of always going in our 24 hour world, but keep awake, aware alert to what matters. The odd thing is that all of our doing and worrying, and consuming seems to be slowly rocking us to sleep. The odd thing is, the best way to stay awake is to slow down and be. It is so easy this time of year to get swept up in it all, but there are rich opportunities to focus on what really matters – like community and relationship and hospitality.
‘Keep awake’ is an invitation to pause long enough to ask ourselves the kind of questions that put the focus back in our lives. Questions like, what life is worth living? Who defines this? Who do we allow to define this? Active waiting is not a head in the sand waiting but showing up with an underlying sense of trust. The weight of the world is not on your shoulders. It is not all up to you, you’re not that important and yet you are important. Imagine each moment, each decision you make based on trust that God is always awake and at work, imagine the divine possibilities when our hearts are opened. Imagine the liberation to possibilities if we were to open to the truth that we can actually tell other stories? Imagine if environmental catastrophe and military annihilation are not inevitable futures but stories that each and every one of us has the power to change? Imagine if Jesus is already in our midst, whispering to our numb selves, stay awake, you can be part of changing the seemingly inevitable doomsday stories.
Why Advent? To help us see beyond our present. Why Advent? To give us a lens through which to see God at work when it seems only evil gets the spotlight. Why Advent; to assure us that God has secured a future for us that breaks into our present, and really, truly changes the here and now.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann was a young secularist drafted into the German army in 1944. He surrendered to the first British soldier he encountered, went from prisoner of war camp to camp and emerged to become the 20th Century’s ‘theologian of hope.’ For Moltmann, hopelessness is championed in the status quo. For those who see no hope, it is better to rely on what already exists, on the material things that we already have, than to trust in things unseen. On the contrary, said Moltmann, hope strengthens faith, encourages a life of love and enables a focus on a new creation. Hope creates a “passion for the possible.”
A passion for the possible is born when we wake up to the reality that we live in a world infused with divine love, when we wake to the truth that we are expressions of that divine love, when the lights dim and in the darkness we can finally see the light that shines in the darkness, the light that will not be overcome, the light that is so abundant that we no longer need to fill up our lives with lies about how the stuff we buy will fill us up.
Maybe the great revelation of Advent is that our conventional wakefulness is numbing us. Maybe this Advent we can slow down long enough to see a glimmer of holy hope and just maybe we can nurture in one another a divine passion for the possible. Maybe