November 30, 2014

On Being Watchful

Passage: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
Service Type:

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.’

Jim Holt is a philosopher and author. His book Why Does The World Exist was a New York Times bestseller for 2013. He gave a talk on this subject in which he asks the question, “why is there something rather than nothing” and then proposes to tell his audience why we should care about the answer to this question.  You can watch the TED Talk video below.


I was intrigued. In some sense every sermon I preach touches on questions of ultimate reality and why we should care. I was interested to hear his answer. He is a very entertaining speaker and he explored a variety of answers from theological to scientific—all of which he found wanting in one respect or another. He concluded that the question why does the world exist rhymes with another question, why do I exist. In answer to these questions he said:

“We live in a generic reality that is mediocre. There are nasty bits and nice bits and we can make the nice bits bigger and the nasty bits smaller and that gives us a kind of purpose in life. The universe is absurd but we can construct a purpose and that is a pretty good one. The mediocrity of reality resonates with the mediocrity we feel in core of our beings.”

While I don’t find his proposal—that humans get to construct a purpose in an absurd universe—personally very satisfying, I do think he nailed human angst in what he described as the mediocrity we sometimes fell in the core of our beings. Holt believes this bears witness to a generic reality that is mediocre. I think it points out that we know we were made for better things.

1. After I reviewed Holt’s video so that I might transcribe his remarks for this sermon I clicked a YouTube link I have in my browser that takes me to a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace by an artist named Gypsy Soul. And I listened as I continued to write. More than once. I was lost but now am found, I was blind, but now I see. It wasn’t any brilliance on my part that caused such sight nor the wisdom of my own ingenuity through which I found my way home to him. He came and sought me and made himself known.

A Nobel laureate named Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) wrote: “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” This may be true for some fields of human endeavor. The gospel tells me that, when it comes to knowing God, sin has so blinded us that we don’t know what questions to ask. We think the question “why is there something rather than nothing” to be profound. If only we had an answer to this question humanity would thrive.

Jesus had just told his disciples the unthinkable—the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. In their minds the temple symbolized the very meaning of human existence. Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Jesus though this to be a question worth answering. In his answer Jesus reveals the agenda he knows the one he calls the Father has for the world.

We read from his answer in our gospel lesson. Jesus said, “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.” This can be read as his work in building the church in anticipation of and following the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple. Or it can be read as the events of the final consummation. I think both are true.

In it you hear something of God’s agenda. The world is anything but absurd. Rather than being mediocre, so precious are people they are the object of his agenda. He is calling a people to himself from every tribe and nation moving inexorably to that day when all will be set right. The Apostle Paul calls the consummation “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “God is faithful;” continued Paul, “by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Humans were made for this relationship; to love God and enjoy him forever. God is calling a people to himself to bear witness to his great love; the love that led God to create humanity in the first place. The reason we feel mediocre is because we have each gone astray from this relationship.

It may be bracing for the church to kick off Advent with an apocalyptic passage like Mark 13 but among other things, such a passage reminds us, and our culture, that the stakes in the Advent of Christ are exceedingly high. The Christ of God did not arrive in this world long ago to help people be a little nicer, to encourage a few weeks’ worth of charitable giving to a favourite charity or the local food bank. No, the Christ of God came to make straight every crooked way, to right every wrong, to upend every injustice, and to reconcile all things—ALL things—to himself.

The world isn’t a mediocre reality in which we grope for meaning. The world is the object of God’s love and his purpose is to redeem it to a glory that he has in mind—a glory we have yet to even imagine.

2. The church season of Advent is a season in which we prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We think of it as getting ready for Christmas—the celebration of God’s coming among us in the flesh in the child of Bethlehem. And we ought to celebrate his coming. So why darken our joy of Christmas preparation with all this ominous talk of his coming again? With reading of apocalyptic events and a call to beware and keep alert? We know when Christmas is but the hour of his coming—even Jesus said only the Father knows this.

The reason is plain enough to understand, even if it is quite counter-cultural. Because let’s face it: if the church cannot proclaim and look forward to the second advent of Christ, then in all honesty there is precious little sense in making much ado about his first advent in Bethlehem. If Jesus is not coming back to make all things new and bring in the kingdom he talked about all through his ministry, then any celebration of his birth really would be on a par with fantasies about Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or the generic “holiday spirit.” If Jesus is not the Lord of lords who can come back at the end of history and judge the living and the dead, then “Silent Night” has all the charm—and all the meaning—of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”

Christmas is but one part of that greater story—and great part to be sure; of that greater story that God has not forgotten his people; that God has not given up on humanity; that God has not written off your life and mine as statistic or consumer. God has a great future in mind and all that he began in the first Advent will find its consummation in the second. We have something to look forward to.

This watchfulness to which Jesus calls his disciples—keep alert, keep awake—isn’t to be sentenced to a sleepless existence. It is to be awake to the story, the great narrative God is undertaking for the world. It is to live our lives in the light of that story. The anticipation of the Son of Man is joy for us because we know who is coming! It is our Saviour Jesus who gave himself without remainder for our sakes. His coming for us can only be for the good he has in mind for us. What he accomplished on the cross he will fulfill.

3. So we are waiting and watchful. We are waiting for Christmas but life doesn’t stand still—students have to go to school tomorrow. We are waiting for the time when all will be set right but life has to be lived; I have to go to work tomorrow, bills need to be paid, some troubles remain unrelieved.

Many things in life have this way of turning our attention from the things that really matter. It is easy to fall asleep, so to speak, and get caught up in the press of the agenda of our world. Advent reminds us to be awake to God’s story for the world. But this isn’t a call to live life with heads stuck in the clouds; to only be concerned about something we think of as a sort of spiritual plane of existence, ethereal, misty, and not actual.

Advent, the first Advent, reminds us that God came in the nitty gritty of human existence. He came as one on us—we call this the incarnation. Because God has visited us in this manner he has affirmed the goodness of our existence, and insists that we affirm it too. There is nothing wrong with being human; it is human sinfulness that sent things awry.

If God affirms the goodness of our existence by becoming one of us the why, some may ask, am I in so much pain? Waiting and watchfulness can seem grueling under such weight and we wonder if we can keep on going. Painful things discourage and deflect us from affirming the goodness of our existence. Some may wonder if they can keep it up—or keep awake—looking to his coming. I remind you of a wonderful promise of our Saviour; that to which he calls us he empowers in our lives. As the Apostle Paul put is: “he will strengthen you to the end.” Look to him. And let us be sure to say a word of encouragement to one another—you do the Lord’s work when you do.

Our Saviour, in giving his life for us, turns us to himself and then to one another in love. This is the agenda of God to which we are to be awake. Awake because our Lord can come at any time—evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow …

Preaching Professor Fred Craddock told a story about something that happened many years ago while he was driving by himself cross-country. He had stopped at a small diner somewhere in the Southern US for an early breakfast and some coffee. He had been driving through the night and now it was getting close to dawn. So before he got too sleepy, he stopped for a while.

As he waited for his breakfast order to come, Craddock spied a black man who had just come in and had sat down. The diner's manager then began to treat the black man with a contempt that was clearly borne of deep-seated racism. The manager was rude, insulting, demeaning toward his black guest. As he sat in his booth a little ways away, Craddock wrestled with saying something to chide this manager for his shameful, racist conduct. Eventually the black man quickly slurped down some coffee and then fled the diner. Craddock meanwhile remained silent. "I didn't say anything," he confessed. "I quietly paid my bill, left the diner, and headed back to my car. But as I walked through the parking lot, somewhere in the distance, I heard a rooster crow."

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.’