Staying Awake While We Wait

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage:   Mark 13:1-2, 24-37    Date:  December 3, 2023

Advent is a time of waiting with expectation for the coming of Jesus the Savior and Messiah into the world.  Jesus told his disciples to “stay awake” and prepare for his second coming.  We are called to “stay awake” while we wait for Jesus’ coming in the following ways:  1) discern the signs of our times, 2) acknowledge the anxiety, pain, and grief we experience during times of change and chaos, 3) be faithful witnesses to Jesus, and 4) remember that God, Emmanuel, is with us.   

 

One of the traditions of the Christmas season when I was a child that I remember most vividly is going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Catholic church our family attended.

My parents met while singing in the choir of the Catholic church, and up until just a few years ago they sang at Midnight Mass almost without fail every year—if my math is correct, that would add up to about 70 years!

So every Christmas Eve, us eight kids would pile into the station wagon with my parents to get to the church by 10:30 pm, so my parents could rehearse with the choir for over an hour before the service began.

While they rehearsed, us kids were expected to sit in our family pew and keep ourselves entertained without wreaking havoc running around the church.

So just sitting there, it was hard to stay awake, so sometimes we would bring coloring books and pads of paper to color and draw in to help keep us awake while we waited for the mass to begin.

Of course if it was today, it would be tablets and smartphones with airpods.

Maybe this whole routine of Midnight Mass was a ploy by my parents to get us good and tired by staying up so late that once we got home and went to bed, we wouldn’t get up at the crack of dawn to open our presents under the tree (and wake them up in the process!)  Their ploy didn’t work!

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent means “coming”, or “arrival”, and so for Christians, Advent is a time of waiting for the arrival of Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people; Jesus, the Savior of the world.

In our scripture passage today, Jesus is talking with his disciples about a time when he will arrive again at the end of time as we know it.

Leading up to Jesus’ return, Jesus says there will be signs, and many of these signs involve disruption and division and chaos and suffering.  In fact some of these signs they will experience during their lifetimes.

And Jesus tells his followers that even when the signs appear, there is no way of them knowing for sure when he will come.

So Jesus emphasizes while they wait, they should stay alert, keep awake, keep watch, like servants do who are watching over their master’s house while he is away.

Unless you and I have our heads stuck in the sand like ostriches, it’s not hard to see division and chaos in our world today.  Right now, there are two major wars going on in the world that are causing untold amounts of suffering.

And here in our country, the last several years there has been political polarization and chaos on Capitol Hill like I’ve never seen in my lifetime.

And in the American church, there is also major disruption and disorientation and upheaval going on.

There are also earth-shaking changes in technology with Artificial Intelligence, as well as the increasing influence that social media is having on our perception of reality, on how we relate to others, and our how our own identity is shaped.

Even though our world in the 21st century is so different than the first century that Jesus and his disciples lived in, it’s similar in that both have changes, and uncertainty, and conflict, and pain.

Living in this kind of world can be incredibly stressful and unsettling.  And hope for the future can easily disintegrate into despair and resignation, and sometimes with it, a longing to go back to an idealized earlier time when things seemed better.

Jesus’ words to his disciples here is a call to resist being paralyzed by fear or hopelessness, and it’s an appeal to wait in a proactive way, with expectation instead of cynicism, for the new heavens and new earth that the book of Revelation promises when Jesus returns.

So while we wait during this season of Advent, for Jesus coming, we are invited to stay awake, to keep alert, to wait with expectation instead of cynicism.

I want to suggest four things you and I can do to stay awake while we wait during this season of Advent, based on our scripture today.

First, let’s discern the signs of our times, as Jesus called his disciples to do.

In the first part of our scripture today, Jesus says, “do you see these great buildings? There will come a time when all the stones will be thrown down and the walls will crumble.

Jesus is predicting the destruction of his Jewish people’s beloved temple, which ended up being leveled by the Roman Empire in AD 70 as a retaliation to the Judean revolt which began a few years earlier.

Let’s not underestimate how earthshaking the destruction of the temple was to the Jewish community in Jesus’ day.  It meant the end of life as they knew it, the center of their religious and communal life together gone, as if their heart was being ripped out.

Today, it feels like the symbolic walls of the Christian church as we know it are being torn down like the Jewish temple was.  There are changes happening in the church that are shaking its very foundations.

I’ve been reading this book by Russell Moore, Losing our Religion, that talks about the some of the things the church is losing—like it’s credibility, it’s authority, it’s identity, its integrity, and its stability.

He talks about how some sectors of the church have sought political power and influence through aligning with corrupt and morally bankrupt politicians in order to advance their agendas.

He talks about how some churches have covered up sexual abuse and doubled down on preventing women from being pastors in order to protect male church leaders and preserve patriarchal authority in the church.

Moore offers antidotes to these things the church is losing, that can lead to authentic revival and renewal of the church for the future instead of this past-centered mentality we hear of “taking America back for God”.

As Jesus once said, new wine needs new wineskins, and we need to be open to allowing those new wineskins, new ways of doing and being church, to take shape.

Okay, so the first way we can stay awake is by reading the signs of our times, trying to understand the clues of what we see happening around us, so we can envision a future that aligns with God’s vision for the church and the world.

The second way to stay awake is what I would call acknowledge.  And by that I mean acknowledge the anxiety, the stress, the pain and the grief that we are feeling as we experience the change and chaos around us, and the loss of what’s familiar to us.

The drama at the start of the service reminded us that in our instant gratification society, we want fast, easy solutions and remedies to problems and predicaments.  We want to “move on”, and speed up the healing process with “quick fixes”.

But that’s usually not the way things work in life.  Usually, we need to do the hard work of acknowledging how we feel and face it square on, and then we can find healing and become stronger as a result.

When I was Campus Pastor at Bluffton University, I traveled with a student worship ministry team to different churches where the students led worship through music and personal testimonies.

I’ll never forget the day that one student, Anna, shared about the loss of her family’s shoe store business in their small hometown.  It was a “Ma and Pa” store that had been the family’s livelihood throughout Anna’s entire childhood.

Unfortunately, due to changes in society, first through shopping malls and then later through online sales, brick and mortar stores like theirs couldn’t compete and had to close down.

Anna shared in her testimony how one weekend she went home, and she mustered up the courage to go to the now shuttered shoe store. She walked in the door, took in the familiar sights and the smells of the store, and relived so many memories she had helping out her family in the store.

As Anna shared, tears welled up inside her and she wept, grieving the loss of something so dear to her.  And then we all started tearing up, and I got this feeling that Anna was on the road to healing.

With all the loss, and suffering, and uncertainty in our world, there’s so much grief, and pain and trauma .  And we have to deal with it.  Yes to a certain extent, time heals wounds.

But at the same time, while we wait, we have to actively deal with it. Because as Russell Moore says in his book, “what’s not repaired is repeated.”  What’s not processed lurks under the surface and can play itself out in all kinds of unhealthy ways.

The third way to stay awake while we wait is through being faithful witnesses to Jesus, even when things seem overwhelming or hopeless.

The servants in the master’s house that Jesus talked about didn’t just sit around idle—they had work to do until their master returned home.

And we are called to do the same, to bear witness to the love and grace and peace of Jesus with the gifts and passions that God has given us.

At the time of the Judean revolt, Jesus’ disciples had a decision to make: should they join forces with the Zealots and take up arms against Rome?  Should they sell their souls and side with the Roman Empire for their own safety?

Or should they obey Jesus’ example and speak truth to power in nonviolent ways?   These same choices face us today.

Last Tuesday night, a new group called Mennonite Action organized an online meeting to mobilize Mennonites and Anabaptists across North America to use creative nonviolent action to call for a cease-fire in Gaza and an end to the occupation of Palestine.

Over 800 people from 250 congregations across Canada and the U.S. participated in the meeting.  Mennonite Action is taking seriously Jesus’ call to be peacemakers in the midst of the violence in our world.

This group especially gives me hope in that it was started by two young adults, Nick Martin and Adam Ramer.

To me, it’s a small but significant sign that the mantle of active peacemaking is being passed down to younger generations, and this gives me hope for our church and for the world.

Jesus calls us to be faithful witnesses, even when we don’t know how effective our witness will be, or how successful the results will be.  That’s up to God and forces beyond our control, but we can control how we act.

So, to recap: staying awake while we wait means first discerning the signs of change in the world and the church, then acknowledging and working through the pain and trauma that comes with living in a changing and chaotic world, and third, being faithful and active witnesses to the way of Jesus.

Finally, we keep awake through remembering that God is with us and will never abandon us.  This season we anticipate the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.

God accompanied the people of Israel through their wanderings in the wilderness, and God does the same for us.  Even in those times when we don’t feel we deserve God’s unconditional love and presence, God is near us and we can put our wholehearted trust in Him.

Jesus said, “I am with you until the end of the age”, and he sent his Spirit to be our comforter, our helper, and our guide.  And remembering this gives us hope.

And that hope helps us stay awake, it promises light at the end of our tunnels of darkness.  Waiting and trusting in God can renew our strength.

There are those times in life where we can’t get quick results, or clarity, or answers, and we just have to wait.  Those times of waiting can be stressful or scary and cause us to feel alone.

But I would guess that all of us have had times when we can remember how God was with us in a real way while we waited for something.

Maybe we didn’t even realize it until after the fact, and we looked back on that time of waiting, kind of like that well-known poem of the person who saw only one set of footprints in the sand and realized that it was God who carrying him.

“When was a time that you experienced God’s presence while you waited?  I invite you reflect on this question for a few minutes, and write down one of those times.