“Keep Awake!” Colchester Federated Church, December 3, 2017, First Sunday of Advent (Mark 13:24-37)
“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.” Imagine for a moment the scariest figure you can: Dracula, Zombies, or that clown from It maybe. Imagine a figure that will strike fear in the heart of anyone who has the misfortune of meeting it. These figures of our collective imaginations are like the Son of Man Jesus speaks about in the Gospel of Mark.
For most Jews living in Jesus’ time, the Son of Man was a well-known but mysterious figure of hope and liberation. The Son of Man was also powerful and terrifying. Jesus’ contemporaries would have recognized the Son of Man from the Book of Daniel. Daniel was exiled with the rest of the Jews, living far from home in a foreign country. So Daniel said that the Son of Man would come to save the people—to judge their oppressors and rescue the faithful. The Son of Man’s “dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”
The Son of Man makes another appearance in the Book of Revelation. This time John of Patmos (the author of this wonderfully strange book) explicitly identifies Jesus as the Son of Man. We even get a description of what the Son of Man looks like. John describes his vision of Jesus as a figure “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair are white as wool, white as snow; his eyes are like a flame of fire, his feet are like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice is like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he holds seven stars, and from his mouth comes a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face is like the sun shining with full force.” John tells us that when he saw Jesus as the Son of Man in the dramatic vision, he “fell at his feet as though dead.”
John’s reaction is not that surprising. Who wouldn’t be shocked and terrified? This image of Jesus as the Son of Man is not the image most of us probably picture when we think of Jesus. We probably picture Jesus as a kind, loving teacher. We sing hymns like “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” We teach our children that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Some of the children of our church just sang that song in worship a few weeks ago, right? But this Son of Man with fiery eyes, a face that could blind you, and a sword sticking out of his mouth? Most of us would probably not find much comfort in that image of Jesus.
But it ends up that this terrifying image of the Son of Man was comforting to the exiled and oppressed Jewish people in Daniel’s time. And it was comforting for the early Christians in John of Patmos’ time persecuted by the Roman Empire. This image was not only comforting; it was encouraging. The people were oppressed by those in power and suffering. They needed a warrior, someone who would return to earth from the heavens to take up the sword on their behalf. They needed the Son of Man to liberate them and give them hope that God hears their cries and does something about them. It may be a violent and rather disturbing image that doesn’t speak much to us. But it might, if we were also in desperate need of a savior.
For sorrowful and powerless and vulnerable people, their savoir may be scary and intimidating. Their savior has to be tough enough to scare those in power. After all, if you are a small sect up against an Empire, it may help to have the Son of Man as your secret weapon. These texts about the Son of Man in Mark, Daniel, and Revelation are still important for oppressed Christians around the world. The image of Jesus as the Son of Man, a strong savior who can literally accomplish their release, offers hope and reassurance that God will one day rescue them from their oppressors.
In our scripture from Mark, Jesus instructs the disciples to watch out for the return of the Son of Man. Jesus tells them that even he doesn’t know the hour that the Son of Man will appear but they should remain alert and keep awake. Our text today is one of the last important lessons Jesus teaches his disciples in the Gospel of Mark. It is one of the last times Jesus is able to instruct his followers since all too soon he will be gone. So Jesus gives them hope by telling them that the Son of Man will return to free the people. Jesus will die soon, but he urgently tells the disciples to stay the course even and especially when he is no longer with them. In the end, God hasn’t forgotten God’s people. God’s justice will come, and the faithful community will be vindicated. So Jesus tells them, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
But the disciples fail. They don’t keep awake and they just don’t get it. When Jesus proclaims this urgent message of hope and salvation, they take a nap. Jesus cries in the Garden of Gethsemane in the very next chapter after these teachings, asking God to take his cup away from him. He is sad and afraid, being a human being and all. He tells his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and keep awake.” The disciples fall asleep on the job repeatedly. They fail at this small request Jesus asked of them. Then Jesus is taken away and crucified. It is so easy for us to pass judgment on the disciples, to say with moral superiority that we would have stayed awake with Jesus in the Garden. We could have drank some cappuccinos or set our cell phone alarm clocks to wake up before Jesus came back from his prayers. Hopefully we know better. And we know that the human frailty of the disciples is part of who we are too.
The Son of Man instructs us to keep awake, to stay watchful, to be prepared for his arrival. But sometimes we can be so absorbed in waiting for something to happen and watching for the signs of the times that we ignore what’s going on around us here and now.
Here’s an example. One of my favorite places is Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. Ocracoke is the last island in the Outer Banks, a rather secluded spot where my aunt and uncle have a beach house. My family has gone on many vacations there and one of our traditions is to go out onto the beach at night to stargaze. We pile into my uncle’s rusted out Chevy and head to the furthest beach on the island, where there are no houses and no lights except for the moon and the stars and the headlights of cars you occasionally pass on the road. When spending an evening on the beach, it feels like you can see every star in the sky. So we listen to the sounds of the ocean and watch the stars, feeling connected to one another and to God.
On one fateful stargazing adventure, we went out onto the beach at night. I, of course, didn’t get a beach chair since I’m the youngest and get no respect. So I brought my beach blanket and laid it on the sand happily looking up at the stars. As the night wore on though, I suddenly experienced this horrible feeling of being watched. Looking over at my family in the moonlight and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I grabbed my flashlight and scanned the beach hoping that I was wrong. My light fell on the biggest sand crab who was less than six inches from where my head had been about to crawl onto my blanket. He had his claws outstretched with his beady black eyes looking right at me. I leapt up and started screaming, and then ranted about how I could have been mortally wounded since everyone was too selfish to give up their beach chairs. My family just laughed.
This near death experience with the sand crab ruined my evening of stargazing. But you see, I was so absorbed in staring at the heavens that I forgot to pay attention to my surroundings until it was almost too late. We were all looking for shooting stars streaking across the night sky. And in our pursuit of these shooting stars, that ill-tempered sand crab almost got me.
Jesus tells us to stay alert and to keep awake. But I don’t think that he meant for us to be so absorbed in watching for the Son of Man to return in the clouds that we neglect what’s happening here on earth. We can’t neglect the plight of our brothers and sisters who are still oppressed. We can’t neglect the importance of nurturing our faith community and spreading the light and love of Christ beyond our own walls. After all, we still long for peace and justice in our world centuries after Jesus taught his disciples and commanded them to “keep awake.” Maybe all along that was another way of saying “pay attention.”
As this is the first Sunday of Advent, we are filled with hope for what is to come. We look forward to Christmas with expectation and wonder in our hearts. Maybe this Christmas we will stay awake like Jesus told us. We will begin the hard work of making the Kingdom of God rule our world. We will work for the reign of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords.
In the end, the Son of Man will come to us this Christmas. But he will be like a lamb and not like a lion. And isn’t this what Christmas is all about? Like Mary says in the Magnificat—the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. If we truly identify Jesus as the Son of Man, then we know that the Son of Man once came into our world as a tiny infant. Even though we may expect the terrifying Son of Man to come on the clouds from heaven with the fiery eyes and the sword, we actually got a vulnerable baby born in Bethlehem. God manifests God’s own self in the weakest human form possible. God could have come to us as the scary Son of Man we all imagined at the beginning of this sermon together. But God doesn’t. Our images and notions about what it means to be powerful or weak are called into questioned when Jesus comes to us as that helpless infant. God is full of surprises. Thanks be to God. Amen.