Jesus said to his disciples, “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.” Mark 13
So this is not an easy passage to understand. One minute, Jesus is saying “truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place and in the next, he acknowledges he doesn’t know either the day or the hour of that cataclysmic event.
Now, the questions about the rapture, or the second coming, are intriguing and they have the capacity to get people really stirred up. Towards the end of 1971, I was a little girl in Colombia when there was all this brouhaha about how the Rapture would happen, I believe on January 15, 1972. I know it was a Saturday. People got more and more worked up. That morning, at about 6, someone came and banged on the front door before anyone in my family had gotten up. It was our neighbor, a widow who lived alone and was distraught. She’d decided she couldn’t stand to face the Rapture by herself and would stay with us for that moment.
Somehow, her showing up made the possibility of the Rapture far more real and terribly scary for my brothers and me. My parents were gracious with our neighbor and took turns trying to explain that they didn’t believe there’d be anything special about that day. As the hours passed by and then actually started to drag, I’d see my mom rolling her eyes at my dad. Finally, after 11 that night, our neighbor decided the Rapture might not happen that day after all, and asked my dad to walk her home.
Here’s something else I have learned about our concern with the Rapture—it is easier for us to keep hoping and waiting for it to come so God can fix everything that’s wrong, than it is to do some of the harder work of being faithful disciples who work in the fields of the kingdom of God. We want to forget that we live in what someone has called “the meantime”.
“Keep awake.” “Stay alert.” “Be on watch.” If all that means is we scour the news daily for the kinds of signs that will tell us the end is near, the work may be scary, but it is easy. Somehow, I don’t think Jesus is asking us to do that. There is too much in the rest of the Gospel that has to do with the work of loving a broken world here and now.
In the meantime, how do you stay awake to all those realities about our world that we wish God would fix with a magic wand? What are we to be on watch for, to stay alert to?
This year those questions have particular resonance for me. I have rediscovered cold mornings. I already thought my bed was pretty great but these days? MMmmmboy. I am very fond of the quilt on our bed and it is the absolute, perfect, weight for these fall-into-winter days. Our sheets are old enough to be that wonderful cotton soft. My pillows are just right so there isn’t a single ache or pain in my body as I wake up. I lie in the warmth of my cocoon not moving one muscle, doing everything I can to prolong that moment of perfect comfort as long as I possibly can. As I learned to say from my husband, I love my bed. But if I am going to stay awake, I must get out of my bed.
Sherod and I decided to get out of the rat race, out of the constant stress and anxiety of the complex ministry in the Southeast Florida that was consuming and robbing us of all joy and hope. Here in Lowndesboro we have unplugged from the Internet and the 24-hour cycle of news and stopped often to look, to breathe deep, to allow wonder to find its way back into our lives. That is both a gift and a temptation.
When Jesus says, “stay awake”, I am convinced that on the one hand he is invites us to see—really see, with eyes filled with wonder—the amazing creation that surrounds us. I imagine that for those of you who have lived here big parts of your life, it is easy to take all this beauty for granted. But this place is an invitation to marvel at rolling hills and bales of hay, the Black-eyed Susans, the Popcorn trees and the Nandina as its berries turn that brilliant red, the Ginko tree as it flames in glory one last time before its leaves fall off.
The temptation anyone who lives in a little slice of heaven like this must struggle with constantly is that we all want to draw the circle of our life as small as necessary to stay safe and comfortable. Today’s Gospel challenges that impluse. We are called to stay awake, to be alert to God’s presence and the ways in which God may be moving towards us from the most unexpected and sometimes difficult places.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned off the TV or radio when stuff about Ferguson came up since the summer. Missouri is a long way away from here, and all I want to do is finish making and canning my apple butter and getting my house and my heart ready for Christmas. But it has been clear that just getting out of bed, waking up each day, meant I couldn’t turn away.
My stepson Charlie—the finest young man one could be honored to know—is a law enforcement officer who just had a colleague killed in the line of duty outside of Tallahassee this past week. Neither his wife, nor his dad, nor anyone who loves him, can bear to spend much time contemplating how often he is in harm’s way and how easily our world could come crashing in on us because all he does is get up and go to work in the morning.
The person I work most closely with, Ron, is a priest like me. He was even ordained in the same year as I was. Ron is also an African American man who grew up in Detroit. We travel together often and in September, over dinner one night, I heard and saw the agony with which he described his fear every time his son, who isn’t even a teenager yet, goes out with his friends.
I am trying to listen more than talk these days. Each of these two men I care for and respect, holds a set of truths that seems to be completely at odds with the other. As I try to see how the pieces can fit, how we can move beyond this place of such deep fear, mistrust and brokenness, I feel incredibly impotent and powerless. So helpless that there’s a part of me that desperately wants to beg God for the Rapture to come, come now and let me off the hook for solving problems this complex and intractable.
Although I want that easy fix, what if God wants something else? What if staying awake is about hanging in long enough with tough problems so our hardened hearts are softened, so we become more willing to work for life-giving peace, mercy and justice? What if staying alert will allow us to see more clearly how the Spirit is present everywhere and goes where it will, to bring grace and hope into the world and replace cynicism with joy? What if, as we keep watch, we become more able to take the risk to love and forgive in ways that bring God’s kingdom closer to fulfillment?
We enter into the season of our Lord’s birth in the midst of sorrow. We stop for these next four weeks to remember that light shines forth out of the greatest darkness. We ponder once again how the wail of a little boy being born in great poverty on a deep, dark night two thousand years ago is the beginning of a magnificent new work of creation that continues today and extends into a future more filled with possibility than we dare consider.
We long for the rapture, we pray for relief and newness, and still, we must press on, do the work of discipleship. Because in the meantime, we are to follow the example of the one who came into the world as a tiny baby and never, in all his earthly ministry, ceased to do the work of the kingdom, the work of love in the now, in the meantime.