Staying awake is hard for me when my body tells me it is time to be done, especially when I am driving. When I worked nights at Roadway, I used to drive home in the morning after a thirteen hour shift with the windows down and my head hanging out. This was the only way I could stay awake. However, when I have had to stay awake driving late into the night returning from a vacation, if Paige is next to me talking, I do fine. Staying awake is hard for me if my body is telling me to shut down, but it is definitely much easier if I stay awake with somebody.
Jesus ends his little apocalypse with the command for his listeners to stay awake. Apocalyptic literature was a style of religious writing that had grown popular with Jewish scholars and prophets a century or so before Jesus. There are examples in the Old and New Testament, and many more in Christian and Jewish writings that didn’t make the bible. Their purpose is to give hope to a people constantly used to hearing bad news. Their rhythm is similar, things are bad now, things unfortunately are going to get worse, but then God will act and like night suddenly becomes day, things will be perfect. The sudden cathartic change is the center of apocalyptic literature.
Because we don’t know when this change will happen just that it will be preceded by some tough days, most apocalyptic literature emphasizes staying awake. Staying awake means being faithful to God even in circumstances where evidence of God is slim. After all we trust that only God can ultimately straighten things out. Staying awake and trusting God is near even on our darkest day is easier said than done. Life is full of little apocalypses that happen that can cause any of us to lose that trust of God.
When he came home from work that day, his thoughts were on his miserable boss and the horrible traffic. He opened the door and his spouse of twenty years is sitting at the kitchen table with only one light on waiting with a pained look on her face. “Honey, there is something really hard I have to tell you. I no longer want to be married to you.” Boom. Out of nowhere, his entire life has shifted and changed. He thought he was awake and faithful to God, but he felt all alone and tired on that day. It seemed like a typical bathroom problem that happens. After three months though, then a thousand tests, she finds herself alone with a doctor. “You have colon cancer.” Boom. Out of nowhere her entire life has changed. She never missed church, was as active as one can be really, but in that moment God seemed far away. How can any of us stay awake and faithful as we endure all of the earthquakes and storms that will lead us to the end of time?
In Jesus’ little apocalypse, he seems to be working on two levels of time. Not only is he talking about the end of time when heaven and earth will become one as in all apocalyptic literature. He is also talking about the big cathartic change that will happen for all of his audience in just the next few days, his death and resurrection. For people that had left family, friends, and job for Jesus, seeing him on a cross was going to be crushing blow.
Verse 35 ends our verses urging us to stay awake because the master might call in the evening, middle of the night, when the cock crows or at dawn. In the next two chapters of Mark we hear the story of the crucifixion and resurrection with exactly those time markers. The last supper with the disciples was in the evening. The arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane was in the middle of the night. The betrayal by Peter before the crucifixion was when the cock crows. The resurrection was of course at dawn. When Jesus died on the cross there was an eclipse as described in verse 24. In verse 30 Jesus tells those listening that their generation won’t die until the time I am speaking of happens. It is obvious his language about the end of time is referencing the change about to happen after his death just weeks away.
Jesus is giving hope to the crowd around him whose life had already gotten hard when they chose to follow him. They think things are bad now, just wait for a few weeks from now. He is also giving hope to all us urging us to stay awake for the little apocalypses that tear up our life and possibly unmoor us from our faith. By pointing to his resurrection, he tells us what to pin our hope upon. Jesus won’t be with the crowd after the cross in same he was when he shared this teaching. Jesus will be with them and us in a new way, revealed in the resurrection. Staying awake and enduring apocalypses big or small faithfully is important. Doing so with the resurrected Jesus near is the only way possible. And we know what that looks like.
A blogger I read this week told the story of an older woman who started attending his small church of sixty or so in Texas all by herself. She had only attended for about a month, when her son in his 40’s suddenly died. I read this story and was sadly reminded of the stories of some of the beloved here at Messiah.
The next part of his story was equally reminiscent. He wrote that even though his small church did not know her well, they became Christ for her in this sudden cathartic moment, when boom everything changed. They all came, every single one of them for the funeral they held in their small sanctuary. They all stayed for the meal afterward, that they prepared for her and her family. They all gathered around her in the months and years ahead as she grieved and healed and grieved and healed. After the apocalypse of losing her son, Jesus showed up in that body of Christ in Texas.
Just as I can’t drive at night without someone next to me keeping me awake. I can’t get through days that feel like long nights without Jesus next to me. Staying awake, waiting for either the end of time, or simply the next reminder that life is fragile and can change in a blink of an eye, is only possible with Jesus. The man whose wife left him was lifted up in prayer and fellowship by his church. Even a few beers after choir were part of the story I believe, in the months afterward. The older woman with cancer was surrounded by her church friends she had served beside for years and as ready as any of us can be when I anointed her with oil before she came into God’s presence.
In word and sacrament, in a fellowship of believers, we live beside Jesus here. The brother and sister in the pew, the wine and bread at the altar will keep the presence of Jesus next to us, so we will stay awake for whatever apocalypse might be in our future. Our faithful presence here will keep us awake for whatever God has in store on the last days of this old creation. Amen