A warning to “watch out” seems a little unnecessary during this season, doesn’t it? I feel like we are already heavily caffeinated and on the watch for everything. We’re counting down the days to Christmas. We are watching out for the arrival of Santa with our Santa trackers. We know what’s coming, and we’re frantically trying to prepare for it. We are trying to find unique gifts for people who already have everything; we’re trying to squeeze in special moments with our loved ones; we are making grocery lists so we can prepare perfect dinners and make our Christmas cookies. Some of us are filled with dread because we are watching out for the inevitable downslide of some of our family members who struggle with the holidays. Some of us are watching out, trying to figure out how to prepare ourselves to be with people who stress us out the most during this “most wonderful time of the year.” We are on hyper look out because Christmas is upon us.
And it’s not even just the Christmas season, is it? I feel like our world is constantly watching out for the next bad thing. I had a friend ask me this week, “With all the horrible things that happen to people in our world, do you ever sit around and wonder when the bad news is going to be your bad news? When it’s going to be your turn to get the cancer diagnosis, when it’s going to be your kid who has something devastating happen to them, when something terrible is going to completely knock you down and crush your soul?” We do live in a time where we know about every bad thing that can happen to anyone across the world, and we can get paralyzed by trying to watch out for that next bad thing to happen to us. An admonishment in our day to tell people to “watch out” can seem like the wrong warning. But what if we are watching out for the wrong things? What if we hyper-vigilant about the cares of this world and of things we cannot control but are asleep to much of what matters? What if we are revved-up trying to create picture perfect holidays and meeting everyone’s expectations and watching obsessively over the safety of our lives but asleep to God’s impending arrival in our world?
In a time of year when we await the celebration of the Christ child being born among us, it’s a strange time to be reflecting on the words from this grown up Christ child talking about the second coming. It’s this odd moment in time where we are at both the end and the beginning. It helps us to relate to those who waited the birth of the Messiah for the very first time because while we know when Christ will be born among us, we still don’t know when the Son of Man will come to us again. This text was originally written to people living around 70CE. Mark’s first readers would have witnessed the departure of Jesus’ disciples from the synagogues and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. They would have been experiencing the horrors of the Roman-Jewish war, the persecution of the Jewish people. As much as it felt like the world was coming to an end for them, this text says that their suffering is actually not the end. Certainly the way they had been inhabiting the world and worshipping God was coming to an end. But even though they faced incredibly difficult political and social and religious crises, what was happening was not a sure sign of the end of the world. War nor catastrophe nor persecution nor the fall of Jerusalem nor the desecration of the temple meant that the end had come. Mark affirms for them that the end of the world will come when the astronomical bodies cease to perform their functions, when the cosmos is in complete disarray, when the Son of man comes in clouds with great power and glory. It is this moment in which God will gather God’s people from the four winds, from the ends of the earth, and there will be a reckoning. I think we are always afraid when we hear this catastrophic pronouncement; we hear it as judgment; but it’s ultimately an exhortation to take courage, to endure. This apocalyptic vision, like all apocalyptic visions, confirms that the evil powers of the world are strong, that the wicked will oppress the righteous and seek to destroy the reign of God, that things will indeed get worse before they get better. But this vision ultimately calls God’s people to take heart, because just when they think the whole world is falling apart, God will intervene to turn the world around.
The image of the fig tree is one of the most vivid images of hope. Unlike the cursed, withered fig tree Mark mentions earlier in the gospel, this image is of a budding fig tree, one whose branches are becoming tender, whose leaves are coming forth. It is the image of summer coming; it is the image of new life, of rebirth, of renewal, of recreation. Figs meant so much more to the original hearers of this text than to us. When I think of figs, I think of the delicious fig preserves my mom makes or eating dried figs with fancy cheese. But in Jesus’s day figs were a staple in a normal diet; fig trees were tended because they were depended upon for survival; figs helped to fill stomachs that might otherwise go empty. An image of a budding fig tree was an image of hope, of survival, of sustenance, of being fulfilled. The words of Jesus to those first disciples, to the people who first heard Mark’s gospel, and to us are words of hope and assurance of a new day dawning, a day of re-creation and rebirth.
These words from Jesus are the last words to his disciples in the gospel of Mark. After these words, the week that precedes the crucifixion begins. It’s an interesting choice of last words. After Jesus makes clear that the first part of his message is hope, he then moves to caution his disciples to take on a practice of watchfulness. He says that not even he knows when the Son of man is coming! He tells the disciples to keep alert, to always be expectant. Just as a slave would always want to be found being diligent when his master returned from a journey, so should they be on the watch, so should they always be faithful, so should they always be about the business of the kingdom of God.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to keep alert and to watch out for God to turn the world around if we already like the way the world is. But as Christians, Jesus calls us to long for a different world, a world where God’s hope and new life has been extended to all people. It’s often the people on the margins who teach us how to long for God to come and make all things new. We sang an African American spiritual this morning, a song that American slaves sang to help them endure as they longed for a different world, as they longed for justice, as they longed for the stars to fall and for God to turn their world around. They sang out, “My Lord! What a morning!” On the morning when the cosmos would be disturbed trumpets would sound, sinners would cry because God would bring a reckoning, and Christians would shout because they would be excited to see that the nations were being called to judgment and that Jesus was setting things right. Those who are marginalized and oppressed in our midst have something to teach us about how we too should come along side them and pray and watch for an urgent and immediate new day of hopefulness. And not only should we watch for it, we should work for it. We should be about God’s work of setting the world right as we wait for the Lord to come in our midst.
If we don’t learn from those longing from a different world, we might very well be found asleep when God comes in our midst. Theologian Christopher Hutson has a word for Christians who are also people of privilege who might be tempted to tune out the destructive powers in our world. He says, “The powers that be will lull us to sleep by reassuring us that they have our best interests at heart as they pursue their worldly agendas. They play to our fears, our prejudices, our self-interests, so we do not notice their demonic behaviors.” We must beware and keep alert in order to be faithful to Jesus’ command that we be about his work as we wait and watch for God to come among us with eager anticipation.
Being on the watch is not a passive activity; it’s an active stance; it’s a command for preparation, for work. Watching for the Son of man to come in power and glory is a lot like watching out for a baby. You don’t just sit around and ignore that a baby is coming. You take vitamins to give your baby nutrients; you exercise to make yourself strong and to prepare for the day of labor; you pack a hospital bag and make a plan for the day of delivery; you prepare a room and buy clothing so the baby will have what he or she needs; you ready everyone else in the family for the new baby’s arrival. Just as we prepare for the day of a baby’s arrival, we must prepare for Christ child to be born among us, and we must prepare also for his second coming.
This Advent we are invited to be on the watch for God’s presence and God’s kingdom. We are invited to activities that will make us ready for God’s arrival. We are invited to read scripture, to pray, to meditate upon Advent devotionals, to worship, to patiently and slowly light all the candles on the Advent wreath. We are invited to prepare ourselves and all who are around us for the world to be made right for all of God’s people. We are asked to call out the powers that be that try to lull us to sleep; we are to watch out for when evil wreaks havoc in the lives of God’s children; we are to be alert to the ways in which the world goes against the ways of the kingdom; and we are to act to prepare the way for God’s kingdom in our midst.
This morning, on this First Sunday of Advent, as we come to the communion table, we are invited to come with eager anticipation for God’s arrival in our world. As we eat Jesus’ body and drink Jesus’ blood, we pray that the Holy Spirit will make us into people who long for the world to be set right, into people who actively prepare for God to turn our current world upside down. As we commune with God and one another, we will be filled with the hope we need to endure and given the wisdom watch out, not for the festive celebration of Christmas, but for the Christ child who will bring new life into the world. My Lord, what a morning that will be. Amen.