Saturday, November 21, 2009
Sermon for the Last Sunday in the Church Year (Nov. 22, 2009)
“Stay Awake!” (Mark 13:33-37)
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
A few years ago a top college basketball player was one of the leading candidates for the U.S. Pan-American team. The tryouts were held at the Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, and this promising star went to participate. The final cuts were scheduled. He was given the chance to come back for one more tryout. But … he didn't show up. Officials knocked on the door of his room, but there was no response. Worried that something was terribly wrong, they managed to get into his room, only to find him fast asleep.
You'd think that such an important moment would be sufficiently exciting to keep a young athlete awake. You might also wonder how many other important events are missed, simply because someone is too bored or too tired to stay awake. When I was a student I used to have nightmares of sleeping in too late and missing an important test. Now, as a pastor, I have nightmares of sleeping in too late and missing church.
There is an important event coming for us, too. Jesus is coming back. “But concerning that day or that hour,” Jesus said, “no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” When is Jesus coming back? Nobody on earth knows. But it will happen.
Until then, it's easy for us to fall asleep spiritually and to not think about the promised return of Jesus. However, Jesus calls us to “Stay awake” and be ready for His return, and He gives us the strength to do so.
In the parable that Jesus told in today's text, Jesus is the master of the house who leaves and puts the servants in charge. He ascended into heaven 40 days after His resurrection, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. We now wait for His promised return. We don't know when it will be. One thing we do know. It will be when we least expect it. In the parable, Jesus mentions the hours of sleep as the time when the master will return – the evening, at midnight, when the rooster crows, or at dawn. That would be an unusual time for the master to return. It would also be the time at which everyone in the household would be sleeping. However, that's no excuse to be unprepared. Rather, it gives us a reason for diligence. Jesus tells us that we must stay awake and be alert for His return. We must not let Him find us sleeping, not watching for Him.
It's easy for us to get lazy spiritually, to fall asleep, to be lulled into complacency. In the upcoming shopping season as we prepare for Christmas, there is a great temptation to conform to the world's view of the supreme importance of material things. Now, I'm not saying that gift giving is wrong at Christmas time. The gifts we give one another can be wonderful reminders of the gift of God's Son that first Christmas morning. The gifts we give can also remind us of the ultimate gift of the life of that Son, who gave Himself into death so that we might have eternal life. Nevertheless, it is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of it all. It's easy to forget about the real meaning of the season.
There is also a grave danger in getting lazy about doctrine. We live in an age where everything is relative. There is no absolute truth ... and that goes for doctrine, too, even in the Christian Church, where compromise seems to be the order of the day. Scripture warns us to stay awake to these things, too. In his farewell to the Ephesian pastors in Acts 20, he said, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert.” (Acts 20:29-31)
Jude, too, in his letter, dealt with a similar situation. Early on, he writes about the false teachers who had wormed their way in among the folks to whom Jude's letter was addressed. He writes, “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of God in sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 3-4) Both Paul's words and Jude's words are timely for us today, too.
The call of Jesus is to “stay awake,” to remain vigilant while He is gone, to look forward to His return with eager hearts. How do we do this? For one thing, watch the signs. Jesus told us that there would be signs to watch for that would indicate His return is getting closer. He names some of them in Matt. 24: "Wars and rumors of war, famines and earthquakes in various places ... many false prophets will appear and deceive many people." Sounds like a summary of history since Jesus ascended into heaven, doesn't it? Yes, it is, and those are the signs that Jesus has given to people of all centuries to see and to recognize and to be reminded to stay watchful. And with each passing day, his return is getting closer.
We also “stay awake” by being diligent in prayer. The reading from Jude today says, “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus that leads to eternal life.” (Jude 20-22) Recall what Jesus said to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when He found them sleeping. He told them, "Watch” … and the Greek here, by the way, is the same for “stay awake” … “Watch and pray that you may not fall into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41) Paul also connected the ideas of being alert and praying in Eph. 6:18, where he wrote, “[Pray] at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert [or “stay awake”] with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints." While we wait for the Lord's return, we pray that He might keep us and all Christians watchful, avoiding temptation, fervently fighting false teaching, and ready for His coming.
And like the servants in the parable, each of us has our own particular work to do. While the master is gone, we serve Him as good stewards with the gifts, talents, and abilities He has given us. He has provided His Church with everything that she needs to carry on His work in the world.
Perhaps you might be saying to yourself, "What is my work that God wants me to do?" Or, "I don't have any special abilities." If so, then listen to the following.
A celebrated conductor was holding a gigantic rehearsal. The chorus sounded, accompanied by hundreds of instruments. That was when the piccolo player stopped playing. He thought his small instrument wouldn't be missed amidst so much music. Suddenly the great leader stopped and shouted, "Where is the piccolo?" The sound of that one small instrument was necessary, and the conductor's ear missed it.
When you go to work, your employer might not know you exist. When you go home, you might find yourself ignored. When you go shopping, you are just another customer. The government knows you only by your social security number. But God's wonderful ear is tuned to the music of your life. You are important to Him, important enough to give His Son's life for yours. He listens to your prayers and praises. He knows even the very small ways in which you serve Him, even if you don't think they are very special. He has given us each of us our work to do, our parts to play. So don't stop playing your part, no matter how small it may seem to be. There's always at least one Person listening.
You know, we've talked a lot about watching and praying and serving while the master is gone. Yes, He has ascended into heaven. Yes, he will come again in glory. Every eye will see Him on that Day. But He really hasn't left us. His presence is still with us, and He is the one who gives us the strength to stay awake. Listen again to Jude's words at the end of his epistle, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever.” You and I have no strength on our own to stay awake, to be watchful. And we especially have no way of being blameless on our own. Our gracious God will keep you strong, keep you vigilant, and will present you blameless on Judgment Day because your sins have been covered with the holy and innocent blood of Jesus shed on the cross.
If you are trying to stay awake at night, what do you do? Perhaps you go and splash a little water on your face, to invigorate yourself, to feel refreshed.
Maybe you pick up a good book to read – not a boring one that will put you to sleep – but one that is so riveting you just can't put it down, and you can't help but stay awake to read it.
Or maybe you go into the kitchen to have a bite to eat, a nourishing meal to give yourself a little energy to stay awake.
Jesus calls us to stay awake, and He has given us the means by which to draw on His strength to "stay awake" for His return.
So go ahead. Splash a little water on your face. Remind yourself that you are God's Baptized child, and be refreshed, be invigorated. You are forgiven. You are marked with His Name. You have the Holy Spirit who enables you to say, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior, the One in whom I trust, the One for whom I am waiting.”
Read a good book. Read the Word of God, the Bible, in which we keep in touch with Jesus the Living Word. With the Word working in you, you won't fall spiritually asleep. In His Word, we hear the Gospel message. The Gospel is a riveting story that attracts our attention, that draws us in … that the God of the universe loves you so much that He sent His Son to die and rise for you, and that He still today takes a personal interest in you to give you faith and to keep you strong to the end.
And have a nourishing meal. "Chicken Soup for the Soul" doesn't compare to the real food for the soul that we receive in the Lord's Supper, the precious body and blood of our Savior Jesus. Now that is real nourishing food which gives spiritual well-being and alertness.
Only by God's grace in Christ can we “stay awake” and eagerly look forward to the Lord's return. While we wait, He gives us the strength we need to stay awake and to serve Him with whatever tasks he has given us.