Mark 13. 24-end
About that day or hour no- one knows, says Jesus. It will be like a man who leaves home who commands the doorkeeper of the house to be on the watch for his return. Keep awake.
Today is the First day of Advent and we hear again one of Advent’s key messages: Stay awake. Be prepared for the coming of ‘the Son of Man’: Jesus. The message is wrapped around in the language of ‘the end of the world as we know it’ – something new is about to happen but you have to be ready for it. Stay awake.
Except staying awake is something I find really hard. It has long been a joke in our family that ‘Alec will be tired’. I love sleep and sleep loves me. As a schoolboy I would fall asleep on the bus home from Primary School: in my mum’s mind that image attached to me way back then and never shifted – she was always concerned with how tired I was, perfectly happy for me to visit and then fall asleep in the armchair. And as the years pass I wonder whether something happens in the metabolism that makes ‘nodding off’ just that little bit easier on an evening.
We all need sleep but it seems that we can never allow ourselves catch a few zzz’s spiritually. In my mind this ‘doorkeeper’ is like those chaps in bowler hats at Oxbridge Colleges: someone always on the door, day and night, keeping tabs on the comings and goings of the college. Or perhaps you can picture a mediaeval castle like the one here in town: the doorkeeper holding a key role for the safety of those inside but also needing to be ready to open the gates to allow his Lord to enter in.
Doorkeepers, watchmen, sentinels – they are of a piece. At one level they have a simple function to perform (opening and shutting the door, shouting out what they can see form their posts) but they also need to be alert to who is coming, what is happening beyond the gates of the home or castle….most especially, in the case of Jesus’ words, being on the look out for his presence, his coming to be with his people.
Jesus, in these verses, is speaking most especially to his disciples: his words aren’t offered to the wider crowd of people who listened to his teaching. It seems that one of the tasks that he entrusted to his friends was to be people who look out for his coming and to therefore be the first to throw open the doors to announce and welcome him. To do this, we have to be awake.
Staying awake through a long night is pretty hard. There are long periods of silence, nothing going on…it can be a lonely and disheartening task, waiting: waiting for something to happen. Staying awake ‘spiritually’, becoming attuned to what God might be up to, is just as difficult. It takes discipline: learning to see differently in the dark, to have eyes open enough to discern God’s presence at work and then the courage to announce it. And as well as seeing, learning to listen in a new way to the myriad voices around us (on the news, through our screens, in our papers, in the conversations we have) and to separate out from them all His voice: the voice of Jesus in and through all the other voices.
So how do we learn to see differently? How do we learn to hear and notice the signs of Jesus’ kingdom coming? Firstly, we have to be up for the task. The doorman was told to stay awake and to expect His master’s coming. Do we actually believe that God is at work in His world? Do we expect to see signs of His presence? Jesus chided the religious leaders of His day for ‘looking but never perceiving, listening but never understanding?’ The whole of Jesus’ ministry spoke of God doing a new thing: his teaching, his healings, his approach to those who were excluded from the wider community – these things spoke of God’s Kingdom coming…but all his enemies could see was a young man breaking their rules and traditions. What are we looking for? Have we already shut the door on the possibility of Jesus coming to us?
So secondly, we need to be schooled in the ways of God. How has His presence been noticed in the past? In what ways has He come to His people before? We’ll find these things in the scriptures. We can learn what to look for by reading the story of Jesus and noticing how God visited His people through Him. Reflecting on these things helps us to see God at work in our day, helps us to notice Jesus at work around us in our own time.
And the signs of His coming are all around us: the parcels of food delivered with no questions asked from the FoodBank or local stores, a phone call to someone who lives alone, the ‘above and beyond’ work of parents and teachers, the faithfulness of care workers, the smile of an old friend, the photo posted on what’s app to raise our spirits. It may be well dark out there but He is near. He is coming. Our task, to announce His presence with joy and to switch on the lights of a darkened house.