First Sunday in Advent: Mk. 13:24-37
What is it like to feel drowsy? To be nearly uncontrollably on the verge of falling asleep? Perhaps you have felt this way after driving for many hours or you’ve seen a small child or an elderly relative with their drooping eyelids and head repeatedly nodding in their chair. The theme of our Advent and Christmas series and the passage before us this morning is all about this theme: Stay Awake.
The Text: The bulk of this passage focuses on a number of details specific to the first century. The disciples had asked Jesus when the temple was to be destroyed (Mk. 13:4), and Jesus is answering that question, explaining in prophetic and apocalyptic language what must take place during that generation (Mk. 13:30). But it is not a mere historical accident that these instructions are given to the founding generation of the Church. While we do not face identical historical circumstances, there is something about the posture that Jesus exhorts His disciples to practice that is for every generation. When Jesus tells His disciples to stay awake, He tells all of His disciples to stay awake, to beware, to be alert, to watch (Mk. 13:37). Here, Jesus gives two illustrations for what He means by staying alert, staying awake.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
First, He points to a fig tree and the natural cycle of seasons (Mk. 13:28). There are certain things in the story of the world that follow patterns. Jesus says that His disciples are to be the kind of people who notice the patterns. There is a certain kind of pseudo-philosophical sophistication that likes to pretend the patterns are not there. In the name of careful analysis, slight variations trump obvious similarities. Proverbs is full of the wisdom of patterns. One of the central patterns is that fools can’t be taught because they think they already know the answer: The way of a fool is right in his own eyes but he who heeds counsel is wise (Prov. 12:15). A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident (Prov. 14:16). A fool despises his father’s instruction, but he who receives correction is prudent (Prov. 15:5). Wisdom is in the sight of him who has understanding, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth (Prov. 17:24). One of the most fundamental differences between a fool and a wise man is not a lack of mistakes but their response to them. This eye to the gravity of the world is not only a warning but a positive invitation to harness the natural rhythms of the world for science and technology and art and every form of education and invention. This is part of what it means to stay awake.
The Lesson of the Porter
The second illustration is taken from the routines of ancient domestic life (Mk. 13:34). A master has gone on a journey and left his servants in charge of his house instructing them to be ready for his return. Notice that the illustration assumes no modern technologies such as cell phones or tracking devices. This isn’t an inherent criticism of those technologies but perhaps a warning that those tools should be used to assist our vigilance and not become excuses for laziness. Notice also that the master of the house has put his servants in charge and given each one his work (Mk. 13:34). The porter (the doorkeeper) is specifically tasked with watching for the master, but everyone must be diligent to be ready for the master (Mk. 13:35-36). In other words, the primary point of this illustration is diligence; staying awake means staying on task. If you’re the woodsman, being ready for the master means having plenty of wood ready. If you’re the butler, being ready for the master means having your pantries full and recipes prepared. Proverbs helps us here as well with the problem of laziness, and don’t miss the fact that the lazy man, like the fool, already thinks he knows all the answers. The lazy man is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly (Prov. 26:16). Laziness also always has an excuse: it’s wintertime, it’s too dangerous, just fifteen more minutes (Prov. 20:4, 22:13-14). There is also a certain kind of insidious romanticism that dreams and talks constantly of lofty aspirations but which is fundamentally a form of lethal laziness: The soul of a lazy man desires and has nothing, but the soul of the diligent shall be made rich (Prov. 13:4). The desire of the lazy man kills him, for his hands refuse to labor (Prov. 21:25). There is a place to imagine and dream, but if it doesn’t translate into actual, courageous labor, you’re not actually preparing for the master of the house. If you’re not working hard, you’re not staying awake.
Think of this Advent as the exhortation of Jesus to stay awake. Don’t grow apathetic about your life, your family, your kids, your work, our world. Certain philosophical forms of apathy feed on irrationalism – the world has no logic, no order, no method to the madness. All is vanity. All is grasping for the wind. So what’s the use of trying? And of course, there is much that appears chaotic and unexplainable about the world (e.g. Ecclesiastes). Things do fall apart. But Solomon still teaches us to trust the One who shepherds the wind for our good (Eccl. 1:14, 12:11).
Other perhaps more pious sounding forms of apathy feed on romanticism – equally irrational in some ways but more devious because they pretend to be interested in hard work but are actually drugged with cowardice and despair. Hard work takes courage. Hard work means risking time, energy, and resources. If you do not plow and plant, you will certainly be safe from a poor harvest or disaster destroying your crops. But you will also starve to death.
Both forms of apathy are ultimately a failure to believe the gospel of Jesus. The most fundamental pattern in the world is death. But Jesus met the chaos of death with His own death and swallowed up the chaos. His death gives inherent meaning to our suffering and failures and labor. And Jesus proves that unless a seed goes into the ground and dies, it will bear no fruit. You are that fruit; the Christian Church is that fruit. And so our labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).
Have cobwebs of drowsiness formed in the corners of your life? Have you given up striving with certain sins? Is there a layer of apathetic dust on many of the windowsills of your heart or home? Our Master Jesus calls you to wake up, to stay awake, to study the world, your life, your family, to see the patterns, to learn wisdom, and to take courage, and risk your life in diligent labor preparing for His coming.