Have you ever been forced to stay awake? …maybe even all night long?
New parents know the joys of having a new baby around the house. The sweetness and joy that new babies bring cannot be matched; but, neither can the up-in-the-middle-of-the-night sleeplessness. Some carry out labor that requires being awake through the night – firefighters and paramedics, police officers and hospital nurses often work in the wee hours of the night. My grandfather often had to pull vigil at the night shift at the 24 hour factory where he worked as a young man. Most of us have had cause to be awake through the night – even if it was just as an unprepared freshman cramming for an exam.
I recently saw a documentary about a one-hundred mile endurance through the Tennessee mountains called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. Racers must complete a twenty mile, five times. Some of the race is on trail but most of it is off trail – over mountains and through streams, amid briars patches and through thick valleys. Runners gain and lose some sixty-thousand feet of elevation through the race. And they only have sixty hours to finish! Sxty hours! They run day and night, sleeping only for an hour or two over the course of the whole race. Keep awake!
One of the most interesting facets of the race, however, is the start. Most of the time, when one signs up for a race, the race will begin on a certain day at a certain time. For the Barkley Marathons, however, the race start time is variable. Those who want to run are given a day to show up but the race start time varies according to the whims of Lazarus, the race director. At some time between midnight and noon on the day announced for the race, Lazarus blows a conch shell. This signals that the race will begin in one hour. It could be midnight so racers start in the dark or it could be closer to noon. Racers have to be ready. Keep awake!
“People who have trouble with…[any of the various last minute or informal race details]… are not going to do well on the course,” says Lazarus, director and co-creator of the race, “because it’s not going to happen the way you planned it.”
“It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.” That, I think, captures the spirit of this first Sunday of Advent and the theme of our Gospel reading today: Keep awake. It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.
The gospel narrative today comes from the thirteenth chapter of Gospel according to Mark. Looking back a little at the beginning of the chapter, we saw Jesus walking out of the Temple in Jerusalem with his disciples. One of the disciples, who were pretty much all rural guys, was in awe of the grandeur and say to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2).
The disciples were impressed by the Temple and the city. But note what Jesus says – the buildings that they saw would be torn down with no stone left upon another. Its cryptic but in essence Jesus is telling the disciples that disaster is coming. Naturally, the disciples are intrigued and perhaps scared. They want some answers. Mostly, they want to know, “When?” They want to know when it will happen so they can be ready or, at least, not under the Temple when it crumbles down.
But Jesus just tells them, “Keep awake.” There are no specifics because: “It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.” They want specifics. They want a date. They want a time. But the best thing that they can do is to “Keep awake?” Stay alert.
Christmas approaches. That is what the start of Advent signifies – the coming of the nativity of the Lord. Many of us have already begun our preparations. Our Sanctuary is prepared with the signs of the season: the Advent Wreath that will mark the passage of time, the Chrismon Tree with its ornaments that explain what is coming, the evergreens on the Bema are lit as lights in the darkness as the days grow shorter and the night grows longer. The musicians have been preparing already for the services of the season. Our homes are getting ready with lights and trees and cookies baking. We might be preparing to travel or to welcome loved ones. We are filling our calendars with the events of the season: Christmas parties, concerts, community events. Maybe you’ve already put out your chair for Thursday’s Christmas parade.
The start of Advent and the coming of Christmas creates a sense of both urgency, maybe even a longing. We work hard to get ready. We try to keep awake. Christmas is coming – it always does on December 25. And you know, it doesn’t always happen the way we plan it. But that is okay. We might stress over the coming holiday – the holy day that Christ was born – with presents and trees, cookies and parties. All that is great and wonderful. It is what makes the holiday special.
But Advent calls us to prepare for something bigger, something more than the yearly arrival of December 25. Yes, Advent calls us to keep awake, to pay attention to the birth of Christ in the world around us. The first Sunday of Advent begins a story of cosmic proportions, with the sun being darkened and the stars falling from heaven.
Advent reminds us that our ancestors called out for a Savior – the called out for a savior in Egypt, in the Wilderness, and in Babylon – they called out for a savior while they lived under oppression, in hard economic times, and in struggles with their neighbors. Advent also reminds us that we in the Church call out for the savior to return. We wait and we hope, knowing nothing other than to keep working, keep watching, and keep awake.
In our world torn by pain and division and wracked with suffering, violence, and hunger, we ask: “How long?” How long will people in the world live in fear of war and reprisals? How long will we have to live in fear of gun violence in our own communities? How long will people have to live under the subjection of greed? How long will the divisions of racism and bigotry and hatred infect our hearts? How long will people have to endure hunger and how long will we allow them to endure it? Perhaps at our lowest we wonder if things will be this way forever.
But Advent, the season of hope and expectation that begins today, calls us to look search high and deep and broad. In the dead of winter, as nights grow longer, Advent calls on us to “keep awake!” It is an urgent call that leads to a longing for the promise. The promise that says, “There is hope!” Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming that is even bigger than Christmas.
While the world still waits for justice and the fulness of joy….while the world still waits for hope…while the world still waits for peace on earth and good will towards all…the world still waits for God.
We wait, like the Barkley Marathoners, in darkness, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. All we can do is “keep awake” and wait for what we hope – what we know is coming: Victory. Hope. Peace on earth.
Advent whispers to us: The night may be long and the journey difficult, but the promised morning star is coming.
“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)