Advent 1 Mark 13:24-37
Watching For God
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Not long ago, while sitting with one of our beloved members who had fallen ill, God gave me a life changing experience, an experience that I am deeply grateful for, and an experience that I will not soon forget. You see, I went to see this parishioner as other members had conveyed concerns to our clergy, and though the medical staff at her facility explained to me that they had no reason to be concerned for her health, during that visit I had a very strange but clear feeling that something was wrong. As I sat with our Sister in Christ, something told me to say goodbye. Something told me that it was time. So, I sat down, I grabbed her hand, and I began to pray silently.
Then something completely unexpected happened. As I sat praying with our beloved Sister, my concentration was suddenly broken. It was broken by the presence of two or three people who had just entered the room. Automatically assuming that they were nurses coming for a routine check or task, and opening my eyes turned toward the door to request just a moment longer, I found myself absolutely shocked when I realized that there was no one there at all. There was no team of nurses, no voices in the corridor, no door left ajar. Yet as I returned to my prayer, a prayer for peace, a prayer for confidence, a prayer for the strength to verbally say good bye to a dear person and friend, I still felt them there, someone, something, silently standing close by, accompanying us there in that very special and bitter sweet moment.
At that point I found myself smiling. I prayed for my friend, I opened my eyes, and I told her with complete and pure confidence that she was going to be ok. She was not alone. She would be taken care of, and that it was ok for her to go. I told her how much she was loved by all of us here, and I stood up and left. Later that evening Fr. Rob visited her as well, anointed her with holy oil, felt moved to read her some selections from the Psalms, and later that night, she died.
I thank God for that event, because for me it was a very special and revealing gift, a wonderful sign of encouragement and guidance for me on this spiritual path, and I believe, an experience of Christ's constant presence among us, of God's working within and around us, right here and now. Though I was pretty hesitant to try and confine such an intangible experience to the written words of a sermon, I decided to share it on this first Sunday of Advent because for me it illustrates Jesus's message for us this morning. Keep Awake. Pay Attention. Prepare yourselves for Him.
In this morning's Gospel, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the end, about the second coming. He is speaking to them about the events leading up to end times, and more importantly about His expectations of all of us until then. Quite unfortunately though, it often seems to me that this last and most important part of Jesus' message is easily forgotten or ends up somehow just simply not being heard from today's Gospel. Perhaps it is because the prospect of the Apocalypse is so deeply frightening, or perhaps because the sheer magnitude of such an idea is overwhelming to us altogether? Regardless though, focusing on and looking for the end and second coming is not, I believe, the point that Jesus wishes for us to take from His words today. Rather, today Jesus is calling each of us to be awake. To be aware. To be prepared for His coming, not just into this world at the end of time, but into each of our hearts, and into our individual lives, daily.
This is of course a fitting message for us on this first Sunday of Advent; a time when we begin preparing ourselves in another more symbolic, liturgical, and commemorative way for the Incarnation and the coming of Christ into this world which we celebrate at Christmas. However, what I hear in Jesus' words for us this morning is a message that is in some ways much more practical and even more applicable to our own spiritual lives. It is a message that delves deeper into each of our own personal relationships with Christ. It is a message that urges us to take notice and to pay attention to the already Incarnate Christ that is present here and now with you and me. In this morning's Gospel lesson, Jesus calls His disciples and us today into a state of constant preparation; He calls us to prepare ourselves, to prepare our very beings, to both see and receive the God who stands before each of us, who works around us, and who lives within us, now. Jesus is explaining to us today that these apocalyptic events will indeed come to pass, and that there will be signs for us to read, but that what is truly important is what we decide to do with our souls and our lives in the mean time. He is pushing us to be vigilant in the way, to live life as he has directed, and to live a life aware of and constantly seeking communion with Him and one another. Keep awake.
But, of course, the big question is: how do we actually do that? How do we prepare ourselves, keep awake, stay aware of what God is doing in our lives? How do we get ourselves to the point where we can recognize the presence of God when we feel it, and the guidance of God when we see it? The answer, I warn you, is not a very attractive one. The answer is: we practice. As Christians and even as children of God, the truth is that we must continually practice seeking God, and we must practice perceiving God in all things in order to actually increase our awareness of Christ's presence in this world. In other words, we must seek in order to find. We will not see if we are not consciously looking. We can only recognize and acknowledge when we truly believe.
Personally, I feel that at least in part, I have learned a bit about this lesson. The neat thing is that I recognize that I have learned it right here at Ascension and through all of you, and frankly it is one of the lessons in my spiritual life for which I am most grateful. You see one of the greatest parts of being a clergy person, at least in my opinion, is having the absolute honor and privilege to hear and witness God working in people's lives all the time. It's the being allowed to hear your stories of God, and how you perceive God in your lives. It's the seeing God work in and through each of you, and how you change and are shaped by God before my very eyes. It's having the constant opportunity to practice seeking God together. What you all really taught me, is how to practice. We practice by accompanying, sharing, and abiding with each other in community.
If I did not have that, if I did not have all of you to walk with and to help me practice seeing God in my daily life, well I can very easily see how such a life changing experience like the one I shared with you today could have gone a completely different way; how I could have just as easily missed it. For example, I can just imagine, how if I didn't have my small but faithful weekly Other Brothers bible study or the women's lectionary study/sermon prep. to lift before me the innumerable examples in Scripture of people encountering God throughout History, well I could have just as easily dismissed my experience that day in the hospital as either a fluke or coincidence. I can just imagine, how if I didn't have my young families group, koinonia group, Sunday School class, and many others to provide me with meaningful relationships, shared stories, and encouragement in and through which God is encountered, well I could have been more prone to say that I was just hearing things that day in the hospital. I can just imagine, how if I didn't have my clergy peers and Christian friends to constantly encourage me in setting time aside to intentionally encounter God on my own and in prayer, well I could have just brushed off what I felt and experienced and I could have left the hospital that day pretty much exactly the same as I was when I entered. You all help me to practice seeing God in my daily life, and for that I am ever grateful. That is what we all do for each other when we are really doing Church right, we help each other to be aware.
That, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, is what I hear Jesus calling us to in this morning's Gospel, and that is what I hope to lift up to you all today. It is the need and the responsibility that we each have to help one another stay aware of God's presence in each of our lives. Because if we don't strive to see God in the here and now, if we don't faithfully seek Him out, if we don't constantly practice, then what often happens to us is that we basically end up walking around in this world with spiritual blinders on. We can very easily end up living out our lives, even as good Christian people, in a state of deep spiritual sleep. That's not the life that Jesus calls us to. That's not a life which allows us to change and to grow in Him. So what I say to you this morning my friends, is let's not allow each other to continue down such a path. Let's not allow each other to continue to sleep. Instead, let us walk together and learn. Instead, let us share with one another and grow. Instead, let us together abide in Christ's constant presence and keep awake.
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”