By Paul Koch –
As the 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel comes to an end the focus or intended purpose of our Lord’s teaching becomes quite clear. It is summed up perfectly in the closing line, “What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” (Mark 13:37) Over and again the call of our Lord’s words have been to be on guard, to stay vigilant, to be watchful, to stay awake. All this comes from a discussion that he has been having with disciples concerning their questions about the end of times. When Jesus had told them that the temple itself would be thrown down, they wanted some assurance, some comfort about the unknowable future. “Tell us,” they said, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the signs when all these things are about to be accomplished.” (13:4) And so he has been telling them about the signs of the end: about what sort of things they might expect. He has spoken about wars and earthquakes and famines, about persecution and injustice. He has addressed false teaching and broken fidelity.
In fact, it is easy for us to see, as perhaps the disciples saw in their day, that these signs of the end are not all that farfetched. When we watch the news these days, we can also come to the conclusion that things can’t possibly go on for much longer on the current trajectory. If time is not just rolling on forever, if there is a point at which it must all come tumbling down like the walls of the temple, then that day cannot be all that far off. Not when we watch the mass shootings across our country or the epic wildfires that consume whole towns or the countless atrocities inflicted by hopeless and hurting people. We don’t seem to be able to turn the tide, it all seems to be heading in one direction and the news isn’t getting any better. But our Lord says that the actual day and hour, the moment when it comes to an end is not known by us, it will not be known by us, it’s not even known by the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father. The focus is not to decipher how it will come about but to stay awake until it does, lest you be caught asleep.
Now, let’s be honest: it isn’t all that easy to stay awake. If it was, I doubt that our Lord would have stated over and over again that this is what we are to be doing. “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33) Part of this is not just that you don’t fall asleep at the wheel, but that you remain focused on what really matters. So as everything is slipping away, as the buildings of our enterprise come tumbling down over time, the message is to remain focused on what does not fade away, what does not wither and erode over time. According to our Lord there is only one thing in this world that has such an eternal quality, only one thing that we ought to focus on. Only one that that will ensure that you stay awake that you are not lulled to sleep before the end of all things. Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Mark 13:31) The Words of Jesus are eternal; the Words of your Lord will keep you awake. They will guide you through the tribulation to the new heavens and new earth.
So, you now know what you need to do. You know that the focus isn’t so much on the day and the hour but on being awake and ready when that day and hour arrives. The master of the house has gone on his journey and you await his return, the issue is how you spend your time while you wait. Will you be found ready when he returns, will you be awake? If you hope to be awake when he comes, what are you doing to ensure that? What is it that you are focusing on?
Now look this is so much more than just trying to look busy when Jesus returns. This is not about the crazy street preacher with the large sign that says, “The End is Near!” It’s not some ploy to try and get the people of God to act a bit better, to perform more like God’s children ought to perform. It’s not an attempt to produce good works through fear and judgment. Jesus isn’t saying, “You need to get your ducks in a row. You need to pray more and worship more and give more and do more so that you might be saved.” No, rather this is a warning about the possibility that you can lose what you have. The faith that you hold, the salvation that is already yours, this can be lost. It can be excluded and pushed aside from the children of God. His love can be rejected and so you might fall asleep before the master returns. And if that happens then you might be locked out, the gates of eternal life shut to you. So, he earnestly calls once again for you to stay awake.
Listen, this is the fear of every parent whose child has grown up in the church, and since leaving the home has left the church as well. They watch their children choose just about any other activity over receiving the gifts of Christ. They see what was a center to their own life becoming an afterthought in the lives of their children. There is no worship, no attending to Christ’s gifts, no receiving of the Lord’s Supper, no hearing the words of absolution. Will they be found awake when he comes, or will they be sound asleep in their own wisdom and strength?
Don’t think that this waiting for our Lord’s return is a neutral area. This is a field of battle where the enemy prowls around like a roaring lion to do whatever he can to ensure that you are lulled to sleep. He assures that complacency, apathy, and distractions fill your life. I was talking with a good friend and colleague the other day about telling new believers that there is a danger to this endeavor of faith in Christ alone. For far too often we’ve seen this very thing happen. We’ve seen the excitement and joy of the believer who can’t wait to be part of the fellowship of God’s children. And as soon as they confess their faith publicly, why then the real opposition begins. Often there is suffering and strife that will mark your life. There are is a silence from God as your prayers don’t seem to produce what you had once hoped they would produce. Doubt and distraction come flooding in. No sooner have you confessed your faith and committed to staying alert and watchful, then you find sleep harder to shake.
To sleep is to stop listening to the Word of God. To sleep is to stop trusting what he has said about you, about who you are and what is yours. To sleep is to listen to any of the millions of other voices that vie for your attention. And there are so many other voices. Words promising hope and success in this life. Words leading to prestige and strength and stability. Words that have you look to yourself to believe in yourself to champion yourself as the maker of your own destiny. All such words are like a sweet lullaby. They lull you to sleep so that when the master returns you will be nowhere to be found.
Yet the Word of Christ is a different Word altogether. It is a Word that awakens life from death that will not allow you to remain asleep. It is a Word that speaks into your darkness and doubt and suffering. A Word that relentlessly declares something new and life giving to you. You may not want it, you may doubt it, you may think that you’ve already hear it all before. But it speaks to you nonetheless. It is a Word that sees you as you are whispers one more time, “I love you. I have not forgotten you and I will not forsake you. I forgive you. In my work, in my blood, in my washing and clothing and feeding you are alive for the first time. In my Word, then, stay awake.”