Sleep is a necessary condition of human existence. The reason is simple. Life takes a lot of work. It wears us down and tires us out. In his classic play, Our Town, Thornton Wilder describes living as a “straining away.” The Stage Manager put it like this: “The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.” Each of us has tried to buck this rule. In childhood we tried staying up on Christmas Eve to catch a peak of Saint Nick. In college we consumed pots of coffee to finish (and start) papers. As adults drove through the night to squeeze out every last hour of vacation time. Once in a while we are able to manage it, but we cannot keep it up for long. We simply cannot stay awake indefinitely.
This basic human need for sleep makes Jesus’ story at the end of the Gospel reading a challenge. The story is about a master who leaves on a journey. Before he goes, he places his servants in charge of his household. He does not tell them how long he will be gone. He simply instructs them to do their work until he returns. So far, so good. Then, starting with the doorkeeper, he warns them against falling asleep. Be alert, he says. Keep watch. Be on guard. Do not drift off. Four times in this brief story he calls them to stay awake. It is how he introduces the story in verse 33 and how he concludes it in verse 37. Why should they stay awake? Because the master is coming back, and they cannot be caught sleeping when he returns.
This story is about two things. A sermon on it would do well to address them both.
First, the story is about Jesus.
Just as the master went away with the promise to return at some undisclosed time, so also Jesus returned to His Father’s right hand with the promise to come back on a day which no one but the Father knows. On that day, He will finish His work of redemption for all creation. Everything we do in the meantime, including yearly celebrations of Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, take place in light of this eschatological promise. As you help your hearers prepare for Christmas, then, help them prepare even more for His return. Which leads to the second issue in this story.
Second, the story is also about the life of discipleship.
Before he left, the master in the parable commissioned his servants to do his work in his absence. He put them in charge of his house and expected them to take care of his business. Jesus has done the same for His Church. Incredibly, Jesus entrusted His saving mission to people who need to collapse on their backs every sixteen hours. Through their feebleness, He promises to extend salvation to all nations. This means your congregation has more to do this month than simply hanging Chrismon’s and exchanging cookies.
Incredibly, Jesus entrusted His saving mission to people who need to collapse on their backs every sixteen hours.
Which brings me back to the recurring call to stay awake at the end of the Gospel reading. The mission Jesus has given His Church includes no time off. It cannot endure sleeping on the job. This makes Jesus’ words in our text seem impossible. “No one can stay awake all the time,” says R.T. France. Yet, “The Christian disciple, it seems, is never off duty.” We must constantly be on the lookout for the return of our master. When imagined individually, or even congregationally, this is both impractical and impossible. We simply cannot stay awake around the clock.
But if we view ourselves as part of the universal Church on Earth, the call to stay awake becomes not only possible, but even a source of confidence and thanksgiving. The evening hymn captures it well:
The day you gave us, Lord, is ended,
the darkness falls at your request;
to you our morning hymns ascended,
your praise shall sanctify our rest.
We thank you that your church, unsleeping
while earth rolls onward into light,
through all the world her watch is keeping
and never rests by day or night.
As over continent and island
each dawn leads to another day,
the voice of prayer is never silent,
nor do the praises die away.
So be it, Lord! Your throne shall never,
like earth’s proud empires, pass away;
your kingdom stands and grows forever
until there dawns your glorious day.
When we recognize our unity with all believers around the world, we are able to imagine what it looks like for the people of God to live out Jesus’ call to stay awake. For those sixteen hours each day while we are awake, we remain vigilant. We look for, long for, and yearn for Jesus to come back no matter what we are doing. We serve another in love and selflessness. We proclaim Christ to those in the community who may celebrate Christmas, but who have no idea why. We are active in prayer, not only for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters on the other side of the planet who have collapsed on their backs for the evening. As we do our part in the mission of our Master, we join with all believers to keep a constant and uninterrupted vigil until the great day of His return.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 13:24-37.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 13:24-37.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 11:1-11.