Wake up and watch – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Mark 13:24-37

Today is Advent Sunday – the first day of a new Christian year. It is, as the Scriptures urge, a time to wake up. To shake ourselves, to take stock of our lives. And to do it NOW! There is an urgency to Advent. Urgent, because God is working his purposes out in our world and in our lives.  Advent proclaims loud and clear that there IS a purpose to our lives, and that there will be an end, and that that end is coming ever nearer. For that reason, Advent has always traditionally had as its themes, the ‘four last things’; death, judgment, heaven and hell. These sober realities are coming nearer to us each one of us. Or as a friend of mine used to put it with a bit of a grin, ‘None of us gets out of this alive’! So, Advent is a serious and challenging season, and challenges us to take stock of our lives, and to do it NOW.

The Gospels are full of this sense of urgency. Jesus’ words are so often full of this urgency. We hear it whenever Jesus encounters men and women. Jesus doesn’t just wander around Galilee uttering timeless, philosophical dictums or epigrams. He is not essentially a philosopher – he is a prophet. He speaks OUT, he speaks hard things which challenge, and shock, and outrage.  He tells a parable and immediately says, ‘What do you think?’ How will you respond? Now. He challenges, and confronts, and brings judgment, now. To one he says, ‘Change your life.’ To another, ‘Repent. Follow me. Sell everything you have. Leave your mother and father and family. Come. Now.’

You may have heard that challenge from Jesus personally in your own life. You may know when it was that you first made the decision to follow Jesus. There may have been many times in your life when you consciously renewed your commitment to be a disciple. These next four weeks of Advent, leading up to the coming of Jesus at Christmas, afford a great opportunity for each one of us to renew our commitment to follow Jesus. How might we do it? Our Gospel reading today from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 13, gives us two ways through which, during Advent, we might take stock and examine our lives, and renew our life of faith. Firstly we are told to wake up, and to stay awake. Jesus tells the story of the man who leaves to go on a journey and commands his doorkeeper to watch carefully over his house and stay awake, to make sure no one breaks in. His master could return at any time. So, ‘Beware, for you do not know when the time will come. So, what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.’ Then secondly, to watch, to watch for the signs of the Kingdom in your life. Jesus uses the image of the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know at once that summer is near.’ It is a sign that summer is near. And God gives us signs in our lives, and we need to keep awake and watch so that we don’t miss them. So, two spiritual practices from the gospel for us this Advent; keep awake, and watch for the signs. Maybe I’m drawn to these two practices, because they are right at the center of one of my favorite movies, ‘A Night to Remember’, starring Kenneth More.  It’s one of the greatest and most historically accurate films about the sinking of the Titanic. The scenes which I can never forget, happen just after the Titanic has been struck by the iceberg. On the bridge of the Titanic, the terrified crew were scanning the horizon through binoculars, and there, miraculously, just 15 miles away, was another ship, the SS Californian. Everything would be fine, and they would be rescued. So they started frantically sending morse code messages to the Californian. But tragically, at 11 o’clock that night, the telegraph officer turned off the receiver and went to sleep. The messages were not received.

So on the deck of the Titanic, they sent up dozens of distress rockets. The sky was lit up by them. And then comes the scene which has really stayed with me. The crew on the Californian did see the distress rockets. They were only 15 miles away. But the crew thought that it was probably some shooting stars or perhaps even some fireworks celebrating the ‘unsinkable Titanic’s maiden voyage. They saw the signs of distress but tragically misinterpreted them. They fell asleep, and then misinterpreted the signs. Precisely the two things Jesus in Mark’s Gospel warns us not to do. Rather we are told to wake up and watch for the signs.

Wake up! The effect of Advent on us should be like the blast of a cold shower after we have gotten out of bed, sleepy and bleary eyed. Wake up, sleepy head.  In Advent God is trying to wake us up. I don’t want you to sleepwalk through life, drift aimlessly through life. I want you to wake up and be fully alive. Wake up!

And then secondly, watch for the signs! That image of the officers on board the Californian watching the distress rockets and misinterpreting them has stayed with me. I wonder if God is sending US distress rockets? Is our planet going the way of the Titanic? Watching the United Nations Climate Change talks in Dubai, I wonder how many distress rockets God needs to send us before we act? Are we asleep? Are we misinterpreting the signs? Even deliberately?

And what if God is sending YOU distress rockets in your own personal life? What signs is God sending you? Are you picking them up? Are there signs in your life which are telling you that things are not right – that you maybe need to make some changes, to repent, to alter course before it is too late? For part of Advent is the promise of judgment, both globally and personally. Are there signs which you are maybe missing or misinterpreting? Are others in your family or others close to you sending out signals that you are not seeing or misinterpreting? Is someone you know, in Stevie Smith’s chilling words, ‘not waving but drowning’?

Perhaps habit, or denial, or some numbing substance, is keeping you asleep. Maybe God is trying to wake you up, because part of waking up is rubbing our bleary eyes and seeing clearly; looking clearly and honestly at our life, and taking action. NOW. For ‘now’ is the time to waken out of sleep. That is the clarion call of Advent.

This Advent Sunday we are called by God to stand up alert and ready. For the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is upon us. We have only to open our eyes and our hearts to receive it. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

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1 Comments

  1. Janet on December 8, 2023 at 20:45

    Thank you for this powerful Advent sermon, Brother Geoffrey. It is a comfort and a wake up call for us all. We see the signs everywhere that these are deeply troubling times — cruel and harsh times — yet your message to open our eyes (and hearts), to stay awake and serve others — gives us direction and strength. Thank you, God bless you and all the brothers during this wonderful Christmas season.

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