Staying Awake

Staying Awake

Mark, the inventor of the gospel genre, had a dire view of the social and political world into which the Apostles would be carrying the message about Jesus.   Mark’s 13th Chapter consists of an instructional discourse in which Jesus prepares his followers to brace themselves for a rough ride once Jesus had finished his public ministry.  Walking out of the Temple, Jesus takes advantage of a teachable moment as the disciples admire the sheer size of the stones that form the base of Jerusalem’s Temple.   Jesus’ words must have shaken his disciples’ outlook.

Admire these stones while they’re still standing, because the upheaval that is coming will reduce them to rubble.  The tumult that will knock over the stones will also get you arrested and dragged before authorities.  Families will turn and fight one another.  Even the heavenly bodies will convulse in confusion.

Jesus isn’t saying that all is lost.  He will still return to the earth at some point.  That’s the great hope here.  It’s what Christians remind themselves every year in the weeks before Christmas.  Jesus comes back.  He’s not going to abandon the work he’s started.

At the same time, a lengthy period of destruction and disappointment will come first.   Much of what Jesus foresaw, chiefly the Roman persecution of Christian believers, the disciples in fact came to endure.  Their endurance in turn brought triumph for the Church.

Chaos in Our Time

We have our own postmodern version of disruption.   A small group of social observers is laying out scenarios of America’s collapse.    Climate scientists are pleading with the public that it will take hundreds of years for polar ice to re-accumulate and the weather to return to normal.  Political pundits talk about a “post-truth” politics.  In recent months, there has been a surge of people leaving their churches.

The Grace in the Word “Watch”

Jesus’ point in his dire prognosticating is to equip his followers with a survival tactic that will get them through the coming impossible situation.  He tells them to “watch.”   This instruction is wonderfully clear.  Jesus repeats the word watch four times.

The Greek word that translators render into the English word, watch is γρηγορέω (grégoreó).  It means being awake.  A watcher would be the family astronomer who rises in the middle of the night to see the Northern Lights when they reach their dramatic peak at 3:30 a.m.   The one who keeps watch is the platoon member who stays awake to make sure that the enemy doesn’t sneak up on his exhausted buddies as they sleep.

Staying Focused Today

We can detect in Mark 13 a second nuance for thriving spiritually in chaos.  Watching can also mean staying focused on necessary tasks.  In the parable about the servants left in charge of the house, the secret for making it through the long wait before the Master returns amounts to “staying focused.”

Years ago, I had the opportunity to follow an elementary age boys’ basketball team through its season.  Observing the losing teams is a good lesson on losing focus.  The opening toss-up starts the contest and players and coaches launch their game plan.  Then one of the teams pulls ahead.  The trailing team starts trying a little harder.  The point gap widens and the coach makes substitutions.  The gap widens by more points and the losing coach calls his boys over to the sideline.  I overhear the no-nonsense pep talk.  “Pass the ball around!”  “Stay close to your man!”  “Don’t shoot until you’re under the basket!”  The game continues to deteriorate for the losers.  Players begin to improvise solutions, which means that they abandon the game plan.  The coach is now shouting instructions from the sidelines.  At one point, the referee whistles play to stop when six players from the losing team were caught on the court.  The boys look confused.  They began ignoring the coach.  The best player on the losing team begins shooting from 30 feet out.  As the game nears the final buzzer, there are more penalties.   In the end, nothing works to avert disaster.

Timothy Snyder is a historian of the era of totalitarian governments during the first half of the 20th Century.  He is particularly concerned about our generation and sees evidences of the rise of an autocratic regime in the United States.  In his brief book Tyranny he suggests 20 practices that ordinary citizens can employ in their private lives which are resistant of tyranny.  I’m struck that several of these are simply maintaining the personal practice of being a decent human being–keeping focus on the basics.  Take this one about making and keeping friends:

A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting—banal gestures in a normal situation—took on great significance [in times when tyranny is taking root]. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances look away or cross the street to avoid contact, fear grows.  You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States.  But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better. In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change.[1]


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Someone once said, “Thank God that in times like these, Christians go on being Christians.”  The grace in this alarming lesson from Mark is that there is a game plan for times of chaos.  Watching.  Maintaining basic discipline.  That certainly includes the spiritual disciplines of prayer especially listening prayer.  Gathering for common worship.  Keeping the Bible close at hand.  Helping the poor.  Making friends with people who share your faith.  There’s nothing exotic here.  Maybe what is extraordinary about watchfulness is that it is one of the most difficult practices to maintain when everything around seems to be falling apart.

A final story.  A young man and young woman found their life in turmoil during their engagement.  The girl became scandalously pregnant.  There was a disrupting call by the government that forced the populace–including the couple– journey to their hometowns.  At the worst possible time in her pregnancy, the young woman had to travel overland to meet this bureaucratic obligation.  Upon arriving in their ancestral hometown, the couple found no place to shelter.  Then just when it seemed that nothing else could go wrong, the girl went into labor.

You know the story.  We don’t tell this story as a hard luck tale.  Instead, we share this story as the miracle of how God enters the world.   It’s a miracle because the couple stuck to the commitments they had worked out with God.  They didn’t curse their circumstances.  They stuck together.  They bore the baby.  Later, they did as the angels instructed to order to escape danger.  In their perseverance, deep in the night, God was born into a crazy world, which never since has been the same.

That can be our miracle too.  God is in control.  He calls us and sets us to his tasks.  The master is coming.  He always is coming.  We need only to stay focused and awake.\

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[1] Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (p. 82).

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