Remain at your post. Stay Awake!

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
Mark 13:24-37 (1 Samuel 28:3-16)
January 9, 2022

Comments at the beginning of worship:

I didn’t stay up to midnight on New Years Eve. I was in bed by 10:30. I woke briefly at midnight when some in my father’s neighborhood shot off fireworks, but quickly fell back asleep. Up before sunrise, I headed to the beach, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather before the sun’s arrival. 

Watching the sunrise over the ocean seemed a good way to start a new year. The sun was scheduled to rise at 7:17 AM. But as the skies lightened, a deep fog bank appeared offshore. A fair number of folks came out to witness the first sunrise of the year, some with fancy cameras on tripods, in the hope they’d capture the moment. But all we saw was fog. 

“That’s not a good omen for 2022,” I quipped sarcastically. The night before a friend remarked on Twitter that after the last two years, his expectation for 2022 was so low that as long as the zombie apocalypse doesn’t happen, he’s good. 

But there’s another way of looking at that morning’s fog. We can’t see through the fog, nor can we see what will happen in the new year. As Paul reminds the Corinthians, “we walk by faith and not by sight.”[1]Living by faith means we’re not given a road map for the future. Today, I want you to come away from this time of worship, understanding that there is much about the future we won’t know. We walk into it, trusting our Savior and accepting each day as a gift. 

A return to Daniel

Next week, I will resume my preaching from the Daniel. We’ll start with the seventh chapter, which begins the more apocalyptic section of the prophet. Many people attempt to use this part of Daniel to interpret the events leading to Christ’s return. Jesus makes it clear that’s beyond our understanding. Scripture teaches us that the future belongs, not to us, but to God. When attempting to understand Daniel, we need to interpret his prophecy through the lens of the rest of scripture. We don’t have a roadmap to the future, we only know that in the end, God will be victorious, and we will share in such victory.

Before the Old Testament Reading

Our Old Testament reading may seem strange for today’s focus in worship. But I picked it for a reason. Let me explain. We learn that Saul, Israel’s first king, worries about the future and so visits a medium or a witch (this text is often known as “the Witch of Endor”) to learn of his fate. And it’s not good. Living by faith and accepting God’s providence is hard. Saul wants to see if there is some way to understand events so that he can take some control. 

We’re told that Saul had removed the wizards and mediums in the land. God’s law is clear. One should not consult with witches, mediums, or practice sorcery.[2] One should not attempt to control the future, for it belongs to God. Later prophets would condemn Israel and her kings when they practiced divination.[3] Such practices become tied to evil spirits as we see with Paul in Philippi. If you remember, Paul got himself in trouble for castings out the demons from a slave girl. The girl was freed, but the demon allowed her owner to make money from her by telling people’s fortunes.[4]

What King Saul did was wrong. He knows it. Saul is a desperate politician, who will now try anything to stay in power.[5] Like too many politicians (along with the rest of us), he touts one thing and does another. Read 1 Samuel 28:3-16

Before the Gospel reading:

On the first Sunday of Advent, I preached from the parallel to this passage in Luke’s gospel. Both gospels tell of Jesus and the disciples being together on the temple grounds. Jesus points out the widow giving her mite, then he begins to talk about the future. First, Jesus covers things that will happen soon, such as the destruction of the temple. But then he continues, discussing the distant future, at the end of history, when he will return. While Jesus speaks of things happening, he emphasizes the futility of attempting to know the time of his return. Again, we’re not to know the future, we’re to live each day in faith, trusting that God has things under control.

Read Mark 13:24-37

After reading the gospel: Keep Awake

Keep awake… As a child, staying awake was hard. Sermons were the worse. My eyes grew heavy. School wasn’t much better, especially in a warm classroom in the days before air-conditioned schools. Keeping awake was hard, except for on Christmas Eve, when you were told to go to sleep. It was harder to fall asleep on Christmas Eve than it was when I planted a baby tooth under the pillow! You knew something magical was happening. The anticipation was high; too much was happening while we were asleep. I’d roll and roll and when my parents looked in on us, pretend to be asleep. The clocked ticked away.  

Keep awake, you don’t know when this is all going to happen and when the Son of Man might appear. It’s been almost 2000 years since Christ left—that must be the reason there’s a lot of insomnia going around. But we’re weary of waiting. It’s not something we’re good at doing. We fret when we are in the doctor’s office for too long. We stew when we get behind a slow driver. We brood if a waitress or waiter in a restaurant is inefficient. Waiting makes us feel out of control, unimportant, unwanted, and helpless. Yet, we must wait all the time. And the more we wait, the more our blood pressure rises. When is it going to all happen? 

Knowledge that exceeds what we can know

Sadly, Jesus doesn’t provide a road map. Mark 13 begins with the disciples asking for a sign. While Jesus gives some “signs,” he ends this discourse with a mystery. Knowledge about the end exceeds what we can know. It even exceeds what the angels and the Son of Man knows. The end isn’t something we prepare for, such as going on a trip. Instead, the only thing we can do is to watch and to remain faithful.[6] So we wait…

However, most people probably don’t mind waiting for Christ’s return. After all, we put off the important things in life, such as getting right with God, for another time. But that’s risky. Jesus is telling us that’s a gamble we shouldn’t take.

Losing our map

Our passage begins with a description of terrible days. The sun and moon will darken, and stars will be fall out of the sky… 

Have you read Cormac McCarty’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road? The setting for the story is a horrible world, filled with smoke from a war long over. A nightmare has descended. A boy and his father try to make the way through this world without stars or a moon or even the sun, as they are all shielded from earth. Imagine, a sky without the sun or moon or stars… 

In the ancient world people believed that stars foretold things would happen (some people still believe this), so without the stars in the sky, they’re lost.[7] It’s as if their road map of the future has been destroyed.

A spotlight on the final drama of history

Perhaps we need to look at this passage in a less literal way. What’s happening is that the lights need to be lowered so that all light can be focused on the one coming—Jesus Christ. The removal of distractions helps everyone pay attention to what’s happening. The scene is scary and wonderful at the same time. It’s God’s great and final drama in history. 

Think about being in a theater. At the beginning of a play or concert, the house lights are dimmed so the audience can only see the performance. You’re not distracted by the guy to your left picking his nose or the teenagers making out two rows in front. Here, the lights are dimmed so that everyone will be focused on Christ. 

This return involves the gathering of the elect, the faithful, those chosen by God through Christ. The faithful are brought into Christ’s presence. 

The fig tree

Jesus then returns to the question that started this discourse, about when these things (such as the destruction of the temple) will occur. He uses a fig tree as a lesson. Just a day or two beforehand, Jesus had cursed a fig tree that was not providing fruit, and the tree shriveled up and died.[8]The fig tree was often used by the Prophets as a symbol of Israel.[9]

Now, instead of a fig tree withering, he speaks of when it blooms, which is later that most trees, in early summer. The budding of the fig tree is a sign of when this is happening, probably refers to Jesus the Messiah rising into prominence as the temple, which will soon be no more, fades from history. 

In the future, God will not be represented by the temple, With the temple gone, where does it leave God?  Of course, we know that in the world to come, as described in Revelation, there will be no temple. The temple isn’t needed, for God is present.[10] The one we trust in this world even though we do not see, will be present so that faith gives way to love.[11]We we’ll live in God’s visual presence. 

Parable of the Waiting Slaves

Our passage moves on to the final section where Jesus insists that what’s important isn’t that we know when all this will take place (much of which took place before the end of the first century). Yet, we are still waiting for his return. What’s important is that we are ready. “Keep awake,” this chapter ends, or as The Message translates the ending verse, “Stay at your post. Keep watch.”  As one commentator on this passage writes, “vigilance, not calculation, is required.”[12]

The use of the story about the slaves or servants waiting on the master implies that they have assignments and must be willing to fulfill their calling while the Master is away. Interestingly, with this section in Mark’s gospel, relating to the Master’s return, there are no signs given. The slaves don’t know, so they must continue with their tasks… Likewise, each member of the church has work to do. By the way, all of us have a calling. There’s something each of us need to be doing for the kingdom. This is how we fulfill our obligation to “watch.”[13]

Conclusion 

Christ has come, Christ will come again. But until he does, we are his hands and feet in the world, taking care of one another while telling his story so that others will catch a glimpse of the hope the world has in Jesus Christ and be ready. As The Message translation reminds us, “Stay at your post. Keep watch!” There is no map. We walk into 2022 by faith, not foresight.  Amen. 


[1] 2 Corinthians 5:7. 

[2] Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, Deuteronomy 18:10, 19:26.

[3] See Jeremiah 27:9, 50:36; Micah 5:12, 2 Chronicles 33:6.

[4] Acts 16:16.

[5] See Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 192-193. 

[6]  James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark: The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 406.

[7] Edwards, 403.

[8] Mark 11:12-14, 20-21.  Morna D. Hooker, Black’s New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: A. C. Black Limited, 1991), 320. 

[9] See Jeremiah 8:13, Hosea 9:10, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1.  See footnotes for Mark 11:12-14 in The New Interpreters Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003). 

[10] See Revelation 21:22ff. 

[11] 1 Corinthians 13:13.

[12] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 482.

[13] Hooker 322. See also Lane, 484.

Kure Beach, North Carolina. New Year’s Day, 2022

7 thoughts on “Remain at your post. Stay Awake!”

  1. The older I get, the less I’m inclined to put off “getting right with God”! But I’ve also learned with age how much better life is when God is the focus.

    I can’t remember the last time I didn’t stay up to see in the new year. We usually spend that evening playing games with friends.

    • I don’t feel old but next week will be at the age I am qualified for medicare! When I was younger, people in the mid-late 60s seemed so old! Prior to 2020, if I was home, I generally spent New Year’s Eve with others. Because of my vocation, I would often be visiting parents on New Year’s (Since I was tied up on Christmas) and before my mother became ill, my parents often had New Year parties.

  2. In Japan, New Year’s is the most important holiday. But rather than make a big deal out of midnight, the first sunrise of the year is what counts. Many do as you did and go to the beach to watch.

    Of course, the one year I was there as an adult for New Year’s, I did both, never quite sleeping in between. Ah, to be 23 again…

    • In my first church in Ellicottville, NY there was a “mixed-couple.” He was Catholic and she was Presbyterian. Both churches had midnight services, and they had a big party (they had a huge, lovely, old home) afterwards. I remember being shamed with the Catholic priest, when we both decided to leave at 2:30 AM–being told that previous pastors/priests had stayed until sunrise on Christmas. I was driving to NY the next day and couldn’t make it. BTW, with your interest in drinks, it was at one of these parties I learned to make Manhattans with “Southern Comfort”

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