Keep Awake: The Season of Advent

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A sermon given on November 29, 2020 by the Rev. Teri Daily on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37…

A clergy colleague was on sabbatical a few years ago and attended different churches each Sunday. He told some of us about an experience at one of the churches he visited. The impassioned pastor implored the congregation to praise God for the wonderful things God was doing in each of their lives. Some people stood up, raised their hands, and began thanking God. But not everyone responded. So the pastor then added, “And if he’s not doing anything for you now, then praise him on credit because he’s going to do something for you.” We all laughed at the idea of praising God on credit, but actually what the pastor was asking of his congregation is very much in keeping with the way the life of faith works.

Today we begin the season of Advent. We look towards Christmas – the birth of Jesus (Immanuel or “God-with-us”), an act of God’s faithfulness to all of creation. Yet while we look forward to the celebration of God’s drawing near to us in Jesus, we can’t help but notice that things on earth are still far from being the way they are meant to be. The kingdom of heaven that came into the world in Jesus has not yet come in all its fullness. And so in Advent we turn our eyes toward God and again wait for God to save us. We wait for that day when justice, peace, and love will fill the earth. This is what we mean by living in the “between times,” in the space that is both “already” and “not yet.” We know what God has already done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and that is the basis of our hope and faith in what God will do for us. Our hope is a way of, in the words of the pastor, praising God on credit.

Israel knew this in her own life. Today’s passage from the Book of Isaiah is part of what some scholars refer to as Third Isaiah, a portion of Isaiah believed to be written not long after the exile. The Israelites have watched their nation crumble and their people be deported to a foreign land. And although they’ve begun to return to the land of Judah, they continue to be oppressed by a foreign power and to live a difficult life. They remember the acts that God has done in the past – when God spoke in the burning bush, parted the Red Sea, provided manna and quail in the wilderness.  When Moses’ face shone as he descended Mt. Sinai, the wall of Jericho fell, and the prophet Elijah triumphed over 450 of Baal’s prophets in a dramatic show of power. But it has been a long time since God has been with Israel in such tangible, earth-shattering ways.  

Israel won’t be happy with tweaking the system at this point, with minor changes. Instead, she demands that God act in the fashion of old:  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Israel doesn’t just demand this dramatic appearance of God, she expects it.  After all, “we are all the work of your hand” she reminds God, “we are all your people.” And so Israel turns her face toward God and waits.  

In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus also describes a time when God’s power will come on earth in all its fullness. The tangible, cosmic signs on that day will be reminiscent of those sought by the Israelites centuries before – the sun darkens, the moon gives no light, the stars fall from heaven. When God comes near, big things happen. But as certain as this day will be (it will come as certainly as green leaves on a fig tree signal the coming of summer), Jesus’ coming is unpredictable and sudden – the day and hour no one knows.[1]

This passage from Mark is apocalyptic in nature. The word “apocalyptic” comes from the Greek word meaning “uncovered” or “revealed” – on that day they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds, he will be revealed. Apocalyptic writing gives hope to communities who are suffering under hardship and persecution. Things may be difficult in the moment, but one day the truth will be revealed and all will be set right. Many scholars believe the gospel of Mark was written around the time of Nero’s persecution of Christians and the Jewish revolt against Rome, so Mark’s community could probably have used some words of hope.  With things in such a mess, they turn their faces toward God and wait.

The year 2020 has given us ample evidence, if we needed it, that the world is far from God’s dream of beloved community – more and more people die without family by their side, people line up in cars for hours to get food from food banks, George Floyd was killed by a knee to the neck in Minnesota, Kenya experienced the largest locust invasion in the last seventy years, there have been at least thirty named storms form in the Atlantic this season (a sign of worsening climate change). In addition, we all know the brokenness closer to home – be that struggles with addiction, or chronic illness, or damaged relationships. We, too, need God to save us. And so we turn our face to God and wait.

But the waiting we do during Advent is not passive; it is an active waiting – one marked by readiness and intentionality. Jesus tells his followers three times in today’s gospel to keep awake. What does it look like to “keep awake” during Advent?

First, Advent (like Lent) is a time for self-examination. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, describes the soul-searching of Advent this way: 

Advent is a time when [Christians] do a bit of self-examination.  Have I allowed Jesus in yet? Has the good news really made the full impact it might make, or is my life still locked into old patterns, into darkness, into slavery, into being not at home with myself or God or with other people? It’s a time of self-examination, of repentance indeed, facing myself honestly and saying sorry for the things that don’t easily face the light.[2]  

During Advent, we take stock and acknowledge the many ways we need Christ to come into our lives, the many ways we need him to be born in us and in the world.   

Second, Christian waiting is marked by the practice of holy hope – by our participation in the very thing for which we wait. This kind of hope is less about a feeling we have and more about a decision we make. We open our lives to the work of the kingdom of heaven in the here and now as a sign of that day when justice, mercy, peace, and love will be real for everyone, everywhere. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that whenever we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison, we do those things for him – that this is where we will meet him. And I would add, when we smile at someone on the street, hold a baby close, truly listen to another person, and so much more. When we do these things, we find glimpses of the very thing for which we wait to come in all its glory.

So this morning I invite you to a holy Advent, a time of self-examination and a time of being present and responsive to the world around us. Let us be ready, awake, and intentional so that whenever and in whatever ways Jesus comes to us in our busy and broken lives, we will not miss him. Let us praise God on credit until we find God suddenly in our midst.

[1] Courtney V. Buggs, “Commentary on Mark 12:24-37,” Working Preacher, accessed on 23 November 2020,

[2] Rowan Williams in an Advent Video, Dr. Rowan Williams 104th Archbishop of Canterbury (an archived website),

Keep Awake: The Season of Advent
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