by Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington
Scripture: Mark 13:24-37, Matthew 24:36-44, Luke 21:25-36
Wake up. Don’t fall asleep on me. Stay awake over there. Back there, I know you want to sleep. You stay awake. Wake up.
This phrase, wake up, has different moods and meanings when used in different situations and settings. Let me explain.
When I was fourteen years old, my parents had gone to Chicago, and I was left in my little town of Jackson, Minnesota. My parents left me in charge of the house. Now, when you were fourteen years old, growing up in the late 1950s in Jackson, Minnesota, it was really safe to leave your kid alone. So my parents left me alone and went to Chicago and said that they would be back sometime on Sunday afternoon. They said to me, “The only thing we want is for you not to have a party.” I said, “You can count on me.” So pretty soon my folks were gone to the windy city and all my friends were gathering at my house on Saturday night. There was Nielsey Nielsen and Bob Willett and Mark Aamot and Jory Watland and Arlie Lund and myself. The gang. All of us were there and it was a great Saturday night. We had root beer floats and ice cream sundaes and we had a wonderful monopoly tournament. Now, it got to be very late on Saturday night, and my friends…well, they didn’t go home. They telephoned their parents and said they were staying at my house. It was about two or three o’clock in the morning and I can still see it in my mind: Nielsey Nielsen was up in my parents’ bedroom, and Nielsey was bouncing high on their bed, like on a trampoline. About that time, someone shouted in panic: “Wake up!!! Your mother’s car is coming into the driveway.” The car came driving into the alley and my parents arrived unexpectedly from Chicago at three o’clock in the morning. “Wake up. Your mother is coming.” Now, if you knew my mother’s reputation at that point in our family life, my friends had a reason to be afraid. And those guys came shooting out of the bedroom, down the hall, down the stairs, out the front door, into the night and didn’t return to our house for a month. They were afraid. “Wake up. Be alert. Trouble is on the move.”
Or, second story. The year was 1941, and it was the month of November, and the land was England, and the city was London. There are group of men sitting at a radar scope, and their eyes are glued on that radar scope and their eyes are nervous and tense. All of a sudden, there are airplanes on that radar screen, two hundred, three hundred of them, airplanes coming on from seemingly every direction. The men are frightened and they press the alarm and the air raid alert alarm goes off in the city: Whhhha. Whhhha. Whhha. It is saying, “Wake up. Wake up. Disaster is coming. The planes are coming. The bombs are coming. Get up. Get awake. Be alert. Run. Don’t fall asleep. This is not the time to sleep but the time to run and hide in a bomb shelter. Whhhhha. Whhhha. Whhhhha. And so the mood of the phrase, wake up, has the flavor of wartime and air warning sirens and an evil force that was soon to attack you.
A third story. Let’s imagine that you are living in an apartment and a fire has broken out on the sixth floor of the apartment complex where you are living. A person comes running down the hallway, knocking frantically on each door and shouting, “Wake up. Wake up in there. It is no time to sleep. Fire down at the end of the hall. Get up. Get out.”
And so the words, “wake up,” are defined by the way they are used and in what situation the words are used. In these first three stories, the words, “wake up,” were referring to a disaster that was coming, an evil force that was imminent.
But… the words, wake up, can have an entirely different and positive flavor. For example, the birth of a baby. “Wake up, for the baby is coming.” It is 1:30 in the morning and then 2:30 and then 3:30, and the mother is tossing and turning, feeling the pains of the twins inside of her. The pains are more regular now, and Lisa McCoid…I will use a new member joining today who isn’t here because she at Valley General where she delivered her first baby, twins. Yes, twins, a boy and a girl. So in my imagination recreating the scene from two nights ago, Lisa rolls over, pokes her husband, Scott, and says to him, “Scott. Scott. Wake up. It’s time.” Scott, being a good husband, sleeps right on. She jiggles him again, “Scott. Scott. Wake up. Wake up. It’s time to go to the hospital.” Still, he is out like a light. She finally jabs him and shouts in his ear, “Scott, wake up. The baby is coming.” Scott wakes up in a flash, is out of bed, on with the pants, on with the shirt, and he is ready to go. So, in that situation, we have an entirely different mood than the previous stories about my mother coming home early from Chicago or a bomb siren going off in a city, warning of the impending bombing raid or wake up or you will burned to death in an apartment fire. The mood and message are now positive.
Still another story. The children are sitting by the front door of the house and it is Christmas. The children are waiting for Grandma and Grandpa’s car to come with the Christmas presents in their car. All these cars come driving by, one by one; and every time another car comes by, the children become more anxious. They shout to each other, “Is it the right one?” They wait and wait and finally the right car comes along and it honks and they run down to the house, throw open the door and shout at their father, taking a catnap in his favorite living room chair., “Wake up. Wake up, Dad. Grandma and Grandpa are here.” And everybody is excited because the party has begun.
A third story. Years ago, we went to the Rose Bowl parade and we were advised by our friends to camp overnight in lawn chairs on the curb, so we could get the best seats for the Rose Bowl parade early the next morning. We did, but when the parade finally came, several of us were sound asleep in our lawn chairs. Everyone began shouting: “Wake up. Wake up. Here comes Mickey Mouse.” And the parade began. Herein lies a parable.
So the whole mood of, “wake up, get ready,” is determined by the setting, the situation.
It is with this mood that we approach the gospel lesson for today in which we hear the gospel theme, “Don’t fall asleep. Don’t fall asleep on me over there. Don’t fall asleep on me back there in the balcony. Are you awake? Are you listening?” Wake up to the evil that is all around you and in you. Wake up to the evil peril that coming towards you and ready to enter the door of your life. Or just the opposite, Wake up to the good news, to the power and glory of God’s miraculous world that is all around you, to the grandeur of God’s glorious presence for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
The theme of the sermon for today is echoed in a Christmas hymn, “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” in the second verse which sounds like this, “He made me a watchman upon the city wall.” This past week, I have been thinking about what it means to be a watchman. I ask you to think about what it means for you to be a watchman. The song says it clearly, “He made me a watchman upon the city wall.” What does that mean?
Let us look at stories of the watchman in the Bible.
The watchman was a very common theme in Old Testament days. In Biblical days, the Jews had vineyards with grapevines. On that farm with acres of grapes, the Jews built a tall tower called a watchtower. It was made out of rocks; some ten to fifteen feet tall. A watchman would be there all night long, watching for thieves who may come in and steal the crop. What was the greatest sin of a night watchman? To fall asleep. If the watchman fell asleep. If the watchman thought to himself, “It is a nice night tonight. There are no thieves out here. Nobody is going to come in here and steal our grapes tonight. This is not a threatening time tonight. Tonight is relaxed. It is time for me to take a nap, to get some rest.” That was the greatest sin of a watchman … was to let his guard down, to not be aware of the evil peril around him and was ready to attack his life.
The second place we find a watchman in the Bible was on the top of a watchtower on the city walls. The watchtowers were not found in small villages like Jackson, Minnesota, but on the city walls of grand and glorious capitals, like Jerusalem. High on the city wall was the watchtower and the watchman sat in that tower. He would watch for the enemy forces to come to raid the city; he would also watch for the friendly king and his armies to be welcomed to the city. And the greatest sin of the watchman to fall asleep to the evil lurking in the shadows, or to miss the grand powers of the king who would march into the city triumphantly.
The third place in the Old Testament where we find stories about watchman are the stories of the Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament prophets were called, watchman, especially in the book of Ezekiel. The Old Testament prophet was to be keenly aware of the evil powers around them; they were also to be aware of the grand promises of the Messiah who was to come. And the worst sin of the prophet was to fall asleep, becoming lethargic to the surrounding evil, or becoming lethargic to the future possibility of the Messiah to come. The complacent prophets were the false prophets.
We then approach the New Testament and Jesus clearly calls out to us “to watch, be alert, don’t fall asleep,” don’t drift into spiritual lethargy about the evil around you, the evil peril around us and in us. Also, we are not to fall asleep to the grand possibilities of God’s wonderful miracles to unfold before our eyes. Stay awake. Don’t fall asleep.
Jesus then tells several stories to illustrate his wanting us to be alert, alert with our eyes, alert with our ears, alert with our minds, alert with our hearts. Jesus told the story that the end of the world being like a thief in the night, whose entry into the house was a total surprise. You don’t know when the break-in is going to happen.
Or, the end of the world was like owner of a house who went on a trip and left his estate to the care of his servants. You never know when the owner is going to come back, whether at midnight, nine at night, six at night, noon, or at dawn. You will be surprised when the owner comes back; when God calls your name.
Or Jesus told the story of no one knowing the hour when the groom would come for the wedding party. Five brides maids were waiting patiently and expectantly; five brides maids became dull and lethargic; and suddenly, the groom entered and the wedding party began and five were ready and five were not. We are always to be prepared to meet God face to face; we never know when this party is going to begin. There is always surprise, guess what, I the Lord, am here.
So how to do apply all of this in the year 2001, at the beginning of the third millennium? What does God have to say to us through these words, “Watch. Be alert. Don’t fall sleep on me, you up there in the corner of the balcony. Be alert. Be a Christian watchman.” What does this mean for us today?
Today, I would like to briefly talk about being awake to the evil peril that is all around us and also being alert to the divine, miraculous possibilities that abundantly surround us. To be aware of the evil behind us and the goodness of God before us.
Jesus needed to say that because the great sin of a watchman today as Christians is to fall asleep, to become apathetic, to become complacent when there is so much evil around us. Like falling asleep at the radar screen when the bombers are coming into bomb your homes; like sleeping through a person knocking loudly at your door and shouting “wake up, the apartment building is on fire.” To fall asleep in evil times is a deadly thing to do.
The evil peril is all around us, and sometimes we can become insensitive to the vastness of evil around us and within us. Especially during times of affluence. Especially during times of wealth, when we live in an affluent society or a wealthy society compared to the rest of the world. It is so easy to become complacent about the tragedy of starvation and hunger and brutality in the rest of the world, when our world is relatively wealthy and affluent. We can become apathetic to the elderly, apathetic to the hungry, apathetic towards widows and widowers, apathetic to the retarded and handicapped, apathetic to the homeless.
Our enemy was easy to identify when our enemy was communism or the nazis. The enemy was easy to identify when it was pornography or sexual violence. It is much harden to identify the enemy around us and within us when the enemy is comfort, materialism, pleasure seeking hedonism. So we say to ourselves in America, “We can relax. There are no big problems around us and the church. There are no thieves out there trying to destroy the lives of our people. We can relax, slump back and fall asleep.” The number one sin of a watchman has always been to fall asleep and not be alert to the enemy around us; that was a problem two thousand years ago and it is a problem today.
In the gospel of Matthew and Luke, Jesus says, “And so it shall be in the times of Noah before the flood that people shall be eating and drinking and playing and marrying. And so it shall be until after the flood comes. Take heed, unless your hearts be weighed down with drunkenness.” Today, alcoholism and drug addiction is rampant in our society. “And weighed down with dissipation.” I love the word, dissipation. It sounds as if you should take some peptobismol for it. Dissipation means that you are dissipated; that you are weighed down with the blahs. Life becomes a blah, blah, blah.” Peoples’ lives become weighed down with alcoholism, with addictions, with dissipations, with the cares and troubles of this life. Weighed down with car payments and house payments. Weighed down with schedules for work and schedules for kids.” Jesus said, “Take heed, for this is not the time for apathy…when drugs are rampant through our whole culture. This is not the time for apathy…when alcoholism is an addiction for millions of people.
This is not a time for apathy when 89% of the children in the Highline School District do not have their original mother and father living in their home. This is not the time for apathy when an average person watches 10,000 murders a year on television. This is not the time for apathy when 90% of all sexual relationships for young people is outside the marriage covenant. This is not the time for apathy when recent studies tell us that in a survey of three hundred men, these men spend only an average of seven and a half minutes per weeks with their sons. This is not the time for apathy when the population of the state of Washington is increasing by double digit increases and meanwhile, the population of church membership is decreasing in the same area. These are time when all kinds of enemies are around us; there are thieves out there. There are thieves out there who are trying to rob couples of good marriages. I mean, 89% of the children in a neighboring school district do not the have their original mother and father living with them. There are thieves out there, trying to rob people of good marriages. There are thieves out there, trying to rob your children, grandchildren, and friends of good values. There are thieves out there. These are evil times. “Wake up. Don’t you fall asleep on me,” Jesus said.
“Whaa. Whaa. Whaa. Whaa. Whaa,” cried the war sirens. The warning sirens are going off. We are living in evil times and we need to be aware of the evil around us and within us. So our eyes are to be wide open, our ears wide open, our minds alert, our hearts on fire when we deal with the evil that is so rampant around our lives.
But there is a whole other theme in the gospel lesson for today on the same words, “wake up.” This theme is, “Wake up, Scott, the baby is coming. Wake up, Scott, the baby is coming tonight.” Or it is in the story of the children waiting for their grandparents for Christmas. “Wake up because Grandma and Grandpa are coming with the Christmas presents.” Or the watchman, in Biblical times, would get up into the watchtower and shout triumphantly, “The King is coming.” The early Christians shouted as watchman, “Christ is coming. Christ is coming to save!” Wake up!
Our eyes are to be awake; our ears awake, our minds awake, our hearts awake to the miraculous wonders of God all around us. Let me give you an example of blind eyes, deaf ears, a sleeping mind and heart. Yesterday, I was walking along the beach of Puget Sound for three blocks while I was memorizing this sermon. I had walked for three blocks and suddenly my mind woke up to the waters beside me. My eyes woke up, my ears, my heart, and I saw the beauty of Puget Sound that I had totally, I said totally, blocked out as I concentrated on memorizing my sermon. Do you see? You can totally block out God’s wonderful miracles around you as you become so totally focused on your distractions within. It happens all the time. You and I sleep while God is performing his miracles right before us eyes as we concentrate on our present trivia and preoccupations.
You never when God is coming to you and for you. There is always that element of surprise. Two nights ago, as many of you know, Milt Jeter died suddenly and unexpectedly at ten o’clock in the evening. His grandchildren were visiting all day with their young Grandpa, and Grandpa Milt had just finished a sandwich in his rocking chair and he died in mid-bite of a massive stroke. His body technically died four hours later, but Milt left us at ten that night. It came so suddenly. So unexpectedly.
It wasn’t the grim reaper that came for Milt but the loving and lordly presence of Jesus Christ who took Milt into his heavenly party. Suddenly, it was all over on this earth and Milt was in paradise with God. And that is always the way the miracles of God are, happening so quickly, so unexpectedly. God can take that which is evil and transform it into a miracle in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, God can transform ugly death into resurrection.
God comes for us and transforms the grim reaper; this theme is illustrated in the Advent hymn, number 31, which we sing once a year and will be sung immediately after the sermon for today. The hymn goes like this: “Wake, awake, for night is flying; the watchmen on the heights are crying. Awake Jerusalem at last.” I would like to tell the story of this hymn to illustrate that God comes for us even in the midst of terrible and horrible suffering and surprises us with grand glory even when the times are ugly.
This hymn, “Wake Awake,” was written by Philip Nicoli in the year, 1598. He was a Lutheran pastor in Germany. What happened for six months in 1597-1598? Would you believe that in those six months, 1300 of his church members died. Yes, I said 1300 members. What if we had 170 funerals this month? What if we would have had thirty funerals this afternoon? This was the time of the Bubonic plague across Germany. It was one of the worst times of human history. To help himself live with the awful suffering around him, Pastor Nicoli wrote meditations. He wrote the following words, “There seemed to me nothing more sweet, delightful and agreeable than the contemplation of the noble, sublime doctrine of eternal life, obtained through Jesus Christ. In my heart, I dwelled on this day and night and searched the Scriptures as to what eternal life meant. Then, day by day, I wrote out my meditations. I found myself wonderfully well comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content.” 1300 funerals. 1300 deaths. 1300 moments of mourning. In all of that awful suffering at one of the worst moments in history, he composed a hymn based on his meditations about everlasting life. He wrote, “Wake, awake, for night is flying, the watchmen on the heights are crying, Awake Jerusalem at last.” He writes: Now the night is past and the bridegroom has come at last.” Not a Grim Reaper for 1300 people. But the Mighty Messiah who brought his people home.
Wake up. Be alert. Don’t you fall asleep on me. There is so much evil surrounding us. So many miracles all around us. Wake up. Eyes. Ears. Minds. Hearts. Wake up. See the world around you. See the blessings of God surrounding your life. Wake up. See. Amen.
Sermons and Bible Commentary/Analysis for the 1st sunday after Sleebo
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