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"With Those Who Work or Watch or Weep" -- Mark 13:24-37 (1st Sunday of Advent)

In their evening prayer service, Anglicans have this lovely little prayer – as the day comes to a close, and night falls, and we look toward a good night’s sleep, a holy rest, they pray this:

Watch now, dear Christ, this night

with those who work or watch or weep,

and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Tend your sick ones, Loving Christ;

rest your weary ones;

bless your dying ones;

soothe your suffering ones;

pity your afflicted ones;

shield your joyous ones;

and all for your love’s sake. Amen.[1]

Watch now, dear God, with those who work or watch or weep.

You can almost picture it –

· As most folks are heading home from a good day’s work, there are those who are heading in/ to work through the night – nurses who tend the sick; firefighters who keep watch for peril in the night; folks who stock the grocery store shelves so we can have food on our tables;

· and there are those who watch – the parent waking to check on their child, those who keep vigil with the dying – in the chill of the night, the warmth of love;

· and there are those who weep – when the world comes to a hush, in the quiet of a still and silent night, and we are left there with our ache.

As we settle in for the night, we ask God to keep watch – with those who work or watch or weep.

In this morning’s Scripture, Jesus asks us to keep watch – or at least, his disciples.[2]Keep aware, keep awake, keep watch. Their world is just as perilous as ours.[3] They live in a world of Roman occupation. Most of the folks in the Gospel of Mark work the land (land they don’t own) or they work a trade. They live a bare subsistence living on the bottom rungs of layered systems of power – what Janie Spahr calls power-over. There’s the Empire, and then a local puppet king and his officials, and corrupt religious leadership – layer upon layer – working separately and together to exact every last dime – every last bit of labor they can – out of the people and the land.

And into the daily terrors of their world, Jesus speaks this apocalyptic message. Now, we were in Revelation just a month ago, so we know that an apocalyptic message is something very specific. The apocalyptic stands in a world of power-over and the dire suffering it creates. The apocalyptic looks around and declares – all this – this present age, all this – is crashing in. The apocalyptic says to a hurting people – all the powers of that do you harm – all the powers of this present day are crashing down – and a new day, a new era is breaking in. It is at the same time cataclysmic and a message of wildly courageous hope. And so, the Lectionary – our suggested Scriptures for each Sunday – the Lectionary begins every Advent with an apocalyptic text – every Advent begins with an apocalyptic scripture, as we keep watch for that new world breaking in, even as we and others around the world work and watch and weep.

Now, when Jesus speaks this apocalyptic message, it’s actually closer to Good Friday and Easter, toward the end of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem – this is a few days before the powers will crucify him. He’s seen the corruption of all the power-over – Empire, the religious authorities, all the power-over. As this morning’s Scripture opens, Jesus has just walked through the temple – watched the corrupt officials grinding away at the poor – and, in stark contrast, he’s also just watched a poor widow, walk up and faithfully offer the last dime she has. That’s what happens just before this. The corrupt religious officials and this worthy widow.

And Jesus walks out. He walks out, and he takes his disciples aside, and he says, “You see all these buildings? All the structures of power? All this is coming down. Not one stone will be left on stone.” And he describes the apocalyptic crashing-in part – there will be wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation. There will be earthquakes and famines. All this is just the birth pains. Power-over will keep on doing what power over does.

But then – but then – after all this suffering: The sun and the moon will go dark – and the stars will fall from the sky – all the powers will be shaken. This new day will open up – and you’ll see the Human One. (Now, in the apocalyptic – the Human One – what we may have heard called the Son of Man – this is God’s agent who will bring about this change – God’s power in the fullness of their humanity.).[4] You’ll see the Human One, coming towards us – and they’ll gather all the hurting people from all the ends of the earth – to live in the freedom of this new day.

And so, Jesus says, Keep watch. Keep on being awake, keep on watching – for this new day breaking in. Keep watch. And then he tells two little stories – one that tells us what we’ll be able to see as we keep watch, and one that tells us what we’ll never be able to know.[5]

Look at the fig tree – when its leaves come out you know that summer is near. You can see it, feel it, sense it. Keep watch, and you’ll experience it – the very nearness of God.

As to the time when we all this will come into its fullness – that day out there – well, as for that, you might as well stop obsessing about that. You can’t know that – the timing of the fullness of all that. It’s like someone who goes away from home and gives each of their servants authority and their own work to do. Do it. Keep watch. Do the work that is yours to do – do it together. You can’t know the fullness of life that is on the way – if you aren’t living the life that’s right there in front of you. There is a now... and a not yet. The not yet is full of promise, know that. And, Live in the now.

I want to share something I’ve learned from Dave Jones. I’ve been here four years now, and I’ve worked with Dave on some pretty big projects – like helping get us all through COVID. Every time we start out on a project, when we have some big task in mind, some big goal, some big hope, Dave insists that before we get started, we take the time to describe the Existing Situation. Take a breath. Look around. What is really going on here? What’s led up to this moment? Who’s involved? Who might we help? How might we help? What are the resources we have? What are the resources we need?

Look at the world around you. Keep watch. What do you see?

Look at the fig tree – where do you see leaves sprouting?

Look at the work that is yours to do – and keep at it – keep watch.

There is a part of Advent that keeps us looking forward in hope – looking forward But this first Sunday of Advent invites us to consider the Existing Situation – not to rush in too fast – and miss what is happening all around us – miss the life that is happening all around us – miss the good work that is ours to do – the work that God has entrusted to our care – the work for which we have been fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s own image. Advent invites us to be mindful... aware... real.

Trying to live Advent in the midst of the hubbub of secular Christmas all around us can be.... confusing. I will confess – I’ve started listening to Christmas music on the radio. I’ve even heard a new Christmas song by Cher “DJ Play Me a Christmas Song” – it’s something about being out on the dance floor and how the red and green lights are hitting me just right. Now, please don’t hear me saying anything against Christmas songs, and certainly don’t hear me saying anything against Cher (because I actually could make an argument that there’s some depth to her new song).

But we know the general messaging of secular Christmas. Ubiquitous advertising pushes us toward a collective, consuming frenzy. And part of that – is that pressure builds at Christmas – to think that everything should be happy and bright. And friends, that’s just not life. We know that even in December life pulses on its fullness – yes, with happiness in some moments, and yes, with the ache and the hurt that we carry. It’s all still there. In us – and in the person standing next to us. Let’s not pretend it’s not – let’s not rush past what is real.

In the midst of all that, Advent gives us a quieter, steadier path to travel – a path that we know leads to the sure promise of God’s coming to us with healing, freedom, and peace.

A path that invites us to look forward – and at the same time to look around – thoughtfully, lovingly – keep watch.

God always with us, and always on the way.

This Advent, we are travelling together with the theme: The Long Journey Toward Joy. We know that we are moving toward Christmas. We know that Christmas will once again let us celebrate and embody the story of how God comes to us – in human flesh – in our flesh, in our lives – the very heartbeat of God pulsing in the fullness of our humanity.

We also know that we live in a world that is not yet fully what God intends it to be. We live in the Existing Situation, and Advent invites us to keep watch there – to not rush by what is real. But to live there. We know the struggle and challenges that are close by. Illness. Broken relationships. Loneliness. Confusion. Our search for meaning – our big questions.

And we know the big struggle and suffering in the world. You don’t have to tell us that there will be wars and rumors of wars – we hear the cries of children suffering and dying in Gaza; we hear the lament of parents and family whose loved ones are still held hostage; we can hear the war grind on in Ukraine; we know the systems in our own country – systems of racism that have continued their harm from the birth of our nation; we can see their impacts here in our own segregated county.

Jesus says look around at the existing situation – all this suffering – and know that all of this is coming down – all the power-over – not a stone left upon stone – like the stars all falling from the sky. Look to the fig tree, and see it bloom – new life – even in the midst of all this. Know that you have been given work to do – and the authority and power – (the good kind of power) – to get at it – and stay at it – new life – even in the midst of all this.

I love how what Jesus has to say to us in this Scripture and what that Anglican evening prayer says to God – how the two start to weave together. Jesus tells us to keep watch – and we pray the same thing back to God – keep watch, dear God, with those who work and watch and weep. It’s as if at the end of a weary day – we trust all things to God. God, I’m going to sleep for a bit, God – please keep watch over all who are hurting. And then, at the break of day, God speaks the invitation back to us. Rise up now, and keep on watching. Tend my ailing ones. Rest my weary ones. Comfort my dying ones. Soothe my suffering ones. And all for my love’s sake. What we pray to God, God prays back to us. Keep watch.

As we step out on this Advent’s Long Journey Toward Joy, I have two invitations for us.

The first is this: Keep watch. In the hurly burly of December, let’s stay mindful of the existing situation – all the ache, all the life, all the love all around us – and let’s live life there.

And the second is that this will be our prayer – and that we will hear what we ask of God – also as the invitation to what God asks of us.

Watch now, dear Christ, this night

with those who work or watch or weep,

and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Tend your sick ones, Loving Christ;

rest your weary ones;

bless your dying ones;

soothe your suffering ones;

pity your afflicted ones;

shield your joyous ones;

and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] I was first introduced to this prayer in the prayers of the Iona Community of Scotland, and the particular wording offered here follows theirs (slight difference in syntax from the Anglican). For a lovely, thoughtful, book-length meditation on this prayer, see Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021). [2] For general background on this text and the Gospel of Mark, see Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol.viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 686-96; Brian K. Blount, Go Preach! Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988 (Kindle ed.)); v Warren Carter, Mark (Wisdom Commentary, vol. 42; Sarah J. Tanzer and Barbara E. Reid, OP, eds.) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2019), pp. 563-93; Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1989); F. Scott Spencer, Commentary in Connections, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp. 12-15; Andrew Foster Cummings, Commentary in Connections, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp. 15-16; Timothy L. Adkins-Jones, Commentary on Working Preacher at ; Karoline Lewis, Commentary on Working Preacher at [3] For a thorough and compelling description of the socio-economic world of the Gospel of Mark, see Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1989), pp.1-26. [4] See Spencer, pp. 14-15. [5] See Adkins-Jones, supra.

Photo Credit: Ankhesenamun, used with permission via Unsplash


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