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Watchful Waiting

Homily - 11/30/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 13:24-37

The text for our reflection on this first Sunday of Advent is the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, sometimes known as "the little apocalypse":

‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’


When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer almost 3 years ago, one of the treatment options they gave me is what's called "watchful waiting".  Or, some prefer the term 'active surveillance'.  In essence, because it is a very slow-growing cancer, you can take your time, keep your eye on it, monitor it, take lots of blood tests regularly to check your PSA levels, and at some later date decide to do something about it.

OK, I said, very calmly, what's my next option?  They said surgery.  I said "OK, how 'bout next week?  How 'bout tomorrow?  This afternoon would be fine, GET IT OUT OF MY BODY NOW! J."  And they did (although not quite that quick).

I have this kind of sense I was a character in a Sigourney Weaver movie and there was this alien growing inside of me.  I could wait to get it out.

Generally speaking, we don't do patience very well.  The market crashes, and we want action now.  $700 billion, $800 billion, no problem, spend it now, whatever it takes, get it going.  Black Friday sales opened at 5:00 a.m., some 3,000 people in front of a Wal-Mart in Long Island busted the doors down and trampled an employee to death.  I mean, talk about your sad commentary on this commercially-driven society.

The election was barely over, and people want to know, what is the President-elect going to do to fix these problems?

If there's a problem, we want action, and we want it now.

But Advent is a time that calls us to slow down.  To take note of the signs of the season.  To watch.  To wait for the coming of God's messiah into our world once again.  But like my courageous cancer-stricken brothers who have chosen active surveillance as their treatment option, this is not a time to sit on our hands and do nothing.

The admonition of the gospels is not to be like that parent who tells their children on Christmas Eve -- 'now, just go to sleep, we'll look in the morning to see if Santa has come'.  Are you kidding me?!  I want to stay awake!

And this is the time to stay awake.  To keep alert.  A time of watchful waiting, but more like that of a watchdog organization constantly monitoring the activities of some public entity or big corporation or a foreign government (whatever the case may be) looking for signs of wrongdoing.  Of changes in policy, or corruption.  And so we are advised to stay alert, to be on guard.  But for what, exactly?

After 2,000 years of waiting, are we still looking for signs of some supernatural occurrence?  Like the Beavers making it into the Rose Bowl J?

What are the signs we are waiting for?

Not stars falling from the heavens, but stocks?  Heaven knows that those who predict the stock market are about as accurate as those that predict a return of Jesus.  Are we looking for the sun to be darkened, or for ice sheets and glaciers to melt?  Is it powers in heaven that will be shaken, or powers that be or want to be on earth?

Now, after 2,000 years of waiting, when Christians are no longer a tiny minority living amidst the almighty and often terrifying power of the Roman Empire, when we are no longer mystified by solar eclipses, earthquakes, and exploding volcanoes, when we have the power to split atoms, to build space stations that circle the earth, to cure more & more cancers and other diseases;  when we can grow enough food to feed 6 billion (and counting) people but lack the political will to do so, when most of the other Western democracies have figured out how to provide healthcare to all of their citizens, please tell me, once again, what are we waiting for?

I'll tell you what I think the gospel says:  we are waiting for God's will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

We are waiting for the promise of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

We are waiting for the good news to be proclaimed to the poor, and liberty to the oppressed.

We are waiting for the mourning to be comforted, for the meek to inherit the earth, and peacemakers to be called the children of God.

We are waiting for swords to be beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not lift sword against nation, and none shall learn war anymore.

We are waiting for the new heaven and the new earth when God will dwell among us and wipe away every tear and even death itself will be as if no more.

We are waiting for the prayer of St. Francis to be the prayer and deeds of all people, that where there is hatred we will sow love, that where there is doubt we will give hope, that where there is injury we will provide pardon, that where there is darkness we will bring light.

We are waiting for the dream of Martin Luther King to become a reality, of racism that will be nothing more than a bad memory, for we have seen the promised land, and have only to cross that river to get to it.

We are waiting for this to happen now.

We wait.  We watch.  We hope.

And soon, very soon, we have but to act with God.


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