Here we are at the Church's New Year's Eve party, and the theme of this party is obvious. Watch! Jesus uses the term for simple wakefulness once and the one for to be alert three times. Three out of the four times the word is an imperative. Hence the exclamation mark after Watch! Watch is an imperative task for Christians, but what are we watching?
You could watch your life. Watch as it tick, tick, ticks by. And as you age that ticking speeds up. Remember how long it was between Christmas and your birthday when you were young? Remember how long the school year? But then remember how short summer was? How short a vacation still is? Time fools us. We think it's going by fast or slow when in fact it passes at a constant rate. And not one of us really appreciates how fast that rate is. The Introit said, "You have made by days a mere handbreadth, the span of my years is as nothing before you."
Though we watch our life pass before our eyes, though as we age it seems to pass in flickers and bursts, only the Lord can make us know as Solomon came to realize that our life is vanity of vanities. Vanities is the Hebrew word for vapor or breath. Breathe on a cold window pane; how quickly it vanishes. That's your life, but you'll only come to know that if the Lord teaches you. He taught James who said, "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." David knew he needed to be taught so he prayed in the Introit, "Show me, O LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life."
As important as it is to know your life is fleeting like a grain of sand in the whirlpool of a 3 minute timer, don't watch that. If you focus on time passing as you're trying to take a timed test or trying to get a task done in time, you end up hearing, seeing, or feeling nothing else but the ticking of the clock. If you watch your life go by, you'll see it going by without really living it.
So if the imperative is not to watch our fleeting life is it perhaps to watch for the end? Jesus started this Bible class on the end times in Mark 13 by warning the 4 disciples attending to watch out for those who wanted them to focus on His return and used world events to scare them into thinking He had returned. Now at the end of the Bible class Jesus teaches them that they are not to project the end into a future so far away that it means nothing to them. And it's in what they know about the coming end that we find out what exactly we are to be watching for.
Last Sunday Jesus taught us that as we know when summer is near by trees budding so we know when He is near, at the very door. Although the insert doesn't translate it this way, this week Jesus teaches us, "You don't know when the season is." Not only don't we know the day or hour, we don't even know the season. What gives here? Jesus 3 verses before our text uses an illustration of knowing the when of a season for knowing the when of His return, and five verses later He flatly says, "You don't know when the season of My return is."
It's precisely when the Lord appears to contradict Himself that He is to be paid attention to the most. For example: He who loses His life saves it. This Bread is Body; this Wine is Blood. Baptism is a water of regeneration. "He who believes in me will live, even though he dies." You know the season of My return; you don't know the season.
This apparent contradiction is resolved by Jesus using two different Greek words for "know." One word means "recognize" and the other means to know by revelation. Jesus says we can recognize the season of His return but can't know it apart from it actually being revealed. Really last week's text and this week's agree. Last week the point was that it has been the season for Jesus' return ever sense His First Coming. This week the point is the return could be any day or even any hour, but apart from God revealing it to us, we can't know which day, hour, or even season.
But guess what? Not even the Son knows (same Greek word) this. Now the fact that Jesus says He doesn't know the day or hour of His own return bothers people, but again there is great comfort in embracing Biblical paradoxes. Jesus says in John 12, "I do not speak on My own accord, but the Father who sent Me commanded Me what to say and how to say itSo whatever I say is just what the Father has told Me to say." When the Bible speaks of the Father giving things to the Son whether it's the Holy Spirit, words, or information, it speaks of what the Father gives the Son in time not eternity. From eternity God the Son knows everything God the Father does. There are no secrets in the Holy Trinity. Here's the comfort: What the Father gives the Son in time, however, are only those things that pertain to our salvation.
If Jesus doesn't know something it cannot be important to our salvation. While we are commanded by Jesus to watch for His return, we are not commanded to know when He will. We do not have to be like children playing musical chairs always afraid that the music will stop when we don't expect it and we will be left without a chair. Such a fear can only motivate you so long, till a greater fear or pleasure comes along.
Waylon Jennings released a song in 1971 called "Revelation." It's about the end of the world taking people by surprise. The singer is caught in a sinful situation, and comes face to face with Jesus Christ in all His glory. And he realizes the saddest eyes he'd ever seen were looking straight at him. The singer is awakened from this dream by his own screaming. He falls down on his knees and prays, "Dear God I'm thankful I was only dreaming and if I never go to hell Lord it'll be because you scared it out of me."
It's not worth watching for the end of the world; calculating what this earthquake means here, what this tragedy means there because the best it can do for you is what it did for Waylon Jennings. It can scare the heck out of you, but being scared never stopped anyone from going to hell. Only Jesus can do that and that's whom we are watching for. Your fleeting life is not worth watching and neither is the end of the world because you can't know when that will be. No, watch for the One you do know and more importantly knows you.
Other places Jesus describes His coming as a thief in the night. That is an unnerving picture. Here Jesus doesn't use it. Neither does Jesus say you're watching for the owner of the house to return. He says literally, "The Lord of the House." He's speaking to four apostles. Do you think when they heard the word "Lord" they thought "owner" as NIV translates or "Master" as ESV? No, they thought of Jesus, their Lord and yours too.
Watch! Not a fleeting life passing by. Watch! Not a deteriorating world passing away. Watch! For your Lord Jesus. Watch for the Lord who purchased and won you from all sin, from death and from the power of the Devil. Watch! for the Lord who came once already to live the life you could never live and die the death you deserve to. Watch! For the Lord who is sent by the Father.
Did you get that? The point is not that the Father knows something the Son doesn't, but that if the Son doesn't know the day or hour of His return He must be sent by His Father. I can remember when I was young my father would have to be away at school in Wisconsin or New York. He would write us kids in Michigan. Did I look forward to what he would send me? Was I afraid that my father who loved me, provided for me, watched over me was going to send something bad?
Let's push this a little more. My father would of course eventually come home. We would know the day but we didn't know the hour because he was driving, and in the 60s no one called long distance on the road unless it was an emergency. I would be playing in the sandbox all day watching for every car. Even into evening I was out in that sandbox looking for headlights. My mother would call me in. I wouldn't want to go in. She would want me to go sleep. I couldn't. I was too excited to sleep. Did my mother command me to watch? Did she have to? I couldn't help myself.
It all comes down to what you're watching for. Are you watching for the end of the world or the beginning of a new one? Are you watching for a wedding or a funeral, a honeymoon or wake? Are you watching for punishment or reward?
You know the answers to these questions based on whom you're watching for. If you're watching for a Jesus who commands you "watch" to burden you, you're watching for a judge not a savior, the grim reaper not the groom. But if you're watching for the Jesus whom you know and more importantly knows you in the washing of Baptism, in the Breaking of Bread, in the forgiving of your sins, then you're watching for a limo to take you to the marriage feast rather than a hearse to take you to a grave.
A study was done on the difference between watching and waiting. It found that when a repair shop had a sign that said "Repairs made while you watch! [exclamation point]!" rather than "Repairs made while you wait." people reported their time at the shop to be much more enjoyable. So Jesus commands us to watch! not as one more command we'll fail at, but to emphasize we're not merely waiting for who knows what. We're watching for you know whom.
I think already in the church of St. Paul's day Christians stumbled at the need for watching versus sleeping. Even though in Jesus' parable of the 10 maidens the prepared ones also slept, I think Christians were bothered because they knew how often they failed to keep awake physically even when they wanted to. So when Paul writes to the Thessalonians, the church that had problems with the Second Coming, he writes these comforting words, "For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are watching or asleep (same Greek words used here), we may live together with Him." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Last Sunday in the Church Year (20091122); Mark 13: 32-37