“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then 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.
“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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It 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. Therefore, 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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
“Hark” is a word that you don’t hear very often. If it weren’t for “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” we probably wouldn’t even know the word. It came and went a long time ago.
The word “hark” originated in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, yet it never even appears in the King James Version of the Bible which was published in the early 1600s. Although it’s archaic, we pretty much know what “hark” means. It’s like putting a verbal exclamation point in front of a sentence to call attention to something important about to be said. Kind of like saying “Listen!” or “Quiet” or “Pay attention,” or, in a modern idiom, “listen up!” At least that’s how the Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses it. Here are examples – all of which direct attention to a sound of some sort:
From Psalm 118: “Hark, glad songs of victory in the tents.”
The Song of Solomon: “Hark, my beloved is knocking.”
From the prophets: “Hark, a tumult on the mountains.” “Hark, the cry of the shepherds.” “Hark, the roar of the lions.”
Hark is a good word to start off with this first Sunday in Advent, because it’s an alert word. In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says “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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly…Keep awake.” Beginning today, we say, “Hark!” Pay attention right now!
The thirteenth chapter of Mark is part of what’s been called “The Little Apocalypse,” foretelling the “Second Coming” and the “Last Judgment.” Scholars suggest this passage reflects the historical events of the time in which it was written; specifically, the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., an event which would have felt like the end of the world to any God fearer in those days. This passage was meant as a wake-up call. Hark! The time has come!
Do we hear that call today?
One of the things that we do really well in the church is continuity. We mostly do the same things every Sunday, just like we did them last Sunday. Last year, last century. We call it an “Order of Worship,” because that’s what it’s for—to order our acts of worship into a continuous, flowing whole. Churches specialize in continuity, and it’s important. Many people come to church to bring some order and stability to their lives. And so here we are, just like clockwork, again at the season of Advent. We could’ve predicted it! Advent is the beginning of the church’s liturgical year. But we’re also in the midst of our church’s program year. We follow the usual schedule, and church life goes on…
Please forgive me for a broad generalization, but I think that most of us, most of the time, are fairly satisfied by things as they are in the here and now. Yes, we have our setbacks, our times of difficulty, illness, or loss—but our human instinct is to “get back to normal.” While we may get riled up by the actions of our elected officials, or feel distressed by rampant sexual harassment; while we’re horrified by the gun violence and opioid addiction in our nation; while we fret over the devastation caused by natural disasters or global warming; for the most part we’re pretty much complacent. We’ve mostly convinced ourselves that not much can be gained by whining about the present, or wishful thinking about the future. We’ve decided that a reasonable person accepts things as they are because, well, “things as they are” is all there is. We’ve even got a popular phrase for this attitude: “It is what it is.”
The scripture reading for this first Sunday of Advent is intended to change our minds. Jesus says, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Hark!
I believe that deep down, we don’t really like being complacent. The season of Advent suggests that many of us actually yearn for a genuine disruption. Advent reminds us that what we’re really for is some divinely-induced instability.
So many people are stuck in situations where they feel like there’s no way out. Some are enslaved to habits that are literally killing them. Many feel caught between a rock and a hard place. We live in a world where the problems of our nation and our planet feel larger than our collective resources for addressing them.
Then just as we get all settled in and accommodated to things as they are, just when we resign ourselves to “it is what it is,” we’re surprised by the intrusions of God. Somehow God interrupts our comfortable adjustment to the present and offers us a considerably disrupted future. Our ideas about what can and can’t be are turned upside down. A king born in a manger. Hark! God come down to earth. Hark! An empty tomb. Hark!
In today’s passage Jesus says, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Often we hear these words as ominous. While Advent is a season when we focus on the coming of God in Christ, it’s also a time when warnings are issued through Scripture that “the time has come.” Today’s apocalyptic lesson from Mark is considered to be about the return of Jesus: the “second coming” of Christ to bring judgment on humanity and to usher in the final revelation of the Kingdom of God. When we hear the words “For you do not know when the master of the house will come,” we assume that the servants are waiting in fear because they’ll be judged for some bad behavior. But the master who’s returning, the master they’ve been waiting for, is the same one who left.
The Prince of Peace. Hark!
Jesus’ words to stay awake and keep alert weren’t meant to inspire fear, but action. Jesus prods us, the servants, to care for the house in a way that if the master were to return today—or a thousand years from now—he would rejoice to find the good stewardship of the servants lived out.
In the face of our complacency, Jesus calls us to keep awake. Hark! Pay attention to how we treat this world of ours. Be aware of how we treat each other—our families, spouses, children, friends. Awaken, and notice how we care for our colleagues and workmates. Pay attention to the strangers, the hungry, the homeless, the lonely.
When we see ourselves as servants of Christ, preparing for his return, we live in an awareness that every minute is a gift, and an opportunity, to give. Every moment is a chance for us to say that we believe in more than “it is what it is.” That there is something bigger, and better, and more powerful than any darkness we might face. Hark! Look! Listen!
And behold Our God! Amen.