What does it mean to keep awake? I grew up in a religious culture greatly influenced by the hope and threat of the apocalypse. Fiery mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions, sitting in the hallway with a math book over my head during “nuclear readiness drills,” speculation about “the Beast” of Revelation, the number “666” and the four horsemen of the apocalypse were powerful images in my head growing up. When I was nine years old, the next door neighbor urged me to give my heart to Jesus because Russian paratroopers were poised to plummet down on Boone, Iowa at any moment and force us all to be godless communists. Hal Lindsey had predicted that the world would not last past my sophomore year of college, and somehow he managed to keep selling books of sophomoric predictions even after that date.
I wonder-does anyone really know the mind of God on such things? 20 percent of Americans were wrong about the year 2000. One of the major tenements of many Christian apocalyptic writers is the belief in an anti-Christ, a world leader who will be Satan’s chief ally in the end times, a sort of evil twin to Jesus. On the website of PBS Frontline you can take the Anti-Christ quiz to see which prominent figures have been labeled the anti-Christ. Some are quite predictable, ranging from Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Mikhail Gorbachev (because of the strange mark on his forehead that some said was the mark of the beast). But how about these folks: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan (because each of his three names have 6 letters), John F. Kennedy (because he received 666 votes at the 1956 Democratic and a head wound killed him), Bill Gates (who would enslave the world through computers) and even Pete Seeger (I have no idea why!). Let me wonder again-What if all this time and money were spent on loving others and making the world a better place?
The setting and authorship of Mark’s Gospel has much to say about this issue. Scholars agree that this Gospel was the first one written, sometime between 66 and 70 AD, just over 30 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. This was a time of revolt as rebels took over the city of Jerusalem and overthrew both Roman rule and the chief priests and Sadducees. After about 3 years, in 70 AD, the Roman army came and re-conquered the city and destroyed the great Temple to punish Israel. So the writer of Mark’s Gospel was living through this turmoil and remembered Christ’s words of a generation earlier about the destruction of the Temple.
I wish I knew for sure whether the Gospel was written either right before the destruction of the Temple or right after the destruction? Had he already seen the great army come and rape and pillage the city, watching the fires rise over Jerusalem and hearing the screams of its terrified citizens? Or was he writing while the rebels were in ascendancy and Christians were deciding whether or not to join the revolt against Rome?
Either way I think we learn two things from Mark’s Gospel. First, Mark was sympathetic with the grievances of the Zealot rebels. Mark makes it very clear that Jesus came into strong conflict with both the Temple priests and the Jewish Herodians. He turned over the tables of the money changers and condemned those who gained unjust wealth and oppressed the needy. Mark had no sympathy with the Temple aristocracy. At the same time, Mark does not seem inclined to encourage Christians to support the Zealot rebels. Mark sees a grander vision of the Gospel that is not content with the mere nationalistic aspirations of Israel. Remember that Jesus is very careful about the use of the term Messiah in Mark’s Gospel. He will not conform to the hope for a military leader to throw off the Romans. He does not choose to lead a revolt, but ends up suffering on the cross.
I understand the desire to see Christ come again and set this world straight. I long for that time when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. I sometimes grow weary of the corporate greed and materialism, the ceaseless warfare and hatred, the lies of politicians, and the despair of poverty, AIDs, hunger and homelessness. I get tired some days just trying to make sure we take care of the homeless in Dutchess County. Sometimes I want to say, “Come Lord Jesus and end this misery and set the world straight. Punish the evil doer and lift up the righteous." We all would like the world to be set right, to be the way we want it to be.” The great preacher Fred Craddock once said, “Maybe people are obsessed with the Second Coming because deep down they are disappointed in the first one.”
People of Christ's day expected a lot more of Jesus than he delivered. They wanted a messiah to make the world right --by their terms. There terms were limited to narrow nationalistic expectations for Israel, by a sense that God was only concerned about one little patch of land at the junction of three continents. They didn't realize that God so loved the world, that the only begotten Son was sent among us.
In what ways might the church still be dissatisfied with the First Coming of Jesus? Are we worshiping and following the Jesus that hung out with sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors because they are the ones who needed a physician? Are we comfortable with a Jesus that wasn't afraid of people on the margins of society who hugged the lepers and forgave an adulteress and told stories of a Great Banquet where all people are welcomed to God's feast? Are we ready for a Jesus who came not just to save our own soul, but who came because God so loved the whole world?
What does it mean to “keep awake?” Being spiritually awake is a state of awareness. This awareness sees life as God desires us to see it, full of its hopes and possibilities; as well it’s suffering and longing for completeness. Buddhist thought calls this an attitude of mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hahn writes,
In Buddhism, our effort is to practice mindfulness in each moment-to know what is going on within and all around us. When the Buddha was asked, ‘Sir, what do you and your monks practice?’ he replied, ‘We sit, we walk, wand we eat.’ The questioner continued, ‘But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats,’ and the Buddha told him, ‘When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.’ Most of the time, we are lost in the past or carried away by future projects and concerns. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy. When our beautiful child comes up to us and smiles, we are completely there for her. (Living Buddha, Living Christ; p. 14)
I believe with the witness of scripture that some day Christ will come again and all things will be reconciled to God. But until that time, my prayer is to be mindful, to stay awake in the present moment to the presence of God. I am going to struggle with all my heart, mind and soul to follow the Jesus of the First Coming who calls us to love, compassion, justice, unity and peace.