One of the things that used to be fun about driving to Heathrow Airport was, as you approached the airport, the road took you through a tunnel under the main runway, and as you entered the tunnel there was this large airport notice on the side of the road – “WATCH FOR THE SIGNS.” We used to laugh because this road sign sounded so much like an apocalyptic warning, such as we hear during the season of Advent.
In this second of our Advent preaching series, the word I have been given to reflect on, is the word watch. It is amazing how often this word comes up in Scripture, and it is clearly one of the main characteristics of a faithful Christian disciple, that we WATCH. So why watch? What does it mean, to watch, and why should we watch?
To watch is not the same as to look, or to see – it is rather, looking attentively for something – keeping alert and awake so as not to miss it – like watching for the signs for Terminal 2 at the airport. Watching is hard – it takes effort. If you remember driving to Logan Airport during the Big Dig, when every week the layout seemed to change, keeping your eye on the road and watching for the signs to your terminal was extremely difficult, and you really had to be alert – or you would miss it. So watching demands attention, focus, being awake, keeping alert.
In our Old Testament Lesson today from Isaiah, the Lord says “Post a watchman.” Let him announce what he sees. “Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord, continually by day, and at my post I am stationed throughout the night.”(Isa. 21:8) In the ancient world, large watchtowers were placed overlooking the fields – and watchmen would look out day and night for thieves or animals who would try to make off with the crops. The watchman would also monitor the approaches to the city walls. He would watch day and night for any signs of the approach of an enemy. At the sign of danger he would sound a warning and the town would shut its gates and prepare for battle. The night was divided into watches, and at the end of each watch, a trumpet would be blown.
Very soon, this function of the watchman was transferred metaphorically to the prophet. The prophet’s job was to watch, to literally be a seer – a watcher – to watch for the signs of God’s activity and then blow the trumpet – warn the people of what he saw. Watching became perhaps the distinctive activity of the prophet. Watching carefully for signs – and then interpreting them correctly for the people, and sending a clear clarion call for action.
In our reading from St. Mark, Chapter 13, there is the same sense of urgency. And there are three verbs used in the Greek, one after the other, to describe what the faithful disciple should be doing. First, in verse 33 – blepete – look. Keep your eyes open. Look carefully at your life, at the world. Like driving to an unfamiliar airport – look attentively. Then, in the next verse – arupneite – stay awake. Don’t live your life half asleep. Have you ever had the experience of driving for several hours, and someone wakes up in the car and says, “Have we been through a certain town?” And although you’re driving, you just can’t remember. I drove through that whole town and don’t remember a thing. We can live our lives like that – half asleep, daydreaming through life. Jesus says, no, stay awake.
And then finally, at the climax in verse 37, “What I say to you – I say to all – gregoreite – WATCH. Watch for the signs. First – look carefully; second – stay awake; and third – watch for the signs.
One of my favorite movies is A Night To Remember with Kenneth More. It was made in the 1950s and is the story of the sinking of the Titanic. The scene which has always stayed with me is one which came soon after the Titanic had been struck by an iceberg. On the bridge of the Titanic the terrified crew was scanning the horizon, looking desperately through binoculars for signs of hope, and there – miraculously – just fifteen miles away, was another ship, the USS California. Everything would be fine. They’d be rescued. So they started frantically sending Morse code messages to the California – SOS. But tragically, at 11:00 pm the telegraph officer on the California had turned off the receiver, and gone to sleep. The messages were not received. So on the deck of the Titanic they sent up dozens of distress rockets. The sky was lit up by them.
And then comes the scene in the movie which has stayed with me. The crew on board the California clearly sees the distress rockets. They were only fifteen miles away, and the sky was brightly lit up. But the crew knew that it was the maiden voyage of the Titanic, and so they just chuckled and said wow, they’re having a great party – all those fireworks. The terrible irony. They did not truly see what was there – they misinterpreted the signs, they did not look carefully, they fell asleep.
Wake up and watch! That is the message of Advent. The effect of Advent on us should be like the blast of a cold shower after we’ve gotten out of bed, sleepy and bleary-eyed. Wake up: Wachet auf. In Advent God is trying to wake us up. ‘I don’t want you to sleepwalk through life, or drift aimlessly through life. I want you to wake up and be fully alive – and then you will see clearly.’ WAKE UP. And then, secondly, gregoreite – Watch. Watch for the signs – the signs of the Kingdom.
Keep awake and watch for the signs. That image from the Titanic, of the officers on board the California watching the distress rockets and laughing, as the great ship slowly began to sink into the deep, is quite haunting.
I wonder if God is sending us distress rockets? Is our planet going the way of the Titanic? Are the Occupy encampments all over the world sending us a sign? Are we looking carefully? Are we asleep? Are we misinterpreting the signs?
What if God is sending you distress rockets in your own personal life? Are there signs in your life which are telling you that things are not right – that you maybe need to change, to repent, to alter course before it’s too late? For part of the urgency of Advent is the promise of judgment, both globally and personally. Perhaps something is keeping you asleep. Perhaps a habit, or denial, or some numbing substance? Maybe God’s trying to wake you up, so that you can rub your bleary eyes and see clearly.
Look clearly and honestly at your life – and take action. Now. For now is the time to waken out of sleep. That is the watchman’s trumpet call – the clarion call of Advent. Perhaps tonight God will convince you that the time is right. Now is the time for you – a choice to be made, a decision to be taken.
This Advent God is calling us all to waken out of sleep, to look carefully and honestly at our lives, and to watch for the signs. What signs do you see? For the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is upon us.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.