In Times of War and Uncertainty: Stay Awake!

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/13/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 13. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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The world has changed. You can feel it, right? Something has broken loose.

For years, our civilization has been in a stuck place. Decisive movement, in any direction, positive or negative has felt impossible.

With the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, all of that changed over the course of a week. The transatlantic alliance, NATO, stands far more united than anyone expected. The West has imposed enormous economic sanctions, threatening to collapse the Russian economy and cutting the Russian people off from much of the world. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies are pouring billions of dollars of high-tech weaponry, small arms, and materiel into Ukraine, as well as providing extensive intelligence and cyberwarfare support.

Things are, uh, really coming together.

In the face of Russian aggression, the West is standing tall. Right on the edge of the abyss.

The Russian president has explicitly threatened nuclear war as a possible response to western interference in the Ukraine war, and he placed Russia’s nuclear forces on “heightened alert” – which from what I can tell is mostly a legal measure: In normal times, there are some checks on the president’s ability to order nuclear release. But in a period of heightened alert, those checks are removed.

For the first time in a long time, real change seems possible. But it’s not necessarily the kind of change we want. For the first time in generations, nuclear armageddon seems like a real possibility. The apocalypse is feeling very close.

Do you think this could be the end of the world?

In our reading this morning, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the apocalyptic times that are coming. The commentator Ched Myers calls this passage Jesus’ “Second Sermon on Revolutionary Patience.” Jesus is preparing the disciples for the end of the world as they know it, and for the totally new order that is going to emerge.

Now is a good time to engage with this passage. Because the world as we know it seems to be ending, and we are anxious to know what it is that might be emerging.

The bad news is, Jesus says that even he doesn’t know exactly how things are going to go down. He says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

You know you’re dealing with some serious mystery when Jesus says, “Yeah, not sure; I’ll have to get back to you on that. Check with my dad.”

Do you think this could be the end of the world?

It’s interesting, because Jesus’ sermon here is full-frontal apocalyptic. He is talking about the wrapping up of history, and the revealing of the fullness of the kingdom of God. He’s talking about the end times, the culmination, the victory of God over the forces of darkness and death; the total transformation of life on earth.

So when will it happen, Jesus? ask the disciples. How will we know?

“Dunno,” says Jesus. “We’re going to have to wait and see.”

Sounds about right. We don’t know if there’s going to be a third world war between the West and Russia. Going to have to wait and see.

We don’t know if nuclear annihilation is in our future. Going to have to wait and see.

We don’t know if this geopolitical transformation that is playing out right now will ultimately lead our planet in a better or worse direction. Going to have to wait and see.

Waiting is hard. And it raises the question: What are we to do while we’re waiting?

For that question, Jesus does have an answer: He says, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

Stay awake. Keep your eyes open. Don’t retreat into escapism or easy answers. Don’t join the warring parties who are pushing for your allegiance. Stay awake: See what is really happening here, and listen for what God is up to.

As we watch these upheavals playing out on the global stage, we naturally have favorites. We live in the United States and want to see our country prosper. We believe in democracy, and want to see freedom triumph over despotism. We are against war, especially wars of aggression. We have preferences, and those preferences are not arbitrary; they are deeply rooted in both our interests and our values.

But Jesus reminds us that our ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God, and not to the kingdoms of this world – even the kingdoms that we have sympathy with! 

Some of the main players in Jesus’ day were the Roman occupiers, the religious establishment, and the insurrectionist Zealots. A great temptation of the church – both then and now – is to pick the side that seems most in line with our understanding of God’s will, and then to become partisans of that camp – even to join it in making war on the other camps.

And this is understandable. Because we like to be in control. We like to feel like we have a sense of what is happening. We don’t like feeling vulnerable. And what could be more vulnerable than having Jesus tell us, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can only tell you that it’s going to be really hard, involve a lot of pain and sacrifice. What’s coming will likely ruin your life. But those who endure to the end will be saved.”

Not a great pitch, Jesus!

But in this sermon, Jesus reminds us that participating in the kingdom of God means giving up control and security as this world understands it. He reminds us that, no matter where our sympathies lie, no matter which cause or country or ideology we prefer, our allegiance must be fully given to God. Even if that ends up making everyone treat us like enemies. We have to stay true to God’s vision.

This is crucial, because God’s plans are different from those of this world’s kingdoms. God’s radical vision cuts to the root of all the issues we face today. The kingdoms of this world all fundamentally accept the domination system as a given, but God’s kingdom turns the world upside down.

The Zealots sought to set up a Jewish kingdom in Israel rather than a Roman one. But Jesus calls the church to abandon the model of human kingship altogether, and to fully embrace the direct leadership of God.

The kingdom of God means absolute dependence on God for everything. It means admitting that we can’t remake the world in our image. We can’t impose peace, and love, and justice through sheer force of will – and certainly not through violence. At the center of the kingdom of God is a crucified savior, who died so that we could live, and surrendered his will so that the Father’s will could be fully expressed in his body.

The hard, but essential message for us this morning is that we don’t fully understand what God is up to right now. We don’t know the day or the hour. We don’t know if everything is going to be OK. In fact, we have reason to believe that things are going to be very hard.

But the good news of Jesus is that there is a day coming, when God will set things right. There is a day coming when Jesus will reign in glory and justice. There is a day coming when we will all be set free. And in the meantime, our calling is to stay awake and bear the cross with Jesus. To be instruments of God’s love to a world that is ripping itself apart – and may very well end up ripping us apart, too.

That’s what it means to stand with Jesus, to live in the kingdom of God: Bearing the despair and pain of the world. Staying awake and sober in the midst of a drunken and disorderly generation that has lost its way and its senses. Following the words and example of Jesus, we keep our lamps lit, so that we can be light for the world both now, and in the moment of maximum darkness that is to come.

We don’t know what’s coming. We don’t know when it will happen. But we do know that we serve a God who is trustworthy. Our God will transform us into the image of Jesus as we show his love to the world.

So don’t despair. Don’t give into fear. Don’t get sucked into the cycle of violence and propaganda. Center yourself in Jesus, and in this community, even as the hurricane rages. “And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.”