By the Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Advent 1, Year B
December 3, 2023
Key verse: “And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.” ~ Mark 13:37
My fellow preachers, a first read of Mark 13:24-37 leads me to the same conclusion as that drawn by Rev. Dr. Timothy L. Adkins-Jones in his recent commentary of this text: “I’m confused.” To be sure, when it comes to this text, there is no shortage of perplexing questions. For starters, what are we talking about here: Jesus’ birth or Jesus’ second coming?
As a Lectionary passage for the first Sunday in Advent, it would seem we should approach the text in anticipation of Jesus’ birth. Then again, when Jesus himself speaks these words, he seems to be referring to the end times. For another thing, supposing this is about Jesus’ second coming, the text has conflicting ideas about what signs will precede this: should we be on the lookout for angels, or a particularly windy day, or a fig tree about to bloom? Or, should we be on the lookout for nothing at all because, as Jesus asserts, we cannot know when he will return?
And, maybe the most relevant question of all: at the beginning of Advent, one of the busiest, most frantic, stressful times of year, how do we, as preachers, deliver sermons on this text that will enable our congregations to hone in on their faith? Advent is a time of preparation but, in the midst of everything that consumes us and divides our attention, it is so easy to miss just what it is we wait for. How can we effectively preach from Mark 13:24-37 so that it becomes the wake-up call it is intended to be? How do we become effective stewards of the waiting this season requires of us?
Here are some ideas as to how we might use Mark 13:24-37 to encourage our congregants to embrace Advent’s waiting game:
- Explore how Christmas has become predictable in so many ways. It does not inspire the same shock and awe that would have been experienced by those who lived through the first Christmas. However, because our text paints a portrait of what Jesus’ second coming might be like, we can place ourselves in the shoes of those who waited for him when he first came. Why do your congregants hope Jesus will return? What would it mean to them for him to return?
- The text gives numerous signs to look for with regard to Jesus’ second coming. Encourage your congregants to pay attention to the signs they see of Jesus’ presence around them, in the here and now. In Advent, where do they see Jesus alive and active in their lives, their community, and the world at large?
- The text ends with the instruction “keep awake.” There is no doubt our congregants are awake in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But, what is keeping them awake? Most likely, it is not their joyous anticipation of Jesus’ return to earth. It is much more probable that what consumes their waking hours are the preoccupations of their daily lives, magnified by this hectic time of year. Explore with your congregants how they can keep awake with regard to faith, becoming attuned to how Jesus is coming into our world.
I once knew an organist who, on Christmas Eve, would passionately play “Silent Night” as the congregation lit candles to share the light of Christ. The thing was, the musician always began by playing extremely loudly. It was jarring, to listen to this soft, gentle hymn being played as loud as possible. But, as the hymn continued his playing would become progressively softer until, at long last, his last notes would be still and quiet. My fellow preachers, at the start of Advent may our sermons lead our congregants from the jarring preoccupations of their lives to the soft, still voice of our Savior. I pray our words will enable them to wait faithfully, with hope and joy. Because, however imperceptibly, we are inching toward that time when Jesus will return in all his glory.
Ask your congregation what Christmas hymns they enjoy singing. Do they have a favorite? If so, invite them to introspect on why it is their favorite. Is it the tune? The lyrics? How does it make them feel? By exploring the Christmas hymns they love, your congregants might be able to better identify what it is they look forward to at Christmas, and the deeper meaning Christmas holds for them. They could even listen a Christmas hymn they love consistently through Advent, as a spiritual discipline to prepare for Jesus’s birth.
Worship with Youth
Invite youth to consider a time they had to wait for something. What was it? How did it make them feel to wait? Did they learn anything from the experience? Talk with them about how Advent is a time of waiting. But, it’s not passive waiting… it’s hopeful and active. How does the promise of Jesus’ birth change their lives and our world?
Invite them to consider what Jesus means to them and what they hope for when they anticipate his birth.
Worship with Children
Like the rest of us, children are often preoccupied in the weeks leading up to Christmas. There’s so much excitement, and that’s not a negative thing. Still, amidst the decorations, cookies, and promise of presents, it’s important to encourage kids to also focus on Jesus. This could be as simple as asking them each evening where they saw Jesus that day. Or, it might be helpful to use an Advent calendar with scripture verses or a children’s Advent devotional book. Along with grown-ups, children need consistent reminders of who it is we’re waiting for in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
 Timothy L. Adkins-Jones, “Commentary on Mark 13:24-37,” Working Preacher, December 3, 2023, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-mark-1324-37-6.
Here are previous reflections for Advent 1, Year B:
2020 – A very Covid Advent: From formless to faithful
2017 – Advent: Wake, wide awake, and woke
2014 – Stewards of Advent time: Awake
2011 – Advent: A time for re-forming