24‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then 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.
28‘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. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
Experts say that the average adult needs somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Sleep deprivation over a period of time can negatively impact motor skills, cognition, heart health, mental health, sex drive, judgment, and memory. And yet our pericope ends with Jesus’ command to “Keep awake” (Mark 13:37).
In recent weeks, I have become increasingly aware of how much of a privilege sleep really is. In my middle-class existence there are plenty of demands on me that can take away from sleep—restless children, dirty dishes, a nagging assignment for work. And yet, to a certain extent, my response to any of these demands is a matter of lifestyle choices.
On the other hand, there are people for whom the need to make a living wage requires working two or three jobs, cutting into their time to sleep. And there are people who have no place to sleep and, particularly in these winter months, are hard pressed to carve out even two or three good hours of sleep, let alone an uninterrupted seven to nine.
In Jesus’ day economic class and status affected sleep patterns in similar ways. Notice that in the parable it is the slaves and the doorkeeper who are commanded to stay awake (Mark 13:34). Their existence is subjected to the whims of the master’s return.
Household slaves were expected to be awake first to prepare breakfast for their master and were the last to go to sleep, making sure the house was in proper order before they slept. Field laborers were expected to be out and at work at the crack of dawn and day laborers were most likely to be hired and receive a fair wage the earlier they arrived at the marketplace to seek work (cf. Matthew 20:1-16).
So is the Kingdom of God a privilege for the wealthy? Something that only those of us who have enough sleep to “spare” can afford to wait upon awake and alert? I don’t think so.
In this parable, as he does throughout much of the rest of Mark, Jesus is leveling the playing field. In the kingdoms of this world, the wealthy may have the advantage—a nice place to sleep, well-rested bodies, and all that goes along with this—but in God’s Kingdom each person is given the same knowledge. To demands to be in the “know”, to be placed among the discipleship elite through their ability to predict and anticipate Christ’s return, Jesus responds, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).
When Jesus himself—the very one who is coming—does not know the day or the hour, the privilege and power that comes with such insider information is dismantled. Not knowing when the master will return, the wealthy could send their slaves to watch for the master’s return, but the result would be that the slaves receive the Kingdom rather than the masters. The wealthy could choose themselves to take on the burden of sleep deprivation in anticipation of the Kingdom, but the result would be a failure to be “alert” as Jesus first commands (Mark 13:33).
In Matthew’s parable of the lanterns, regardless of their wealth or relative intelligence or preparedness of the occasion, all ten maidens fall asleep (Matthew 25:5). What determines the maidens’ individual reception is not whether or not they are awake, but rather their presence when the bridegroom arrives.
In response to Mark 13, the truth is that although we do not all have equal access to sleep, we all must sleep. The question is—what do we do when we’re awake?
Do we waste our energy competing? Predicting? Trying to guess the time when Jesus will return? Trying to be the “best” or the “most ready” for his coming? Or do we remain alert? Alert to the people and the needs around us. Indeed, alert to the presence of the “Son of Man” (Mark 13:26) in our midst.
Perhaps the signs that the Son of Man is near will neither be brilliant nor frightening natural phenomena, but rather the care and acceptance of one of God’s children for another. Perhaps the day that is coming is one in which all of God’s people do have access to a full night’s sleep so that when we respond to Christ’s coming we might all be alert and awake. Might this shift in the economics of our world itself be “the powers in the heavens” shaking?
Perhaps the kind of wakefulness that Christ is calling us to in anticipation of his coming is a wakefulness to the urgent cries and needs of one another. Perhaps Christ is calling us to truly recognize one another before we will be able to recognize God in our midst.
To this command I can do none other than reply with the ancient Advent prayer: Come Lord Jesus, Come.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.