Listening to Jesus About Watchfulness

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 13:33

Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.

Mark 13:33 rsv

Have you ever noticed how much Jesus says about watchfulness? Whenever He teaches His disciples about the end of the age, about His final return to earth, He always calls them to be on the lookout, to remain vigilant. Listen to these words from Mark, chapter 13, beginning at verse 33:

“Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (rsv).

We notice in those words the call to vigilance, to expectation, to responsibility. But the basic challenge Jesus is giving to His people in each is that they stay awake.


Why? He says, “because you do not know when the time will come.” The Lord has just told them something remarkable, “Of that day or that hour,” He says, “no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” No one knows the exact time of Jesus’ return to earth. Not even the angels that attend upon God’s throne know this. Beyond that, not even the blessed One, the well-beloved Son, knows the day and the hour. Only the Father. Since there is, then, this absolute uncertainty about the time, people are always to be on the alert.

Jesus says further, “Watch, because the master who has given you your task will come for a reckoning.” This is the motif in many of our Lord’s parables. The ruler of the household goes away for a time, leaving His servants in charge. At a moment none of them can predict, He will come back and they will need to give an account of their stewardship.

The whole mood of the passage says this also, doesn’t it: stay awake people of the Lord, because it would be tragic, if after He had appointed you to watch, He came and found you dull, drowsy and unprepared.


Who is included in this challenge to wakefulness? Jesus tells a little one-verse parable in which apparently it is one person who has that responsibility. He says, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” Here it’s the doorkeeper, the one who stands by the entrance. It will be to the door that the Master comes at the critical moment. The doorkeeper will need to be on the job, remaining alert, ready to welcome back his Lord.

The doorkeeper is like the watchmen on the walls of a city. They are especially appointed by their fellow citizens for the task of watching. During their shift, it is of the utmost importance that they remain vigilant. The most acute and perilous failure for a watchman is that he should go asleep on the job.

But though these images suggest that the assignment is given to particular individuals, Jesus goes on to correct any false impression that might be gained. Listen to His closing words, “And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.” He means, then, the four to whom He’s just been speaking, Peter and James and John and Andrew. He means the rest of the twelve. He means all the believers in Rome to whom Mark is later writing. He means the whole church, throughout this present age until the final day. No believer is exempt from this assignment. Whatever our particular task and wherever we live and work, we are all called to be like doorkeepers, like watchmen on the wall. We all serve under the one great imperative – stay awake!


What does Jesus mean by that? How can His followers stay awake all the time? He surely doesn’t expect that His servants will never sleep. In Gethsemane He found that even His most trusted followers couldn’t keep their eyes open for one hour. Not only fatigue, but also sorrow and depression had made their eyelids heavy. We obviously cannot be vigilant through all the hours of every night. We cannot stay at any post of service around the clock. Staying awake must have a deeper meaning than perpetual sleeplessness.

The Lord of love is not a tyrant, demanding of His servants the impossible. He doesn’t expect us to keep our eyes open when our bodies are exhausted, our minds weary and everything in us craves for rest. Sleep is His creation, His beautiful gift. Shakespeare celebrates it as that which “knits the raveled sleeve of care, nature’s balm for wounds of day.”

But God does require of us that in our waking hours, when we are not sound asleep in our beds, we are to be not only conscious but fully awake. It’s possible to be dull and drowsy in the middle of the day, to be in a fog, as we say, even while the sun is shining brightly. It’s possible to go through life without being in touch with the realities of God and His kingdom, without being intensely aware of what’s going on around us. Jesus wants His people so wide awake, so alert to what’s happening, that they’ll be ready for everything that comes to them, and most of all, ready for His return. How can His followers learn to live in that way?

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives three parables that describe the dimensions of watchfulness. The first is about the ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. “Five were foolish,” we read, “and five were wise.” Five were morally and spiritually alert. The other five were, as it were, “walking in their sleep.”

When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, `Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, `No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, `Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, `Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (vv. 3-13, nrsv).

Here, watching or staying awake means making sure that our faith is not counterfeit, not an imaginary thing that at the last crisis will disappear. It has to be a faith fed by fellowship with God Himself, that will make us ready to meet the Lord and take our places with Him. That’s staying awake – being sure that you have oil in your lamp, as it were, that you are filled with the Spirit, alive with His life, that by listening and praying you stay in vital touch with the Lord.

The second parable is about the talents. Jesus says,

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’ (vv. 14-29).

Here, staying awake, being watchful, means using the time that remains before Jesus’ coming in a truly profitable way. It means using the abilities we have, investing the gospel He has entrusted to us and seeing His kingdom grow. Staying awake means being about our Master’s business, winning others to Him. To stay asleep, on the other hand, is not to trust our Master, not to heed His word, and to neglect priceless opportunities in His service.

The third parable is the very familiar one about the Son of Man sitting on the throne of His glory and all the nations gathered before Him.

. . . he will separate people from one another [says Jesus] as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, `Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (vv. 32-40).

Those on the left, on the other hand, are those who saw Jesus’ brethren in all their extremities of need and did not minister to them. The king will say to them:

`You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’ (vv. 41-45).

The first parable speaks about alertness in our relationship to God, living in conscious dependence on Him, filled with His Spirit. The second speaks about a keen awareness of our stewardship, our responsibility to the Lord for everything we have and all the opportunities He gives us. This third one speaks of a readiness to recognize Jesus in the little people, in the least of those who belong to His family. Staying awake, then, means more than expecting Jesus to come back at the end of the age. It means a sensitivity to His intermediate comings, when He presents Himself to us in the persons of the least of His brethren.

It’s possible, when we see people in anguish and need, to view them only as statistics, to feel no empathy with them. Or it’s possible to feel their wants and hurts in our own hearts, to know our kinship with their humanness and their suffering, and to see in their faces glimpses of the Lord of glory. That to Jesus is what it means to stay awake.

Where do we stand in all of this? What about you? What about me? Are you renewing your fellowship with Christ each day so that your lamp stays full of oil and you’re ready for Him to come? Are you using the days, the contacts, the opportunities of your every-day life to serve Him and bear witness to His name, to win others to Him? And are you treating people, especially the struggling, suffering ones, as you would treat Jesus if you saw Him in need? Why, friends, if those things are true, it doesn’t matter how many hours you sleep at night or even whether or not you take a nap in the daytime. If you live in that way, you are really staying awake and you’ll be ready to meet the Lord when He comes. May it be so for you, for me, for all of us. For Jesus’ sake.