All Along the Watchtower

Jesus said to his disciples:
"Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch’”
(Mark 13:33-37)

Practically, the advice to “be alert” or “watch” gets a little boring, especially when there is an indeterminate period in which you are supposed to be alert and watch.  How long do you watch? How long should you be alert? All along the watchtower, even watchmen, whose very task is to watch and be alert, get spelled off after some hours on the job. It is the reality that alertness flags for all of us. How do you watch without end and remain alert?

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Preparation for the parousia, or arrival, of a Roman emperor would certainly have meant readying the streets, monuments, banquets and people of the city at which he would arrive. This time of waiting and anticipation might be extended by a late arrival, but the end was in sight. There would be no interminable watching, waiting, preparation, anticipation. The Arrival would occur and the watch would come to an end, with daily life returning to normal.

More than this, what does it actually mean to be alert and to watch in the context of Jesus’ parousia (Greek) or adventus (Latin)? I know what it means to watch for an enemy at the gates – though I think of it more in Monty Python and the Holy Grail terms, rife with French mockery – or to keep awake for a period of time to take in information, play a game, wait for your in-laws or care for a child. But what does “watch” actually mean in the context of Jesus’ coming?

It is the transformation of what it means to “watch” that makes the ancient concept of the King’s parousia applicable to Jesus’ coming even as it is packaged with a sense of unending “alertness.” Jesus speaks of his disciples “each with their own work” in preparation for his coming. Watchfulness is coupled with the vocation each of us have. It goes, however, beyond even our faithfulness to our own tasks.

Paul says that God himself has been active in the preparation of those who yearn for the parousia of the King, for God’s grace has been “bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you,so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 3:1-9). It is God himself who has been faithful to us as we have been, and are being prepared, for his coming.

As we wait for Christ’s coming, we are asked to remain faithful to the life we have been given – to watch is to live – and are reminded by Paul that to prepare is to allow ourselves to be prepared by the one who’s coming we await: he will enrich us; we lack no spiritual gift; we will be firm until the end; irreproachable on the day of his adventus. We watch and are alert by allowing ourselves to be transformed day by day in the life we have been given.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
richard benitez
5 years 10 months ago
John Martens > I can see you always write of the biblical end times. you're very good at this. i always read your comments, but i don't like considering traditional after life things, end-of-times, second-coming, ''be watchful. be awake'' issues. I can see that ''Be watchful, be awake'' is an exhortation to sustain faith and practice but i get a stomach churning, sickening reaction to such stuff because of my exposure over a lifetime of bad preaching and ugly christainity (as in those predestined) on these issues. I read your comments in hope of unraveling and relearning. I do have my own after life, end of times, watchful issues after 9 years as a practicing buddhist. I must say my own faith is not one of tight boxes and sharp corners. eschatological topics pop up at advent, but I try to remind myself that the original message to the primative christian and jewish community is different than what it is today.      

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