24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and 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.”
That’s one way to summarize the last lecture of Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Pausch delivered his final lecture in September 2007, after he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He showed a love of life and an approach to death that many people have found inspiring, and his lecture has turned into a phenomenon, viewed by millions on television and on the Internet. He went on to write a best-selling book with columnist Jeffrey Zaslow titled The Last Lecture, a book about love, courage and saying goodbye.
On Friday, July 25, 2008, Pausch succumbed to cancer at the age of 47.
He expected maybe 150 people to attend his last lecture. After all, it was a warm September day, and he assumed that people would have better things to do than attend a final lesson from a dying computer science professor in his 40s. He bet a friend $50 that he would never fill the 400-seat auditorium.
Well, Pausch lost that bet. The room was packed, and when he arrived on stage, he received a standing ovation. He motioned the audience of students and colleagues to sit down. “Make me earn it,” he said.
According to columnist Zaslow of The Wall Street Journal (May 3, 2008, and September 20, 2007), Randy hardly mentioned his cancer in the course of his 70-minute lecture. Instead, he took everyone on a rollicking and riveting journey through the lessons of his life. He talked about the importance of childhood dreams, and the stamina needed to overcome obstacles. “Brick walls are there for a reason,” he insisted, showing slides of the rejection letters he had received over the years. “They let us prove how badly we want things.”
He pushed his audience to show patience toward others, saying, “Wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you.” He celebrated his mentors and his students with an open heart, and revealed the depth of his love for his family.
Giving a nod to his techie background, Randy showed good humor. “I’ve experienced a deathbed conversion,” he said with a smile. “I just bought a Macintosh.” And wanting to show the crowd that he wasn’t ready to kick the bucket, he dropped to the floor and did one-handed push-ups.
Keep awake. That’s what Randy seemed to be saying as he invited his audience to rethink their ambitions and find new ways to look at other people’s flaws and abilities. Keep awake to what is truly important in life. After showing pictures of his childhood bedroom, marked up with mathematical notations he had drawn on the walls, he said, “If your kids want to paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let ’em do it.”
Keep awake to what really matters. In this case it’s children — not bedroom walls.
After the lecture, Randy’s only plan was to spend his remaining days with his family. But a video of his talk began to spread like a virus across the Web. Randy was soon receiving e-mails from people around the world, telling him that his lecture had inspired them to spend more time with loved ones, quit pitying themselves, and even resist suicidal urges. Terminally ill people were inspired to embrace their own goodbyes, and have fun with every day they had left.
His last lecture really woke people up.
Then Randy gave part of his talk on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and ABC News named him one of its three “Persons of the Year.” People urged him to write a book, which he resisted at first, since he wanted to spend time with his family. But since he needed to exercise, and had to be alone as he rode his bike, he began to use his daily rides as a time to reflect on his lecture, his life and his dreams for his family.
And so, for an hour each day, he would talk to columnist Zaslow through a cell-phone headset, and over the course of 53 long bike rides he shared the insights that became the book called The Last Lecture.
Keep awake. That’s what Randy Pausch says to us, and what Jesus says as well.
The Last Lecture of Jesus Christ, given to the disciples only hours from his execution, is found in today’s reading, Mark 13. Of course it wasn’t a lecture and he wasn’t in a classroom, although, in those days, “classrooms” and “lectures” were rare. Conversations on a walk were more the rule perhaps.
Still, it’s not a stretch to think of these words of Jesus as his last thoughts, his last “lecture” in which he challenges the disciples to keep awake for his second coming, an earth-shaking event which will occur at an undetermined time after his death, resurrection and ascension. He promises that he will return as the Son of Man, coming in clouds with “great power and glory” to gather his people from the ends of the earth, and bring them into his kingdom (Mark 13:26-27). The danger is that the disciples will miss what really matters, distracted by the many assorted demands and details of day-to-day life. So Jesus says to them, “Keep awake” (v. 37).
We face the same challenge as we enter the season of Advent, and begin our march through the wild weeks of decorating, shopping, partying and concert-attending that lie ahead. Jesus is going to be coming to us soon — maybe not in an earth-shaking second coming, but in a personal arrival that’s every bit as important to each one of us. He’ll be coming to speak to us in words of Scripture that have eternal power —“Heaven and earth will pass away,” says Jesus, “but my words will not pass away” (v. 31). He’ll be coming to gather his people into a community that knows his everlasting salvation, a community stretching “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (v. 27). He’ll be coming to see if we are alert and ready for his arrival, living in a way that is focused on his will and his way.
The challenge for us is to “keep awake” — awake for the coming of the Lord during this Advent season.
So how do we do this? We begin by listening carefully to the words of Jesus, words that can be hard to hear in the middle of the noise of the holidays. Randy Pausch took time to leave specific words of advice for his children, saying, “If I could give three words of advice, they would be, ‘Tell the truth.’ If I got three more words, I’d add, ‘All the time.’”
These are good words, but even better are the words of Jesus. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). We are called to self-denial, even in this season of rich foods and expensive gifts. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” says Jesus (9:35). Glory and power are to be found in service to others, even as we focus on the fun and festivity of the holidays. “Truly I tell you,” promises Jesus, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (10:15). This emphasis on childlike faith is an important antidote to the ever-increasing complexity of this season, in which we always seem to schedule more, do more, try more, buy more.
Receive Jesus, with childlike faith. In a very few words, that’s what Advent is all about.
It’s also important for us to remain connected to the community that Jesus intends to gather when he returns. Christian faith is a team sport, not an individual activity, so it’s critically important for us to continue to get together for worship, service, fellowship and fun. We have lots of opportunities to get together for learning, fellowship and service in the coming weeks.
In an over-scheduled holiday season, it’s tempting to skip worship and head to the mall, or choose a special concert over a routine small group meeting.
Remain steadfast, in community. That’s the best position to be in, if you want to meet Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us.
Finally, it’s important for us to be alert and ready for his arrival, living in a way that is in line with Christ’s will and way. “I am maintaining my clear-eyed sense of the inevitable,” says Randy Pausch. “I’m living like I’m dying. But at the same time, I’m very much living like I’m still living.”
Randy was wide awake, with a clear-eyed sense of the inevitable. We should be the same, living every day as though it were our last day on earth, doing our best to trust Jesus and love God and neighbor. Fact is, we don’t know when our lives will end, just as we don’t know the timing of Christ’s second coming. The best approach is to be alert to Christ’s will, living each day with faith and love and a spirit of service.
“What I say to you I say to all,” says Jesus: “Keep awake” (v. 37). These words come to us from the Last Lecture of Jesus Christ, like a message in a bottle that has traveled through the centuries to remind us of what really matters.
How to prepare for Advent? Receive Jesus, with childlike faith. Remain connected, in community. Live every day as though it were your last day on earth, in line with Christ’s will and way. Rest in hope.
Hope, you say? Hope. Unwavering, courageous hope. An unquenchable and undiminished hope. Oh we’ll be ready, as we journey towards the baby in the manger, the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, we’re going to be HOPE sharers. Each one of us needs to be a little hope beacon. We live in a hurting world that needs HOPE all the more. I don’t have to tell y’all this because you know it: the reality, the statistics, the gluttony of both food and stuff. It reminds me of a quote by Archbishop Oscar Romero, “I also try to live these four weeks of Advent, this time of preparation for the Nativity, with an attitude of joyful hope and at the same time try to clothe myself in the virtues that the Word of God highlights: first, poverty and hunger for God, second, vigilance and faith; third, Christian presence and action in the world.”
We’re a people of hope. The South Carolina motto is Dum spiro spero, “While I breathe, I hope” and the people of Christ should be radiating the hope that comes from knowing that God will never leave nor forsake us. If we have hope built on nothing less than Christ’s abundant grace, salvation, and righteousness, it will see us through whenever Jesus returns. We do need to keep alert, living our faith out loud every day, being agents of hope as well as agents of change bringing God’s kingdom to earth. It can happen and it will happen. No matter our earthly circumstance.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 says this, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
Whether we’re Black Friday shoppers or had our Christmas presents wrapped in July, we’re grieving and hurting or joyous, high on the mountain top, God goes with us every step of the way, and that is the Good News. Giving us the hope we need at the time when we most need it. Even if it doesn’t look like it, even if all seems lost, there’s always HOPE. May we continue to come toward, to draw near the hope of Jesus as we journey through this Advent season and may we KEEP AWAKE to God’s wonders anew and afresh for us this day!
- Preached on Sunday, November 27th.