Based on Habakkuk 2:1-5, 2Thessalonians 1:3-12, Luke 19:1-10
I have read many books that have something to do with the life upon the water, especially old-time sailing ships. Part of the description of the seafaring life was the need for the crew to “stand watch” or to keep the watch. Keeping watch meant to be assigned to certain duty station around the ship for a set period of time. These “watches” allowed a portion of the crew to keep the ship moving forward safely while others relaxed, ate, slept, etc. Watches were always in 4-hour intervals (except “dog” watches which were two hours to allow for eating dinner and to give an odd number of watch periods each 24 hours) broken into 30 minutes sections. At each 30-minute mark, a bell was rung to notify all the point in the watch. Thus, when 8 bells had been rung the watch was over and the current person gave a report on what occurred during their watch to the reliever. It is a serious breach of conduct to be found not attending to one’s assigned duties during a watch. Crew and boat safety were paramount and those found in dereliction of their watch duties were dealt with quite harshly.
We hear from scripture that we need to stay awake and keep watch. It is important to our spiritual journey that we pay attention to what is going on around us so that we don’t miss all that God is doing through the Holy Spirit. In our scripture readings for today the minor prophet Habakkuk speaks about watching and waiting for God’s answer to the complaints of the people. The second letter to the believers in Thessalonica speaks about the revelation of Jesus inflicting punishment on those who neither know God nor follow the gospel. Finally, we hear the story of the transformation of Zacchaeus who kept watch in a sycamore tree for Jesus. Let us go now to God in prayer asking for God’s help keeping watch…
In the opening of the second letter to the Thessalonians, the unknown writer is giving thanks for this persecuted flock’s continued faithfulness. The writer exhorts the believers to continue to keep watch for the coming retribution of God to those who afflict them. By keeping watch, the faithful will have Jesus revealed to them as He comes to vindicate his people and punish those who do not know Him or follow His gospel. In these early days, it was important for all the new communities of faith to stay strong in the face of persecution and to keep watch for Jesus, who was coming back any day.
The minor prophet Habakkuk has been raising a complaint to God through the first chapter of the book. Here in the second chapter, the prophet stops complaining and decides to keep watch, listen and wait for God to answer. God does answer and tells the prophet to write down God’s vision in letters large enough for a runner to read. The vision of God’s preferred future will indeed come, though it might take longer than humans expect – God says, “it will surely come”. Keeping watch in faith will bring the people of God the vision of God.
Zacchaeus is short of stature and the crowd gathered to see and hear Jesus is very large. Zacchaeus’ spirit is moved to do something out of the ordinary – he climbs a sycamore tree in order to keep watch for Jesus. His resourceful watching was rewarded by a meal at his house with Jesus. Zacchaeus’ spirit was moved again (like the tax collector from last week’s parable) to announce publicly what everyone already knew – that he was a sinner in need of redemption. He was saved by his willingness to admit his sins and to make reparations to all that he had wronged. Zacchaeus kept watch long enough to have the glory of God revealed to him and to find his salvation.
Keeping watch requires a bit of self-discipline and dedication to duty. I think that all of us, whether or not we have ever stood a watch on a military base or on a ship, understand that paying attention to the job and to the protection of ourselves and those affected by our watching is important and necessary. How do you understand the concept of keeping watch for your spiritual journeys? Have you ever considered the spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, study, sharing of Holy Communion, fasting, etc, to be your mechanism of watchful waiting while we all anticipate the second coming of the Christ? Turns out that consistently practicing the spiritual disciplines, John Wesley’s “means of grace”, prepares us to be awake and alert to the movement of the Spirit that will signal the revelation of the Christ when He returns. It is important for us to develop our ability to keep watch (to paraphrase the text from 2Thessalonians) so that when He is revealed from heaven and is glorified by His saints – we can marvel with all the other believers who through faith have been brought to that magnificent day.
Keeping watch on our spiritual lives and growth pays other, more immediate dividends as well. When we practice our spiritual disciplines both as individuals and as a faith community, we find that our imaginations are stimulated so that we can see things that are happening around us as activities of God through the Holy Spirit. While we still pay attention to the things around us that stimulate our five senses, we also become more aware of that which moves in ways that we can only acknowledge as mystery. Those movements that exist beyond our ability to describe yet contain so much energy and purpose that there is no denying their existence.
This is what God is saying to Habakkuk, in answer to the prophet keeping watch and expecting God’s response to his complaints. God tells the prophet to write the vision of God in letters large enough to be seen by a runner. When we spend time keeping watch with God’s inspired word, then we began to see how God has revealed God’s-self to all believers in all times. We begin to get a sense of what Karl Barth named the “strange new world of the Bible”, and how that world directly affects what happens in our world. Just one example of this is how God chose a man of no special means, Abraham, to become the father of un-numbered generations of believers across three religions. By keeping watch and attending to our spiritual disciplines, we come to understand that Jesus is the FINAL revelation of God to God’s people. We come to understand that though the appointed time for God’s vision for us has seemed to tarry, we need not doubt that it will ultimately be fulfilled as promised.
In a world that moves ever more swiftly and overwhelms us with ever more data, there is a peace and a wisdom that can only come from waiting expectantly and keeping watch. Keeping watch and caring for our spiritual health will point out our sins and help us find ways to seek forgiveness and redemption – offering us opportunities to make reparation for harm that we have done. Like Zacchaeus and Habakkuk, keeping watch will open us up to the vision that God has for all of us to grow into the mind of Jesus and in this way find our salvation. On this “All Saints” Sunday, let us remember all those who have kept the watch with us and for us and enabled us to take our turn at our post. May we all be blessed by God’s vision through the spiritual discipline of keeping watch! Amen and amen!