Watch Night

My Dear Shepherds,

In the rural church where I grew up we always “prayed in the new year” in a watchnight service. We’d gather around 9pm for games and food. As midnight approached we moved to the sanctuary where we’d kneel on the cold plank floor taking turns praying till the big hand moved past twelve. This custom was begun by John Wesley in 1740 as a Covenant Renewal Service.

A different strain of watchnight services began for African American churches on the night before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. They call it Freedom’s Eve.

Christians are meant to live in a watchnight frame of mind. Listen to what Jesus told us:

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. -Luke 12:35-36

Watching for Jesus is our pastoral duty. We’re expected to have the Master’s household ready to welcome him, to be sure no one’s lounging in sweats or taking the long night off. All the lights on. All hands on deck to welcome the Master back to his household.

This past, grueling year shows how fast catastrophes can engulf the world. Jesus warned that such cataclysmic events will become common as his return approaches. They are not the end times but they are not just any times either. Pastors remind God’s weary and anxious people, “Jesus is coming back soon! Let’s be sure we’re ready!”

When Jesus comes in glory no door will be closed to him. No one will sleep through the triumphal shout or the trumpets. So what does Jesus mean when he warns us to be ready to open the door to him?

Throughout Luke 12, Jesus taught his disciples that being prepared means we “publicly acknowledge him before others,” and that we stop pursuing “an abundance of possessions” or worrying about food or clothes, but rather to be “rich toward God. … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That is how we keep our people ready during this long night of watching.

But to prepare our church we must also remind them often, in full biblical detail, that Jesus will come back in glory. Pastors grace God’s people with the stories of what is yet to come. We keep their chins up, looking for Christ’s return. In this clinging and cloying world we urge them not to put down their roots.

I imagine a pastor being like an elderly uncle of refugee children. He often gathers them to himself and tells them stories of the homeland they have never seen. He tells them that on the day they go home they will be a beautiful bride coming down the aisle of the skies to meet her Bridegroom. The homeless children listen wide-eyed as he tells them that their homeland is a kingdom bright and righteous, where Life runs in the rivers and grows on trees. “Our King is the king of all kings,” says the uncle. “He rides a mighty charger and the armies of heaven follow Him. He knows your name and he himself is waiting to be with you.” The uncle tells these stories again and again because if he doesn’t the children will forget who they are and put down their stakes in Babylon. The challenge isn’t how to get them home. The King will take care of that. The uncle’s challenge is that he cannot let the King’s children forget their home. (The previous two paragraphs were taken from my book Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls [Moody Publishers, 2012], p. 147.)

Be ye glad!

Pastor Lee

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