We have a packed set of readings on this first Sunday of Advent! There is plenty of drama to attract our attention just in the Gospel reading. But the line that keeps coming back to me is deceptively simple: “Keep awake.” Paul says the same thing in our passage from Romans: “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
This is another of those challenging lines for me. Despite Jesus’ advice, I am definitely not one to stay awake just in case a thief plans to break into my house. I figure our stuff isn’t that nice anyway. I didn’t even stay awake when my children went out for the evening back in their high school days. I always figured I would wake up in the middle of the night anyway, and I could check on them then.
My commitment to sleep is a longstanding joke in my family. Years ago, one of my children gave me a refrigerator magnet with a picture of a sloth sleeping on a tree branch. The caption reads: “I work out. Just kidding. I take naps.” That is my children’s image of me.
So, I have struggled this week to discover the good news hidden in Christ’s command to keep awake. But good news is there, even for someone like me who tends to value sleep more than being awake!
First, Christ tells us to keep awake so that we can be safe in the face of the genuine perils around us.
I think about long afternoon drives. My energy dips around 3:00 or so. When I am driving home on a Sunday about that time, I always get a little sleepy. My car has the irritating feature of beeping whenever I drift across a lane line. But on those afternoon drives, I am grateful for that feature, and also for the bumps in the shoulder along the highway. If my attention fades, the beeps and bumps jolt me back into alertness, and I need that.
On those occasions, I imagine Jesus whispering in my ear, “Keep awake, Harvey. I tell you this for your own good.”
Of course, that helpful reminder to keep awake is bigger than afternoon drives. I imagine Jesus warning us more generally not to sleepwalk through life, not to always stick with our routines just because they are familiar, but to be aware of the challenges of our time.
We can think about those challenges at every level from the global to the very personal. Climate change, and war in Ukraine, and global energy supplies. Political alienation and dysfunction in our own country. Anger and suspicion even among the people we know. Stagnation at Church. Worrisome symptoms in our own bodies. The list goes on. Things we should attend to, but that it is often easier to ignore. To help us attend to them, Jesus whispers, “Keep awake.”
But Jesus surely means more than to warn us about potential troubles. To go a little deeper, another image can help. I have told this story in a sermon before, but it remains a touchstone for me.
Years ago, I went backpacking in Virginia with a friend. It was a long trip for us, and about two thirds of the way through, we were both wearing down in our different ways.
My friend’s stomach was bothering him enough that it wasn’t clear he would be able to finish the trip. The trail we were on went through a little town, and we stopped at Dairy Queen. My friend ordered a chili cheese dog, onion rings, and a large soda. I suggested he rethink his order in light of his digestive issues. He stuck with his order, and I feared we were on the road to disaster. That didn’t help my spirits.
Coming out of the little town after lunch, we had a long, steep climb. I was worried. I was tired. I was in a foul humor. Then it started to rain, which I hate.
So, there I am, plodding along, in misery on a trip that I was supposedly doing for fun. Because of the rain, my hood was up. My glasses were fogged. My head was down.
And all of a sudden, I saw a large black snake lying across the trail, right at my feet.
Two things happened almost immediately. In my head, I think to myself, Black Snakes are not venomous. It’s wet and chilly, which means this particular snake is very sluggish. I am in no danger. That was in my head.
The rest of me thought, “THERE’S A SNAKE! AT MT FEET!” My blood was pumping. Adrenaline surged through my body. I instantly went from pretty sluggish myself to wide awake.
I don’t remember how I got past the snake. What I do remember is how my mood was transformed. The shock of seeing the snake snapped me out of my foul humor. It opened me up to the admittedly weird pleasures of hiking up a mountain in the rain. I caught up to my friend, who was doing great despite his chili cheese dog. The rest of our trip was great.
Seeing that snake snapped me out of a bad place. It woke me up to the good things around me at a time when I had lost sight of them.
I think Jesus means something like my experience with the snake when he tells us to keep awake. We do need to be awake to the changes and challenges of our time. But perhaps even more, we need to be awake to the beauty and joy of life, and to the hand of God at work all around us all the time.
Last week, we celebrated Christ the King Sunday with the story of Jesus on the cross. In my sermon, I said that Jesus’ death on the cross was horrible, but it was also the moment of God’s victory over the forces of evil. The invitation and the challenge of that day is to see the love of God even in something as awful as crucifixion.
Sometimes fear and horror threaten to overwhelm us, and I imagine Jesus whispering to us, “Keep awake to the presence of God. Keep awake to my love and support. Keep awake to the possibility of joy even in the worst of times. Keep awake.”
I think particularly about Saint David’s, as we try to be faithful in a rapidly changing time, with new challenges and also with new opportunities. And I imagine Jesus whispering to us, “Things are happening. And sometimes it will be hard. But the Holy Spirit is at work. Pay attention. Keep awake.”
Advent is a season for us to ponder the coming of Christ two thousand years ago and to anticipate in hope the coming of Christ to establish God’s kingdom in all its power and goodness at some point in the future. Along the way, we need to keep awake to Christ with us now.
That’s why I think Christ’s advice to us to keep awake could be the motto for this season. Keep awake to the perils. Even more, keep awake to the signs of God’s presence and God’s victory.
And so, as we enter into this Advent season, I invite you to spend some time consciously practicing your awareness of God’s presence all around you. And I make that invitation in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan