A sermon I delivered at Briercrest Seminary Chapel – December 2, 2010
Today we celebrate the first week of the Church year—Advent. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin, meaning, “coming.” Advent is that time of year when we reflect upon the wonder of the Son of God, born of a Virgin, and laid in a manager. It is that time of year when we pause to think deeply upon the extraordinary wonder of Immanuel, God with us.
The church historic has understood that Advent is preceded in the Christian calendar by a time which is called “ordinary time.” In the Christian year, there are two periods of “ordinary” time: The first is the time between Epiphany and Lent (which is preparatory to Easter); the second is the time between Pentecost and Advent. We have just come out of the second of these two “ordinary times.” For us, these “ordinary times” represent the time during which we seek to live out our discipleship in the ordinary, every-day existence of work, rest, and witness to God through our word and deeds. As Jesus went about doing his work, so, too, do we.
But ordinary time gives way to extraordinary time, which in the Christian year is focused around two events: Christmas and Easter. Since the Christian calendar is structured around the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, it is interesting to note that in the moments leading up to Christmas and Easter, the Gospels record incidents in which “sleep” comes immediately before these extraordinary times.
First, there is the time of Joseph. In one of the passages we read this morning from Matt 1, Joseph was spoken to in his sleep by the angel of the Lord. But note most importantly what the Gospel says: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matt 1:24). But this happened a second time, and in Matthew 2, we hear once again about how Joseph was spoken to by the angel of the Lord, commanding Joseph to take the child and his mother to Israel, after which we read, “And Joseph got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.”
In this regard, we could think of Joseph as a positive example of what it means to enter this extraordinary season of Advent. For though he slept, he was awakened by God. And he obeyed.
But there is a second time where “sleep” precedes extraordinary time as well. This time it is the disciples of Jesus, who were commanded to sit in alertness while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (Matt 26). Three times, Jesus came back, only to find them asleep. And Jesus chastises them by saying, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near!” (Matt 26:45)
In this regard, we could think of the disciples in Gethsemane a negative example of what not to do on the verge of an extraordinary time: Keep sleeping and be in danger of missing what the Lord is doing!
So where is this all going? My thesis this morning is simple: The kind of anticipation and expectation which Advent encourages can be understood as a time of “Wakefulness.”
Turn to Ephesians 5:8-16.
In most of your Bibles, vs. 14b is probably set off as poetry. Most commentators think this verse was probably some kind of early Christian hymn. Whatever the case, it seems evident that Paul uses this verse as main central point of this passage, around which everything else revolves. In v. 8-14a, he makes it very clear: though we were once in darkness, we are now children of the light. And v. 14b gives us this insight: Whatever else you might want to think about what it means to be children of light, never forget that it is the coming of Jesus and his command to us to “Wake up!” by which this has all been accomplished!
So what does it mean to be “being awakened to the light”? What does it mean, as we enter this Advent season, to be “wakeful”? Can we understand why this idea of “wakefulness” is so important?
Wakefulness. It is a strange idea, isn’t it? It’s not something we think about all too often, probably because as we move throughout our day-to-day lives, wakefulness is a fundamental presupposition. To do anything is to be awake. So, if we ever do think about “wakefulness,” we probably tend to think about it as nothing other than “not being asleep.”
But that, I believe, would be taking the concept here a bit too lightly. For after all, Paul is here addressing those who are already awake, is he not? Are these people not already awake, alert to the light? Yes, they are. And we are. But let me argue today that it is possible to be in the mid-day light of the sun, and even “conscious” to the world around us, but still lacking in “wakefulness.” Is there not a sense in which we sometimes move about and “do our thing,” physically “awake” and yet “spiritually asleep”? Perhaps a little incident that happened to me might help to illustrate.
A few weeks ago, I had an unusual experience. It was somewhere around 3 AM, and I was in bed and sound asleep. With the clarity as if it just happened, I remember hearing a deep voice simply say, “David.” It wasn’t a shout or even an unusual voice, but I couldn’t recognize whose voice it was. Whatever the case, upon hearing my name, I instantly was awake. I shot up to a sitting position, and my senses were acutely attuned to everything around me. I scanned the dark room. I listened for strange sounds. I smelled the air for dangerous smells…and my heart pounded. I didn’t know what to make of it, so I prayed a short prayer of protection…and went back asleep! But to be sure, though I had just been sleeping, in a moment, when I heard my name, I was probably more “wakeful” at 3 AM than I often am at 3 PM! To be “wakeful,” then, in the sense in which the Apostle means here in Eph 5, means being attuned in an acute way both to darkness which surrounds us, but also to the opportunities which lie before us.
Markus Barth, in his commentary on Eph 5:14b, notes the irony of Paul citing this hymn to those to whom the light has already dawned, to those who have, by virtue of their being children of light, have already been raised from the dead. And he notes the irony this way: “Men who are already raised must again and again be raised.”
Or perhaps in our case, as we stand on the verge of the celebration of the light come into the world, we should say, “Awakened men and women must again and again be awakened.”
And is this not what Advent is? A call to those who have been awakened (and indeed, to those who still sleep) to “Wake up!” to the light of the World, the Word made flesh!
At this time of year, we are coming out of a season of “ordinary time”—a time where papers and study and work and family have been the normal and good pattern. But at this time of year, it is time to hear that call of the Spirit of Jesus afresh, “Wake up, O sleeper! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” It was good for me to hear my name called and, perhaps, to be awakened. And it is good for you to hear God speak your name, and perhaps, to awaken from the slumber into which you have fallen.
In verse 15-16 of this passage, Paul goes on and says, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”
It is abundantly clear that we still live in a dark world. But Scripture is clear that we are an awakened people, a people who have seen a great light and can testify to it.
But even those who have been awakened can always fall asleep. Even the disciples in the hour of Christ’s greatest challenge were oblivious to what was going on. They had heavy eyes. May we not think we are immune from the sleepiness that can overtake us!
And so today, as we celebrate the beginning of Advent, my question is simple: Have you fallen asleep? Has a pattern, a habit, an attitude, indeed, a habitual sin, so overtaken you that you have fallen asleep? If so, the required response is clear: Wake up, O sleeper! Or as Jesus says at the beginning of his ministry, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near!”
Are you awake? Sure, you might be tired and dozing off at your desk. But that is not what I am talking about. Are you really wakeful, full of alertness to what God is doing and wants to do? If not, the Lord’s call to you and to me is clear: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Hear the Word of the Lord!