Sermon for Sunday 27 November 2022
Advent 1 2022
“Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Staying awake is a very important thing in the New Testament. There are endless stories about the bad things that happen if you don’t. Think of the foolish virgins who fall asleep, whose lamps go out and who miss the bridegroom when he comes. Think of the disciples reprimanded by the Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. They doze off and cannot watch for one hour with him.
In our modern world, staying awake is simply the opposite of being asleep. Capitalist modernity doesn’t value sleep – it’s simply a wasted period in which we could be working. The culture in which we live values being awake as meaning you’re alert, industrious and at work. It disparages sleep as a sign of weakness, laziness and time squandered.
All the adjectives we have for being ready for sleep are completely negative: dozy; dopey; lethargic.
But in the ancient world, being asleep and being awake had a different range of connotations. For the writers of the New Testament, sleep, dream and wakefulness were deeply connected with vision and understanding – with perceiving afresh and anew something about the living God.
Waking up, or coming to out of drowsiness, gives you sudden new sight of reality. It’s a very important element in Luke’s Transfiguration. The disciples there, we’re told, feel sleepy. But suddenly waking up, becoming alert and watchful again, they receive the wonderful vision of Christ’s glory.
If you want to know more, I’m told there’s an excellent monograph out at the moment about it all, available at all good bookshops. It’s particularly suitable as a sticking filler for all your family and friends.
St Paul also uses the metaphor of sleep in our epistle this morning: “You know what time it is, how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we were first believers.” For Paul our whole salvation is like rising from sleep. Becoming awake, feeling ourselves aware of a new reality in Christ.
So when we’re told by Jesus in our gospel to stay awake, he’s not just saying don’t fall asleep. No, he’s preparing us for nothing less than miraculous vision, a truer apprehension of our existence in the presence of God. Staying awake means that you see more.
So what might such a new vision feel like for us as we begin Advent?
Our gospel reading speaks clearly about Christ’s coming at the end of time. The principal thing revealed to us on the Last Day is quite simply this: reality as it really is. A mode of being in which Christ’s rule is absolute and complete and transparent; in which all that mars our human existence is done away with; a vision of life in perfect communion with God and with each other.
And if that is what we are promised by Christ in today’s gospel at the End of Time, then Advent should be about seeking glimpses, foretastes, snapshots if you like, of that vision in the here and now.
In the midst of our consumerist, money fuelled preparation for Christmas, can we create moments of alertness, of wakefulness, where it’s easier to see the reality that lies behind our existence.
Moments of quiet, such as one finds by coming to a Said Mass during the week. Moments of contemplation, by immersing ourselves in the music and readings of the season at liturgies like our Advent Carol Service tonight. Moments of service which help us to touch those in need through charitable action. Moments of fellowship and connection, where we reach out to those who are lonely and isolated – those who often find this time of year particularly challenging.
That I suspect is the wakefulness God wants. Not a static waiting for something, but an active alertness, an energetic attentiveness to the Kingdom of God, and the needs of our neighbour.
So stay awake this Advent. Not because it means you’re industrious, or productive, or hard working – but because it allows you to see better. Use this Advent to see more clearly the signs of God’s Kingdom about you, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.
Fr Peter Anthony