‘Brothers and sisters; You know the time; now is the hour for you to awake from sleep’.
I am sure that you are aware of the phrase, ‘Stay woke’. It actually goes back a way but it came to be heard much more when the Black Lives Matter campaign got going. It means something like ‘stay alert to injustice in society’ – and often it’s racism that people particularly have in mind. It’s a kind of encouragement for us never to forget to keep looking for when things are wrong and to keep hoping and working for the day they will be made right. Stay woke. And I guess that it represents something so powerful, because all of us human beings have this tendency to forget what’s important, to just settle for life as it is and to stop longing for and working for a better world. Stay woke!
The New Testament shows us that this kind of idea – this encouragement – is not new. You can find this metaphor about being jolted out of sleep, of being woken up, right there in the Bible – and it’s one that has stayed with Christians through the centuries. On Christmas Day we might sing the carol ‘Christians awake!’ – and we mean more than just listen for your alarm clock. There is something about being woke that speaks powerfully of what it means to meet with God and to know God. The great saint Irenaeus famously said that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive..’ and we being awake stands somehow for being really alive. We know that God’s gift to us is the gift of life and that it is glorious. And when we meet someone who is fully alive – and they can be young or old, rich, poor, healthy, ill, physically dying even – but when we meet someone who really is fully alive we see something that is absolutely wonderful – and a gift. The glory of God, we might say, is a human being truly awake – truly woke.
The story goes that Augustine – one of the great teachers of the church – when he was just an African teacher of rhetoric, was once walking in the streets of Milan when he heard a child crying in a nearby house. The child was crying, ‘Take up and read’ and Augustine picked up a scroll that was lying at his feet and read the very same verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we have heard today. ‘Now is the time for you to awake from sleep’. It was this moment that sparked his conversion. He realised that, in his previous life, he had been like one half asleep, unknowing, unaware, almost dead. When he woke up to God his life was changed. Being a Christian was as different from his previous life as being awake is from being asleep. He woke up.
You might perhaps have seen some of those grave stones that refer to someone as having ‘fallen asleep’. To be awake is to be alive. And the early Christians saw baptism as a kind of waking up to a whole new life. ‘Wake up sleeper’ they would sing – as new converts were lowered into a bed of water and then raised up into the light of a new day, a new life. And Advent, at the very time of the year in this part of the world when the earth seems as though it is closing up and sleeping, has been seen as a time for people who want to know more about God and God’s purpose for us to wake up. Don’t let’s settle for a tired old world, but let’s wake up and look for the dawn of a new one.
I think we can all understand what Paul and Matthew and Jesus and the black lives matter movement are all getting at. They knew and know (as someone once said) that what makes it possible for evil to triumph is only that good people do nothing, that all of us forget, give up, let things slip, become complacent or so weary that we stop hoping.
The writer Kafka thought that ‘Most men are not wicked…they are sleep-walkers, not evil-doers.’ The problem with most of us is not at all that we are terribly wicked or dreadful, but that we are sleep-walking through life, not fully aware of what we do or how we live or how we might live – and so we are vulnerable to many dangers and temptations, easily swayed or led in the wrong direction. To be alive, to be fully human, we need to wake up, to open our eyes and really look at the world. Vernon Watkins, in his Cantata for the Waking of Lazarus, wrote,
‘Open my eyes at last, my eyes shut long with praying,
And let me see your eyes: Love, newly born, come down.’
All sorts of Christians through the years have reminded us that being a Christian, living with God, is like a kind of awakening. It is an opening of the eyes of the heart, to see the world, to see ourselves, to see all things as they truly are. But it is more than a kind of knowledge, more than an acquiring of wisdom, a deeper kind of renewal than a sudden awareness of the facts. Sometimes we speak of spiritual awakening – the unfolding of the human spirit towards God in a way that transforms life – as profoundly as the change from sleeping to waking or from death to life. Siegfried Sassoon cries in one of his poems, ‘Belov’d and faithful, teach my soul to wake’. To wake up is to find life again and it is a great gift.
Sometimes, when an illness overwhelms us or something happens, we say that it is a ‘wake up call’ – an alarm to tell us that life must be lived differently. And we all need such ‘wake up calls’ for our spirits as well as our bodies – something to wake us from our doziness or our sleep-walking – to call us to life once more. The painter Stanley Spencer often painted resurrection paintings – pictures of people rising to new life. He showed them stepping out of their graves, as simply as though they were getting out of bed in the morning – some of them even wearing pyjamas. And he wrote,
‘The resurrection is meant to indicate the passing of the state of non-realisation of the possibilities of heaven in this life to the sudden awakening to that fact.’
We can wake up to the possibilities of heaven in this life. Now is the time for you to awake from sleep.
This was a common theme in the writing of Paul. He had written to the Thessalonians too in a similar way and he might as easily if he knew our address have written to us, saying something like
‘We must not sleep like the rest of humankind, but be wakeful and sober; for sleepers sleep by night and drunkards are drunk by night, but we must be sober, we who belong to the Day, clothed in faith and love as our armour, with the hope of salvation as our helmet.’
And of course, Paul does not mean that all Christians have to be early risers, up with the lark and always annoyingly chirpy (at least I am hoping not!). Sleep and waking here are metaphors – ways of saying what cannot easily be said. It is the eyes of our hearts that need to be opened, wakened from their slumber, so that we can live as those fully alive – evidence of the glory of God – imagine that.
Perhaps the most famous story of someone being woken from spiritual slumber is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. In his sleep, the mean-spirited Scrooge meets the ghosts of Christmas past, present and to come – and they open his eyes to the terrible depths of his own life, they show him what it is like for others to be poor at Christmas, and what it is like to die alone, unloved and unmourned. The spirits help him to be ‘woke’. And, when he wakes up from his dream-like encounter with the spirits, Scrooge really does wake up in every sense.
‘Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them… His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him.’ Who of us can forget the new Scrooge, rushing to the shop to get the biggest turkey, full of life and energy again, woken up.
So I want to ask what we – what you – need to be woken from. And what you need to be woken to. How can Advent, these weeks of deepening dark, become a time when you might be woken to life again in some way? What is it that will awaken you from the kind of sleepiness that besets every human life sometimes? Can you imagine yourself like the little girl who everyone thought had died, that Jesus woke from sleep? Can all that you know and are learning about Jesus and the God he embodied rouse you from sleep, rouse you with joy at the beauty of the world, rouse you with anger at injustice, rouse you to life again…Some great and portentous events in the world – might wake us to face what we had wanted to ignore, but can no longer. Or something more personal – a new friendship – a meeting with someone without whom we could have carried on only half awake. Or perhaps it could be as it was for Dennis Potter, with the knowledge that death was coming soon – at such a time he looked at a tree laden with blossom and suddenly it was the ‘blossomiest blossom’ he had ever seen. Or maybe it could with the daily discipline of a life always open to God – always looking for joy and hope. Hear again the call of the prophets and the gospel writers to ‘keep awake’. It is all too easy for our lives to become dulled – for life to lose its shine – but God keeps on calling us to life. There are people who even in the deepest suffering have found themselves awakened again before God.
Christians have, right from the beginning, called one another to wake from sleep and to rise into life. I think that none of us are immune from a kind of slumbering life. We can be tired people, with tired traditions, and sometimes we sleep-walk a little. In a phrase from a poem by Geoffrey Hill, perhaps we ‘have drowsed half-faithful for a time’. But, as the days of Advent go by, it may be that we can become a bit more like those who children who at Christmas cannot sleep for anticipation of the joy to come. Let’s open ourselves up for the spiritual awakening which God brings, and say of Jesus Christ, ‘tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.’ So, people, stay woke – and give glory to God.