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Sleepers, Awake!

Text: I Thessalonians 5:1-11

Thank God for a good night’s sleep. You slip under the covers, position the pillow just right, close your eyes, turn off your mind, and drift away into long, uninterrupted hours of sweet slumber. You are “dead to the world,” oblivious to that growing seasonal list of “must do,” undisturbed by all those worries that consume you most of the waking hours, protected from a long list of regrets that are as annoying as gnats that you can’t swat away. Thank God for a good night’s sleep.

         Just when we are nestled in for a long night’s sleep, Paul arrives like a neighborhood prankster and sets an alarm to rouse us out of bed long before dawn. Well, in all fairness, that is not always true about Paul. Actually, he is of a mixed mind about sleep. Some sleep, says the Apostle, is productive and not to be disturbed.

         Have you ever opened your eyes after a good night’s sleep to see the answer to a question that haunted you just hours before you went to bed? I have. In Scripture, sleep is often that state in which God’s most creative work is often done. In the primal story in Genesis, the first man sleeps while God is busy finishing the fine art of creation. On the lam, Jacob collapses for the night, uses a rock for a pillow and awakes in the morning not with a sore neck but with the shocking discovery that he has actually been sleeping in church. After an angel’s visit, Joseph opens his eyes and decides that he and Mary must still wed.  

         Paul does not set an alarm to disturb either innocent or creative sleep. No, his alarm is to shake us from untimely sleep. You remember Jonah who sleeps aboard a ship heading anywhere other than where God wants him to go? Remember when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemene, asking his closest friends to stay awake, but the events of Holy Week, the Seder wine, the mounting expectations, and whatever other reasons mean that they cannot keep their eyes open? They escape into sleep, hoping that dawn will bring a better day.  

         Paul warns the church in Thessalonica against using sleep as an escape from living out God’s call on their lives. It is not a warning reserved for Christians who lived long, long ago. And, it is such a tempting sleep. Just look around this morning. The sanctuary looks like a Christmas wonderland. Thank you, Jody and crew! We parked today on a smooth new surface. Thank you, Tom and Walter! Last Sunday night, the sanctuary was filled with laughter and tears and wonderful goodies. Thank you to more names than I can mention right now. And, now that Jessica and Oliver have lit the Advent candle of peace again, we can go home to enjoy a glad, uninterrupted peaceful night of sleep.

         Not so fast, says Paul. The Apostle urges the faithful against using sleep to escape the tough realities of life that God would have us confront head on. Sleep borne of trust in God’s purpose for our lives gives us the courage to wake to the frightening reality that more churches are closing than are opening in America today, wake to the sadness of cities blighted with drugs that dull the mind, with guns that speak with uncompromising clarity, with air and water that leave only traces of what once was clean, with people working multiple jobs to pay for little or lousy health care, with adults leaving children home to care for other children as they head off to a second or third job. If you sleep in the confidence of what God is calling us to do in this beloved world, you and I will fight the sleep of escape.

         Paul would also have us avoid rebellious sleep. Do you remember what Cain replies when the divine spotlight shines on him after he murders his brother? He asks God, “What do you want from me? I’m not my brother’s keeper”? Cain lives on in our national rhetoric and political media commentators. You know the lines: “It’s not my problem. They didn’t have to leave their country. She didn’t have to have that third child. He could beat the odds if he just tried harder; others have; others do.” Our new national motto is: “When in doubt, deflect responsibility, point a finger, blame others.” If it weren’t for that do-nothing Congress, that do-too-many-things President, that obstructionist City Council, that myopic School Board. How easily you and I avoid responsibility in American society today and slip under our warm covers to fall into deep, rebellious sleep.

         In the biblical story, rebellious sleep rarely goes undisturbed. God’s alarm wakes Jonah to his responsibility even for those whom he despises. God’s alarm wakes the disciples to forgive others so often that they eventually forget what not-forgiving looks like. Paul sets an alarm to stir Christians to see those parts of God’s world to which most avert their eyes. In his hymn, Here I Am, Brian Wren writes:

         Here am I, where underneath the bridges of our winter cities homeless people sleep.

         Here am I, where in decaying houses little children shiver, crying at the cold. Where are


         Here am I, with people in the line-up, anxious for a hand-out, aching for a job.

         Here am I, where pensioners and strikers sing and march together, wanting something

                  new. Where are you?


         The earliest question in Scripture is: “Where are you?” God asks that question to the first pair of humans, buck naked and ducking behind the shadiest bush they can find. With a fresh smell of blood rising from the ground, God asks Cain, “Where are you?” Fresh from selling out his Lord for a few more coins in his pocket, Jesus asks Judas, “Where are you?” It is a haunting and persistent question that travels consistently across time. It is a question that God is still asking: “People of faith, where are you?”

         It is such a piercing question. How can you and I possibly face God, knowing all that we have done, knowing all we have left undone, knowing everything we have said, knowing all that we have failed to say? Why not crawl back into our beds, pull the sheets over our heads, and enjoy a few hours of escape or avoidance, of blissful uninterrupted, albeit rebellious, sleep? Why not yearn for the sleep of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, “O sleep, gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee, That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down and steep my senses in forgetfulness?”

         Whenever in escape or rebellion, Paul throws a cold bucket of water on us in bed and shouts, “Sleepers, awake!” But as soon as he has out attention, he softens his language and reminds us that whether living or dying, waking or sleeping, dutiful or dodging, worshiping or wandering, generous or tight-fisted, we are Christ’s beloved children. We get out of bed then, not to appease an angry God, but to dance with delight before a loving God who sees us as we were created to be, looking beneath and beyond the thick silt of our sin. Such love gives us the only lasting security that you and I will ever need or for that matter, will ever truly know.

         “Sleepers, awake!” cries Paul, and join the company of Christ. When we do, we see the world differently than we did before. We lift a cup and break bread and realize that there is more to life than the bottom line, padding our already full pockets, and fending only for ourselves. We give of ourselves to the work of Christ in the church not to get the church off our backs, but glad beyond measure to be a part of a community that seeds missions of God’s grace nearby and far from here, a community that fills this magical space with music to soothe weary ears with wondrous sounds, a community that gathers with friends at the grave to shout down death, saying, “You will not have the last word. This life, and all life, belongs to God” (idea from Beverly Gaventa in her commentary on I & II Thessalonians, p. 78).

         Each night, visitors to the ancient abbey in Iona, Scotland, join for a simple evening worship service. Worship closes with people praying this prayer: “O God, you have been with us at the world’s beginning, be with us till the world’s end. You have been with us at our life’s shaping, be with us at our life’s end. You have been with us at the sun’s rising, be with us till the day’s end.” And after those words are spoken and candles are extinguished, the company of Christ scatters to their tiny rooms reminded that whether waking or sleeping, we are the Lord’s.

         Be still for a moment in dead silence now. Listen for Paul’s voice shouting across the centuries, “Sleepers, Awake!” On this third Sunday in the season of Advent, the alarm is sounding. It is time to wake up and join the best company you can ever keep.

         Sleepers, awake!




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