Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 2, 2007

2007.12.02 “Sleepers Awake!”

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

“Sleepers Awake!”

December 2nd, 2007  — The 1st Sunday in Advent

Romans 13: 11 – 14

Pastor David L. Haley

            Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”  Romans 13: 11 – 14, NRSV.

It was six years ago that I last preached this text, using this same sermon title, “Sleepers Awake!” Up in the choir, when two of the older basses saw the title, one said to the other, “He’s on to us!”

Sleepers Awake! On this first Sunday of Advent, these words are not addressed to Christians in church, sleeping in their pews (although if the pew fits, wear it), but to Christians asleep in their spiritual lives, to all people living lives that are less than they could be.

It comes, for us, appropriately, at a time of the year when darkness predominates, a time of the year when it is sometimes hard to stay awake. Even if we don’t suffer from SAD (Season Affective Disorder) we may feel the urge to hibernate on these dark and dreary days, to stay at home and “veg” as they say, to eat and sleep. The darkness is so dreary, is it any wonder we feel some primal urge to go out and hang lights all over the house, even at the risk of falling off the roof?

And so Advent begins, not with the sound of carols filling the air or light filling the sky — at least not in church — but with darkness and longing for a better life and a better world to be.

When St. Paul wrote these words to the Christians at Rome, he tapped into ancient spiritual dualities:  night versus day; darkness versus light; being clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ versus gratifying the desires of the flesh. Furthermore, being “awakened” is a classic religious metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. Compared to the awakened ones, like Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed, the mass of the human race lives in somnulence, a state of near-sleep.

In his apocalyptic discourse as recorded in all the Gospels, read today from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes what happens when people live in this drowsy, routinized form of existence:

“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man . . . Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming . . .  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Most scholars agree that these words were written in retrospect, after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70. It was disaster on a scale that we can barely imagine, such a cataclysmic, overwhelming event that those who wrote the Gospels had to address it, to give dazed and confused Christians strength and hope to go on.

Sometimes I think we fail to appreciate such calls to wake up, because we – relative to other people around the world as well as throughout history – have seen little of mass devastation. Yes, we have now suffered 9/11 and the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, but relative to what some have suffered it is still minor.  Consider, for example, the Black Death, which, from 1347 to 1351, swept through Asia, Europe and Africa. China, where it originated, lost around half of its population, Europe around 1/3 of its population and Africa approximately 1/8th of its population. Or how about what WWII did to Europe, such as the firebombing of Hamburg, where as many as 40,000 (mostly women and children) died in a single night? Or what the holocaust did to the Jews? Or what the dropping of two atomic bombs did to the cities and people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  As the WWII generation subsides, and with them such experiences, are we slipping back into slumber?

I have never been an apocalyptist, a doomsayer, walking around with a sign saying “The End is Near!”  But I confess the older I get the more anxious and urgent I become; resonating with Jesus’ and Paul’s clarion call for people to “Wake Up!”

I am concerned about the fading of participatory democracy, the apathy of eligible voters in every election, and especially the younger generations.  I am concerned with our distraction with bread and circuses — with Brad Peterson and the Britney Spears and reality shows — while the reality is, the values written into our Constitution and with it, our country, are being dangerously eroded. I am concerned about the backlash against immigrants, in a country which has been enriched by immigrants beyond measure. I am concerned about the threat of rapid global warming, which is going to shape our children and their children’s life sooner than we think.  Sleepers Awake!

One of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous sermons, which he delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31st, 1968, was entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” In that sermon King recalls the story by Washington Irving, “Rip Wan Winkle.”  King points out that:

. . . . the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that at points would change the course of history — and Rip knew nothing about it. He was asleep. Yes, he slept through a revolution. And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

Sleepers in the church, Awake. Our denomination, the United Methodist Church, continues to lose — in membership loss — the equivalent of an Annual Conference a year. Why?  Primarily because of the older average age of our denomination, coupled with our apparent inability to reach younger generations.  And yet while we know this – neither pastors or laity (with pastors being the worst) are willing to change our worship or our budgets to do what it takes to reach new generations.  Have you ever heard that quote from business guru W. Edwards Deming? “Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting.” Which seems related to the quote, “a sign of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.”

Sleepers, awake!  I would venture to guess that there are people here this morning, families, friends, people we know, who are sleepwalking through life, throwing away the opportunities God has given us, in our short lives here on earth?  Aren’t there people you would just like to grab, and say “Wake Up?”  Sometimes we may be the one who needs to be told that.

Isn’t it the case — and isn’t it unfortunate — that it is sometimes only after disaster strikes that we “wake up” from our drowsy existence?

In a sermon a few years back, Bishop Dick Wills told about a letter he received from a parishioner, who had learned from a tragedy, the death of her own sister.  She had learned this lesson from her brother-in-law, as they prepared to take clothes to the mortician for her sister:

“My brother-in-law opened the bottom drawer of my sister’s bureau and lifted out a tissue-wrapped package.  “This,” he said, “is not a slip. This is lingerie.” 

He discarded the tissue and handed me the slip.  It was exquisite: silk, handmade and trimmed with a cobweb of lace.  The price tag with an astronomical figure on it was still attached.

“Jan bought this the first time we went to New York, at least eight or nine years ago.  She never wore it.  She was saving it for a special occasion. Well, I guess this is the occasion.”

He took the slip from me and put it on the bed with the other clothes we were taking to the mortician. His hands lingered on the soft material for a moment, then he slammed the drawer shut and turned to me: “Don’t ever save anything for a special occasion.  Every day you’re alive is a special occasion.”

      Ladies and Gentlemen, Brothers and Sisters, to use a phrase from the former Director of the CIA, George Tenet, in reference to the summer of 2001, used as the title of Chapter 8 of the 911 Commission Report: “The System is Blinking Red.”

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”  (Romans 13: 11 – 14, NRSV)

Sleepers Awake!

 

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