The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
“Keep awake” is what I would tell myself every time I walked into the ground-level entrance, what some might call the basement entrance, of the library. Keep awake. By the time I arrived at the door, darkness had already enveloped the campus. Dinner had come and passed, weighing me down with happy contentment. And the cold air of the New Jersey winter was no match for that classroom so close to the boiler.
I was there to learn about Orthodox Christianity from Dean James Pain – a kind and wise professor, nearing the end of a long academic career, a kind and wise professor whom I hope is not here this morning to hear this story. I would settle into one of the plush, comfy chairs, the kind with the desks attached by hinges so that one could pull up a flat space for writing, or typing, or resting one's head. The room, that basement classroom, had no windows, save the small one in the door, that simply gave a view of the austere hallway. And then, once the class was settled in, Dean Pain would turn off the lights and fire up a video or an old-fashioned slide slow. Warm, dark, and cozy. And I would tell myself, “Keep Awake.” But generally, I would fail to heed that important message.
I have always been a good and attentive student. Before that class in seminary, I think I had only one time in my long academic career fallen asleep in a class, again during a movie, in the fifth grade. But it was almost as if that night class in the basement of the library in a warm, windowless room was designed with the express purpose of putting students to sleep. And, I failed to mention, that class was like three hours long. The students who stayed awake were heroes; they were super-human.
Today begins the season of Advent. And this season greets us with the same urgent message: Keep awake. Only this time the message is delivered by Jesus – a stark warning to begin this new Church year.
But what does it mean? What does it mean to keep awake? The most literal interpretation is not helpful. Certainly this is not endorsement of sleep deprivation. Although the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane might disagree with me on that.
But in this season of Advent – a season rich in joy and hope, pregnant with anticipation, a season that walks us to the baby in the manger – we are also confronted with a desperate urgency meant to rouse us from the cozy comfort of crackling fires and warm eggnog. It is Advent and waiting has never been so jarring. What does it mean to keep awake?
It makes me think about the movie The Matrix, a film during which I did not fall asleep. It is like how Neo is offered the blue pill or the red pill. It is a crossroads: the blue pill allows him to rest forever in a state of mind-numbing ignorance, to continue to dream his life away; the red pill is the wake up call. Once he takes the red pill, the familiar illusion is over; he is faced with the startling reality of life; once awake there is no going back to sleep. He knows too much. And the truth demands action.
This is not simply the stuff of movie plots. It is a decision with which all of us are confronted. It is the plea of Jesus in today's Gospel. Do not sleep your life away; do not hide in the daydream. Keep awake.
It is hard to keep awake, though. Or as the young people might say, it is hard to stay woke. Our culture is designed to put people to sleep. Paralysis by consumption: life spent on shopping, and streaming, and appointment viewing. It is like a white noise machine feeding us a steady stream of consumerism and 24-hour news.
There is so much noise that it drowns out life. Steady and unrelenting: so much pressure, despair, controversy, conflict, entertainment, and information that hiding under the covers often seems like the only escape. And we drift into the isolation and sink into the loneliness of our age, seduced into inaction by a steady flow of injustice racing by on the daily. We live in the age of overwhelming. We are born with golden slumbers in our eyes. Here in the future, we have computers for that. Just go to sleep.
And yet it is the voice of Jesus, sounding like an alarm clock, cutting through two-thousand years, echoing through past, present, future, to rouse us from our sleep. Just as he roused those sleepers in the first century. While our culture might be designed to sedate us, ours is not the first. Every culture, every empire, finds its own unique way to pacify its people. And that is why Jesus' urgent plea is timeless and it is personal. That is why we find it ringing in our ears still today. The message is for us. Because heavy eyelids are a part of our inheritance. And it is our job to take the red pill, to stay woke, to keep awake – and then probably to nudge your neighbor, because we're all in this thing together.
The plea is ever urgent because the task, staying awake and alert, is never easy. The power of evil is desperate to silence the Good News. The darkness of this age is desperate to hide the children of light under the blankets. The powerful on their thrones are desperate to keep the truth locked behind a bedroom door. They do not want your voice, just your cash. The shock and awe of injustice, lies, and violence is meant to put you in a daze, to make you think that the darkness and despair of this age, the heartbreak and cynicism of this age is the best you should ever expect.
I am telling you that is not the truth. Keep Awake!
We were not created and redeemed, chosen and called, to accept the cheap knock-offs this world offers us. We were designed for the reality that is the Kingdom of God. We were designed for no less than peace and love, for no less than hope and salvation. The signs of the Kingdom are all around us, pushing up through the cracks, but you will not see them if you eyes are closed. Keep awake.
We do not have to accept the narrative that says that violence and death are the price of our existence. We serve a Jesus who offers us new life, abundant life, resurrection life. We do not have to the accept the narrative that says that our worth is measured in dollars and cents. We serve a Jesus who places on each and every one of us an infinite value.
We stand today at the dawning of a new Church year. And at this new beginning we are confronted by this urgent message of our Christ: Keep Awake. Do not allow the darkness to overcome you. Do not allow the despair to close your eyes. The coming Kingdom promises to break through even the most vivid nightmares of our world. God's reality is just beyond the horizon, ever nearer, waiting to be greeted by the expectant eyes of those who heed the voice of the Master to keep awake.