We cannot afford to neglect the season of Advent. If Ash Wednesday slips by us, we can survive. If we fail to observe Trinity Sunday one year, we can get by. If we don’t know what to do for Epiphany or Pentecost, even if, heaven forbid, we let Palm Sunday go by without a whisper, our churches will probably endure, but not if we forget Advent.
All these other festivals are important reminders of what God has done for us in times past. We will still remember those outpourings of God’s love and favor as we read the Gospel and remember together the story of Jesus. But Advent calls our attention to what is yet to come, even what stands at the door.
Christmas and Easter themselves are joyous reminders of what God has done, what is past, but Advent is our wake-up call to what is coming, to Who is coming. And we cannot afford to miss it. We cannot afford to sleep in. We hear that abrupt alarm in the songs of Advent — “Wake! Awake for night is flying!” “Lo! He comes with clouds descending!” We hear it in the scriptures that the Church has traditionally joined to this season:
“O that You would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at Your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make Your name known to Your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2).
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:36-42).
“What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mark 13:37).
And so, near the end of every year, we are given this jolt — like the morning ringing of the telephone beside a hotel bed: “this is your wake-up call” — this shaking of our souls returning us to a state of being watchful, being alert for the One who is coming.
Sadly, many of us need this wake-up call, because we have been sleeping. I know I’ve nodded off more than once in the past year. This is a seductive sleep, because the dreams we dream during this sleep seem so real and often so appealing. It’s hard to leave them once they’ve begun; we don’t really want to wake up from them. So perhaps the hymn “Wake! Awake for night is flying” is not a welcome one. Our sleep has perhaps been pleasant; the images that danced before us, the feelings that these images aroused, were all so enchanting. We so wanted to stay asleep and see how these dreams would turn out because they were unfolding so well!
The frightful fact of our confession is that much of the time many of us are sleeping and living an imitation of reality, chasing after an insubstantial dream. Clearly Jesus and Paul do not have physical sleep in mind here, nor the phantoms that cross our consciousness during our nightly rest, but they apply these images to our waking hours when we think we’re most active, most alert, most profitable in our labors. What does it mean to sleep while you’re awake? When I sleep, I close my eyes and ears to the world around me, and I am occupied first with the cocoon of blankets and pillow and then with the world inside my head, the world of dreams. I fear that, for many people, waking up in the morning doesn’t really change this state of affairs. Many of us wake up with our eyes and ears still closed to the world — at least those parts of the world that are unpleasant or threatening.
I think of days I walked around in New York City watching crowds of shoppers and business people move past beggars on the street without taking notice. I don’t think they were trying not to look or make eye-contact. The avoidance was so natural, so effortless that I think they had stopped hearing and seeing those homeless poor standing beside the towering temples of trade.
And then I’m forced to think of my own life, structured in such a way that I never seem to encounter a modern-day Lazarus longing for scraps of bread. I can go for days or weeks without hearing the cry (or even hearing of the cry) of the hungry children in our cities or abroad, without seeing even a telecast glimpse of an impoverished family for whom an extra blanket would be a treasure. I’m asleep to their reality. My experience of those in prison is wholly mediated through the news or movies; my contact with those persecuted for righteousness’ sake is third-hand at best; my outreach to those pursuing ways of life destructive to themselves and others is lukewarm at its most fervent moments. Truth be told, much of the time I am asleep to the world around us.
And yet, for a sleeper, I seem to be rather busy. I’m never lacking something to do, whether it be to prepare for a class, work on another book, arrange some music for my church choirs, go to this meeting or that. All this busyness adds up in measurable ways — signs of some degree of effectiveness in my primary profession as a scholar and teacher, a solid track record with music ministry at my church, steady progress toward owning a house and piling up a decent retirement plan. But I can’t quite convince myself that it adds up to being awake — not as Jesus would define “awakeness,” at least. Why? Because if He were to tear open the heavens and come down today, I suspect I might encounter Him as one who has been asleep, who was not prepared for the One who comes without warning, as a thief.
Just imagining the skies parting and the Lord appearing, I feel some conviction that I have been chasing my own dreams, seeking to establish my own happiness and the well-being of my own small family, seeking the respect of my fellow sleepers. I fear that I may find that I have pushed the snooze button on the alarm of the prophets too often, offering to God my songs of praise but not opening up my house to the homeless. Many times, I have joined those who sing lullabies over those who sleep the seductive sleep of sin, rather than being bold to break the patterns of avoidance so as to wake them to God’s judgment of the fornicator and adulterer. Will I bear no responsibility for this when Christ returns? And my 401K plan will be hard to explain, since many died yesterday for want of the food my provision for tomorrow might have supplied.
And so you will realize quickly why I find Advent an indispensable season of the Church Year. I need this wake-up call. I need to be reminded that the world around me sleeps, or stumbles about in a perpetual drunken stupor during what is a long night, so that I will not continue to nod off with them. I need to hear again about the coming Day, which will show everything in this world in its true light, so as to be given a fresh opportunity to live during this night in the light of that Day. I need to be reminded not to involve myself in chasing my dreams, but to pour myself into serving God’s vision. “Today” is a good day to hear this message, as long as it is called “Today,” as long as we have “today” to snap out of our sleep and awaken to God’s agenda for our lives.
I have spent some time rebuking myself, not because I enjoy parading my shortcomings in discipleship before others, but because I know that I am not alone. We are all caught between knowing what the world looks like in the light of the “Day of the Lord” and what the world looks like in the long night. We are caught between living as “children of the day” and trying to get on in the midst of the “children of the night.” We are caught between the dreams that our early education, our culture’s prophets and even our own parents have planted in our minds and the vision God’s word implants in our Souls.
Most challenging to us, indeed, is that we live in the midst of a society that perpetuates itself best by keeping us most asleep, keeping us from looking long and hard both at our nation and foreign affairs in the light of God’s Day. We are all busy, but perhaps busy as people who run down a hallway that keeps getting longer, as in a dream, rather than busy as people running the race that God sets before us. Advent calls us to look closely at our condition and to confirm our commitment to live for God’s vision rather than our own dreams, to live for others rather than ourselves, to build up the stranger rather than our own resumes. Advent calls us to be fools in the eyes of those who sleep so that we will not be seen as fools in the eyes of the One who is coming.
So far I have focused my attention on those of us whose lives in this world are basically happy — those whose dreams, whose vapid fantasies, are pleasant. There are many others who do not dream like this in their waking sleep. Some face unending nightmares, wishing they could wake up and leave those images behind. For them, the sleep of this world is not seductive or appealing, but a prison from which they cannot wake. Some have spun this nightmare for themselves; many others are victims of the nightmare that others have created for them. If we continue to sleep, content to dream our dreams, absorbed in making them come out the way we want them to come out, how will we wake these people from their nightmare and point them to the hope and healing of the dawning Day?
Still, others around us have been awake this year. They have been watchful. They have gone about shouting God’s truth at the top of their lungs, trying to wake their neighbors to the dawning Day. They have allowed themselves to look at the hurting full in the face and have given themselves over to be instruments of God’s vision for these people. They have allowed themselves to look at the world around them, with its commitment to establish security through violence and plenty through impoverishing others, and see the nightmare that we have dreamed for ourselves from which so many think it folly to awaken.
They cry out to the sleepers to awake to a better way — to God’s way for human community. But people loved darkness rather than light. Some patiently hear these modern prophets from their pulpits, then roll over and go back to their dreams. Others respond violently to these attempts to dispel their dream world; they try to return to their dreams by persecuting and killing our sisters and brothers who witness to the dawn.
And so we return to our confession. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and on His account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be.” So it must be. The blood of the innocent cries out before the throne of God day and night; the blood of the young than killed by a thief for his money, the blood of the children dead from starvation or land mines, the blood of the woman raped and killed, the blood of generations who died as slaves, the blood of those who disappeared as a totalitarian regime protected itself against potential dissenters, the blood of those who died simply because others refused to share with others God’s gifts meant for all.
How can it be that Christ will not come, that a God whose heart is justice itself should not bring all to account before Him?! And what a cry shall go up that Day! The destroyers of the earth will wail as their souls are devoured by regret as they awaken at last to their own viciousness; the murderer, the rapist, the abuser, the one who profited from the sale of drugs and the exploitation of bodies will heave his heart into his throat as he meets the Holy One in all his uncleanness, defiled by his abuse of others and his misuse of God’s own gift of life to him. But I fear that many others will wail as well. Many who are now considered role models and examples of success will wail. Many “decent people” will wail.
We, too, may wail. Oh, it may not be the lament of the lost that we utter, but it will be a lament of lost opportunities, occasions on which we chose to live out our dreams rather than relieve another’s nightmares, times when we have snuggled up in the blankets of our contentment while others shivered outside, times when we have closed our hearts to a brother or sister, dreaming that he or she was an enemy rather than a partner in a heavenly calling. And this is the sound of the Advent alarm clock, the thundering coming of Jesus upon the clouds of heaven and the weeping and lamenting of the sleepers who have been caught unprepared.
Hark! The herald’s voice is crying:
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way!
Let us awaken to the work God has for us. Let us come alive to the world outside of our own dreams, to the world that each of us has shut out in our sleep, whatever part of the world that may be. Jesus taught us that we can encounter Him as a sleeping house owner, overwhelmed by a thief, or as a watchful servant who is found occupied with the Master’s business when He returns from His Journey.
I have observed employees dallying in conversation with one another, taking it easy, until the warning cry comes: “The boss is coming. Look busy!” At once the group abandons its station by the coffee pot, each possessed instantaneously with a single-minded attention to some task. This is but a comic caricature of the response Jesus hopes His hearers will have to His parable. The boss is coming, but we should also be quite certain that He observes us even now before His coming.
So let’s get busy. Not with pursuing our own desires or fulfilling the agenda we set for ourselves. Let’s get busy doing the work the Master has trusted us to do. Not surprisingly, this work involves caring for those around us, those for whom the Master cares. This is not the season for sleep, for drowsy self-indulgence, for drinking in the wine that inebriates the world around us. It is the season for watchfulness, for looking beyond our safe beds to the places of hurt, of need, of pain. It is time for giving to our sisters and brothers across this town and across the world the encouragement, the food, the patient friendship and listening ears, the hope to endure until the Day. It is time to rekindle our first love for Jesus, for one another and for the lost; it is time to repent of unkind thoughts, loveless words, hurtful deeds; it is time to exchange a reputation for being alive for real, living service to God in this world.
“Look! I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his or her clothes on, not going about naked and exposed to shame.” “Blessed is that slave whom the Master will find at work when he arrives.”

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