Advent 1(B): Waking Up to Those Around Us
By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege
Confession: I really like my sleep.
It’s true. I am an early to bed kind of person and can even appreciate a short nap in the afternoon, every now and then. I really like my sleep. So, this passage from Mark’s Gospel appointed for the First Sunday of Advent is difficult for me.
“Keep awake,” Jesus says. Not once, but twice. Keep awake! Stay alert! For you do not know when the master of the house will come and you do not want to be found asleep.
Events surrounding sleep figure prominently in the Jesus story. In Matthew’s telling of the gospel, Joseph experiences an angelic visitation in his sleep, foretelling the birth of the one with whom his wife to be was pregnant and by what name the child should be called.
When a man named Jairus approaches Jesus to tell him of his daughter who is ill and at the point of death, Jesus is delayed in arriving at the home by the woman who touched the fringe of his cloak. When Jesus does arrive, the girl is reported to be dead; but he responds to the cries of lament, “The child is not dead but sleeping.” And she is raised to life.
In the garden of agony, on the night of betrayal, Jesus found his disciples drifting off to sleep, not once, not twice, but three times, while he prayed in distress over what lay ahead. To Simon Peter and the others he says, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” No, they could not.
Wakefulness and sleepiness, dozing off and remaining alert—these themes appear over and over again in the Gospel story, in each of the four accounts.
On this first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the Church year, we read this passage from Mark’s Gospel that takes place near an end, not at the beginning. We begin at the end. Before Jesus is betrayed, handed over to suffering and death, he is in Jerusalem, around the Temple. No doubt, Jesus is teaching his disciples those most important truths, that which he wishes them to know most when he is longer with them.
In teaching about the hope of a hope-filled and glorious coming, with angels sent out to gather the faithful from every corner of creation, to the ends of the earth, Jesus issues a firm admonition: remain attentive. One does not know when this immense moment will arrive and does not want to be caught unaware, unprepared. So, keep awake, stay alert, remain vigilant.
So often I have heard this passage offered as a call to repentance and prayer, lest the hour of such a return arrive and one be found with unconfessed sin or an unprepared heart. Seeking forgiveness and drawing nearer to God in petition and praise are rooted in the Christian tradition, to be sure. But, I wonder if there might be more for us to consider in this passage?
What might remaining awake and staying alert look like in our various contexts?
A few weeks ago, I sat in a circle of colleagues and pondered this question. There are a group of clergy in Lexington, Kentucky whose congregations band together to organize for just solutions to problems in our community.
Together we talked about the propensity toward dozing off as the people of God, not in our prayers or in our devotion to God, but in our concern for all God’s people. Keeping awake and remaining alert requires us, each as individuals and collectively as a community of faith, to see the needs of the world around us. And, even more, these needs, varied and great, call us as a people to not doze off.
In each of our communities, wherever we live, there are enormous challenges: inadequate access to direly needed healthcare, students who are not receiving the education they need because the myth of scarcity has proclaimed there are not enough resources, and lives ripped apart by epidemic of opioid addiction. There is hunger and homelessness.
At every turn, there is a world wondering, is anyone awake? Individuals cry aloud. Can anyone feel the burden that weighs me down? Does anyone see? Will anyone respond?
On this first Sunday in the season of Advent, as the church turns the page on a new year, as our eyes begin to turn toward the Christmas miracle, the invitation on this day, in this Gospel reading, is to wake up. When we, as the people of God, are awake, we are reminded that this Jesus whose coming we anticipate at Christmas and in the culmination of time is the One who entered into the fullness of our humanity, who knows the suffering of the human condition, and the weight of its pain.
He is the One who calls us to wake up, to be alert, not only in our hearts and souls, but in the world around us, where the cries for healing and wholeness have not quieted. Rather, they are often overlooked, cast aside, too easily forgotten.
This new season of Advent invites us into days of preparation, for Christ who comes as the Bethlehem baby and as great Redeemer of all creation. Might these days stir us to wake up from sleep and remain alert to the needs of the world around us?
The Reverend Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.