*Originally preached at the Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago on November 30, 2014.
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
Last Monday night, a little after midnight, I was having a debate with myself. Should I go to sleep or stay awake?
Like many of you perhaps, I had spent my evening anxiously awaiting the decision from the grand jury on whether or not Officer Darren Wilson would be indicted for the killing of Mike Brown. I had spent hours refreshing news websites until the statement was finally released, and then when it became clear that Wilson would not be indicted or tried, I spent hours more following Ferguson twitter feeds and reading countless Facebook posts as friends and public figures alike processed the news.
In Ferguson and in other cities around the country including Chicago, protesters and those tasked with keeping the peace faced a long sleepless night. Undoubtedly, the family of Mike Brown faced the most sleepless night of all, following on the heels of many other sleepless nights in the weeks and months since his death.
Ensconced as I was on a tucked away South Carolina island with my family, I felt far removed from the unrest happening half a country away from me. But when the time came to turn off the lights and sleep and hope for a better tomorrow, I kept thinking of all those who weren’t sleeping. And how for most of them, that sleeplessness was about the death of one young man and the one who killed him, but it was also about the seeming hopelessness of a deeply entrenched, insidious and deadly system of racism, classism, and injustice that continues to rent our society asunder even and especially when those of us with the privilege to do so simply turn out the light and sleep through it. And so, removed as I felt, sleeping seemed very much like the wrong thing to do.
Over and over, all night long, I thought about this text and what it means to “keep alert, beware… keep awake, for you do not know when the time will come.”
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, that season in our church life when we prepare our hearts and lives for the radical world-transforming change that the birth of the Christ child will bring. Advent is a season of waiting and expectation, and each week we light candles and lean into that waiting with a spirit of hope, peace, joy and love. This first week, we light the candle of hope, and this particular week, we could sure use some.
I confess that—much though I love the season leading up to Christmas—I have always found it a bit theologically confusing that we pretend to be waiting for a birth that has already happened several millennia ago. I always find myself thinking of the life and death that lie ahead for that baby in Bethlehem, and this year in particular I find myself thinking of his mother’s anguish as she watched him on the cross and the rage and fear of his followers in the wake of his execution, and perhaps most of all—as I reflect on “keeping awake” in this oh so broken world—I think of that long night in the garden when Jesus trembled and prayed and begged his friends to stay awake with him.
It is true that we live in a time long after Christ was born, but these days it is not hard to imagine that we are still waiting. We still live in deep brokenness, and, indeed, we are still waiting for the radical transformation of the world that Christ promises. And we are still longing for “those days, after that suffering, [when] the sun shall be darkened, and the moon will not give its light… and [we] shall see the Son of Man coming.” We are still waiting and we are still looking for hope in the ever-present darkness.
In the midst of that waiting and looking for hope, this passage calls us to be alert… wakeful… sleepless.
There is a particular moment in childhood when nothing seems quite so exciting as staying awake all night at a sleepover. I remember giggling my way through that slaphappy phase where exhaustion has made you feel delirious. I remember the strange sense of accomplishment that came with derailing our circadian rhythms so that, without sleep, a new day seemed to become an extension of the day before.
As adults, we learn to appreciate sleep. We live for naps. We come to fear the delirium and disorientation and disconnection from the world around us that exhaustion brings. We recognize that our bodies need time to rest and recover. We rejoice at the chance to go to sleep and wake to a better tomorrow.
But when it comes to our spiritual lives—maybe our childhood recklessness has some wisdom to offer. For we are told to keep alert, beware, and keep awake for we know not when the Son of Man will come.
In this passage, Jesus tells us that, “not one generation will pass away before all these things have taken place.” It certainly feels like a lot longer than that. We could easily conclude that this sentiment belongs to a more apocalyptic era than ours, that it has become irrelevant. But what if, instead, we chose to believe that the time, the day, that we really belong to is the day of Christ—that all that has come to pass since that birth in Bethlehem and that trembling moment in the garden when Jesus asked us to stay is just one long night?
What does it mean to stay spiritually awake to that day even as we wait and cry out for the day that is promised? To allow our spiritual rhythms to draw us back to Jesus even as they draw us forward to world yet to come? What does it mean to seem delirious to this world—this world of brokenness and injustice, where young black men die and mothers weep and no one sleeps easy and we wonder what justice even looks like and if we’ve ever really known? What does it mean to be disoriented to that world and alive to the world of Christ?
There is a lullaby playing in this age. It sounds like the media and the powers and popular culture and it is attempting to lull us into sleep, into complacency, with gentle whispers that we are better, that difference is to be feared, that the status quo must be maintained, and that we should not ever rock the boat. Daily we struggle with the destructive “isms” of race, class, sex, ability and more that tuck us into our privilege and kiss us goodnight. Our discomfort shushes us, our fear calms our restless hearts, and our need for easy answers tells us, “Just go to sleep, you’ll feel better in the morning.”
But Jesus tells us to keep awake.
The truth is that many in this world are sleepless. The brokenness we all live in cuts them down day after day and keeps them up night after night. We can choose to turn out the light in the face of their sleeplessness and dream of the morning, but Jesus is not off waiting for the morning sun.
Jesus is with the sleepless. Jesus is weeping with the parents, and gasping with the dying sons, and trembling with those civil servants who do truly seek to serve and protect. Jesus is flipping tables with the outraged and terrified and holding up his hands and saying over and over and over, “Black lives matter.” Jesus is with the sleepless because Jesus is sleepless too—at this whole broken system that his world is so ensnared in. Jesus is with the sleepless and Jesus calls us to be sleepless too. It is not enough just to be sleepless, but it is where Jesus calls us to begin. Keep awake.
This first week of Advent is about waiting for a better world and we are waiting. But it is also about hope. And I think it is difficult, in weeks like this one, to find hope. I am reluctant to settle for a candy-coated version that—intentionally or inadvertently—diminishes the truly heinous characteristics of our modern world. In my life as a white, upper-middle class Christian American, I’ve been taught that hope looks like kindness in the face of violence and friendship in adversity.
And there is some of that this week. There is that viral photo of the young black protester in Portland crying and hugging a cop. There are stories of protesters who protected businesses from looting even while they protested. There are the powerful words of Michael Brown’s family telling others who share their grief and anger, “let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.”
But I have also been listening to friends who grew up learning to fear systems that claimed to protect, who were taught young that they were feared and hated by the world for the color of their skin. They have been talking about how there is hope, too, in outrage that refuses to be silenced. There is hope in the breaking point. There is hope, essential Christ-like hope, in the angry voice that says, “We will not sleep, and we will not calm down, and we will be heard. Our lives matter.”
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow which confronts racial injustice in our legal system, wrote a piece this week for the NY Times about talking to her young son in the hours before the Ferguson decision. She reveals that at first she lied to him and said that she expected a hopeful outcome, but then she told him the truth. And in the wake of his outrage, she reflected,
“My son is telling me now that the people in Ferguson should fight back. A minute ago, he was reminiscing about waving to Officer Friendly. Now he wants to riot.
I tell him that sometimes I have those feelings too. But now I feel something greater. I am proud of the thousands of people of all colors who have taken to the streets in nonviolent protest, raising their voices with boldness and courage, capturing the attention and the imagination of the world. They’re building a radical movement for justice, one that would make the freedom fighters who came before them sing from the heavens with joy.
I tell my son, as well as my daughters, as we sit around the dinner table, stories of young activists organizing in Ferguson, some of them not much older than they are. I tell them about the hip-hop artist Tef Poe, who traveled with Michael Brown’s parents to Geneva to testify before a United Nations subcommittee about police militarization and violence. I tell them about activists like Phillip B. Agnew, Tory Russell, Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton, who marched in the streets and endured tear gas while waving signs bearing three words: “Black Lives Matter.”
I’ve met some of these activists, I say. They believe, like you do, that we should be able to live in a world where we trust the police and where all people and all children, no matter what their color or where they came from, are treated with dignity, care, compassion and concern. These courageous young people know the tools of war, violence and revenge will never build a nation of justice. They told me they’re willing to risk their lives, if necessary, so that kids like you can live in a better world.
My son is stirring his mashed potatoes around on his plate. He looks up and says, ‘Right now, I’m just thinking I don’t want anything like this ever to happen again.’”
There is hope in a child who cannot help but be incensed at the idea of an unjust world. There is hope in those who risk their lives for the possibility of a better world, who refuse to go unheard even if they have to scream. And there is hope too in the holy discomfort, in the irrepressible outrage, in that nauseating feeling in our gut that keeps us up at night at the thought of Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and so many more. There is hope in the sleeplessness. It is the hope of the coming Christ, who whispers while we wait through that long sleepless night, “Keep awake, keep alert, do not let this broken world lull you to sleep and dream of no better reality. Be sleepless. Keep awake and hope. With one another—and with me.”