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The Moment to Wake from Sleep
Sermon on Romans 13:8-14
I have been following the lectionary, the three-year cycle of appointed readings for Sunday worship, for over twenty years, but I continue to discover things I didn’t know about it. For example, today’s passage from Romans comes up twice over a three-year period, so it must be important. Besides today, the other time is the first Sunday of Advent -- the themes of waiting and watchfulness we find in this text are Advent themes, along with the images of darkness and light.
So Paul strikes an Advent note of longing coupled with eager expectation as he calls on the church in Rome to “wake from sleep…for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. …Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
The perspective of Paul’s communities was different from ours. They believed that Christ would be coming back sometime soon. It would take a couple of decades for the church to consider that perhaps this return would be delayed – indeed they couldn’t have imagined the delay of so many centuries – but for the meantime Paul and his churches believed they were living at the threshold of a new age. From the New Testament perspective, Christians live in the nexus between two ages – an old age that is passing away, and a new age that will be inaugurated when Christ comes back. Christians live in this “in-between time.”
In this time of intersecting ages, Paul’s summons to wake from sleep rings with a strong note of urgency. Christians, Paul says, do not have time to waste. Every moment counts, because Christians of the present age must be engaged in constant spiritual warfare – they need to be prepared for unceasing combat with the powers of darkness. To Paul and his churches, the world outside the church was plunged in spiritual darkness; the church existed in territory occupied by unseen hostile powers.
This kind of language often sounds a little over-the-top to twenty-first century ears. We don’t generally talk about unseen negative powers, but in the religious experience of the New Testament writers, such powers are real, active, and violently opposed to God’s good intentions for humanity. And really, some days it is hard to read your news feed or turn on the TV news and not believe that the powers of darkness are still very much alive and at work.
In Paul’s view the activity of these powers could infect the church, too. Their activity was manifest in self-indulgent pleasures in the individual, in jealousy and quarrels in the community. These, too, are the works of darkness.
Though it is unfashionable, I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss Paul’s language of spiritual warfare. Paul’s summons to “wake up” is just as urgent for us as it was for the Roman Christians.
I say this because no matter when you live or where you live it is possible to be sound asleep, oblivious to the things that really matter. You can live your life in a frenzy of activity, and still be sleepwalking through it.
“Sleepwalking” through life can be a temptation for all of us. It’s what we do to ignore the harsher realities of human existence and, often, to avoid the deepest truths of our own lives. “Sleepwalking” in modern-day America can take the form of mindless consumerism, living from one purchase to the next. It can take the form of overwork, trying to justify ourselves and our lives by how much productive work we can accomplish. It can take the form of obsession with achievement, perfectionism, a need to keep several balls successfully in the air at all times. “Sleepwalking” can be seen in every kind of addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, food, work, exercise, TV, or the Internet. “Sleepwalking” is simply whatever we do to such an extreme that it blunts the edges of our real selves, makes us dead to the Spirit of God and blind to the world around us.
In these days of quarantine and isolation, the idea of sleepwalking takes on a slightly different resonance. Some people are busier than ever, especially those with young children at home. But many people find themselves suddenly and unpleasantly idle. What I hear again and again from people is that although they may have been released from the round of ceaseless activity that was so typical of life in the Washington metro area, with the competing demands of work, child care, self-care, home care, church and volunteer commitments, and everything else, what they are fighting now is boredom, the tedium of days that all feel exactly alike. Saturdays don’t feel any different from Mondays, and September feels barely different from June. We have the feeling of having been stuck in place since last March, especially now that so many schools have had to revert to the online learning that we all thought was temporary back in April and May.
The columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about the problem of boredom in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Without the distractions of our formerly busy lives, Kristof writes, we are feeling understimulated, filled with a “sense of restless desire.” We feel enervated by the absence of outside stimulation. People haven’t always had such a problem with boredom, though; Kristof says the very concept of boredom seems to be a modern invention. Before consumer culture came along with its perpetually changing enticements, people accepted a certain amount of tedium as just a normal part of life. They read, they talked with each other, they wrote letters, they took a walk, they sat with themselves and pursued their thoughts. They got to know themselves. Kristof suggests that we modern people have structured our lives with so many activities so that we will never, ever have to be alone with ourselves. If that is true, it is a spiritual problem. If we are unable to spend time with ourselves – our deeper, less comfortable selves – it doesn’t really matter whether we have our days fully scheduled or have nothing to do – either way, we are sleepwalking through life.
“Sleepwalking” is really another word for spiritual laziness. It’s related to what the ancients used to call “the noonday demon,” a kind of inner, spiritual lassitude comparable to the physical and mental fatigue that you might feel after eating a big lunch. It may be felt as a tormenting restlessness, a desire to be anywhere else but where we are, doing anything but what we are doing. It’s a sign of living on the surface of things, not daring to face our inner hungers, or to face the hungers of the world around us. If being a Christian doesn’t lead us to live our lives with an ever deepening awareness, what is the point? Boredom may in fact be a good thing if it forces us to sit with just ourselves and God for a while, to entertain thoughts and feelings that may unsettle us, disturb us, and awaken us.
If we are “filled with a restless desire,” it is probably not going to be satisfied entirely by a return to pre-pandemic conditions. Deep down, I think what we all long for is a world that is more truthful, beautiful, peaceful and loving than the world we know now. This longing will not be satisfied by a shopping trip, a vacation in a distant place, or being able to eat out at a restaurant. It is the longing of our hearts to live as close to God as possible while waiting and watching to see signs of God’s kingdom here on earth. As painful as it may be sometimes, this very longing is a sign that we are awake. If we have never felt this kind of longing, this tension between the world as it is and the world God intends, we may well be sleepwalking through life.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we know what time it is. Now is the moment to wake from sleep. Now is the time to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and stride out into the daylight, awake, alive, filled with longing, but also filled with confidence – confidence that the work God has begun will be completed. “The night is far gone. The day is near.”
Manassas Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2020