Text: Matthew 24:36-44
In the name of Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.
My parents, my college roommates, anyone I’ve ever shared a home with will tell you. I love to sleep. I am a championship sleeper. I can sleep on subway cars, in crowded waiting rooms. I can sleep sitting up. I can sleep in the front row of the classroom.
Once, on a trip to the Middle East during seminary I was on a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee. My classmates and I were remembering how in the gospel of Matthew, after delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus boarded a boat on the very sea that we were now crossing and a windstorm came up on the sea that terrified the disciples so much that they had to wake Jesus up from a nap in order for him to calm the storm (Mt 8:24-27). Half an hour later I was sleeping on the deck of the boat. I’m not trying to draw a comparison here, I’m just saying: I like to sleep.
And, what goes along with my love of sleep is my deep aversion to waking up. I hate waking up. Especially now that we are living outside of Daylight Savings Time and the snows have begun to fall. It gets dark before I leave the church office most days now, and by the time I get home all I want to do is sleep. When the alarm goes off in the morning I am cozily tucked under my covers, surrounded by pillows, buried below a warm comforter. It is dark outside and all I want to do is stay there the entire day.
Looking around the natural world I would venture to say that this makes me like most of the warm-blooded animals around. I’m like a bear, or a squirrel. Beginning with Thanksgiving, continuing after worship today with our Advent potluck, and stretching right on through the rest of the holiday season, we are all collecting food, stuffing ourselves against the coming winter cold, and preparing to hibernate. It is the natural order of things. It’s how we respond to the cold and the dark. We sleep. We dream.
The call to binge consumption is all around us this season. Each evening when I arrive home from work and check my mailbox I find at least one, but often as many as three catalogs filled with holiday gift suggestions. Restoration Hardware has made it a point to send me one a week since the week before Thanksgiving – just in case I’ve already tossed the last one. Pre-paid holiday gift cards are suddenly everywhere. I can purchase the gift of coffee, digital music downloads or gasoline on a plastic gift card. There’s barely anywhere I can go in the course of a day without being issued an invitation to consume something else. To stuff just one more purchase onto my debit card.
Along with the flurry of shopping, there is a massive amount of dreaming going on. With each purchase there is the little fantasy about watching the gift be opened, the joy on the recipient’s face, the acknowledgement that we remember them – that we know them well enough to know what they will enjoy. The act of shopping, of consuming, draws us into these pleasant daydreams of closeness and intimacy shared with family and friends. The whole season does that. I drive down Lincoln Avenue, through Lincoln Square, and see telephone poles wrapped in garland, dressed with red velvet bows, garnished with tiny white lights. Storefronts show off their festive displays and frost their windows with fake snow. Just driving from one place to the next, I’m surrounded by a holiday fantasy and I’m encouraged to keep dreaming. The dreams keep us remembering the past – the idyllic dreams of nostalgia. The shopping keeps us focused on the future – fantasies of the perfect Christmas morning. The whole culture seems to be handing us a mug of warm milk and encouraging us to go softly, gently back to sleep.
But not this room! Look around. The walls have been stripped bare of their banners. The side altars are missing their familiar dressings. The familiar signs that point to our history are gone. Even our hymnals have changed this week! Gone are the green and the blue and the rainbow books that stuffed our pew-backs. We’re down to one red hymnal and worship book. Things are stripped down. It’s much harder to stay in the dream of nostalgic past years remembered, or wistful futures in a room like this. There’s just these basic things: us, an assembly, sitting in front of a pool of water and a cross.
When I finally crawl out of bed in the morning I do two things: I drink a glass of cold water and I hop in the shower. My apartment gets really dry, especially in the winter when the radiators kick on. After a night of sleep my eyes and my tongue feel like they’ve wicked every drop of moisture right out of my body. The glass of water and the shower are the morning are part of the waking up process.
A few weeks back some of us were at Resurrection Lutheran Church for the ordination of Jen Rude to the ministry of word and sacrament. That worship service began with a thanksgiving for baptism, just like ours did today. As the presiding minister for that service it was my job to stand at the back of the sanctuary at the baptismal font with a sprig of evergreens and sprinkle the choir and the clergy as they processed in. Then I moved down the center aisle dipping my branch of greens in the water that we’d blessed with our thanksgiving and casting it out over the congregation. This wasn’t just my own playful trick on the assembly, it’s a ritual of remembering our baptism called asperges. The word comes from the Latin used at the beginning of the 51st psalm
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Ps 51:1-2)
A little water on the face helps with waking up. Remembering our baptism at the beginning of worship is a way of starting right – remembering the waters that brought us into this family and that we return to as a reminder of God’s renewable resources of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are a wonderful way to begin this new year in the life of our church. So much of our time is wasted holding on to dreams of the past, nursing old hurts that keep us stuck in dreams that take on nightmarish qualities. It’s not just our church, it’s our world. Whether in our electoral politics or on the international stage, we are locked in conflicts that have become nightmares – the kind that feel like there is no way out. It seems naïve to hope that something new could happen, but it can – and it does.
I grew up during the years of a divided Germany, when we thought the Berlin Wall would be with us for life. It has fallen. I was in high school when Mandela was released from prison, where the world thought he was serving a life sentence. New things are being born in the world all around us. The creation is giving birth to itself.
We start this new year in the church in a room stripped of its past, filled with the water of life, waiting for a new birth. I suppose, when you think about it, as the body of Christ – awaiting the Advent of Christ – we are in the process of being ourselves reborn. We are awaiting the dawn of our new selves. We are waking up with all the shock and all the vigor of a newborn infant. It is not cozy, or comfortable, this waking up – but like any live birth, it is a miracle.
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” (Rom. 13:11-12a).