An article appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette this weekend titled “Sleep can wait for Black Friday shoppers.” “‘I’m half asleep’ said Tanya Carlson of Shirley as she wheeled an overflowing carriage to her car and four waiting friends. ‘I’ve been shopping all night.’” She stayed up after her Thanksgiving dinner traveling first to Nashua, New Hampshire for the stores that opened on Thursday evening and then heading back to Massachusetts to shop the ones that opened their doors at the stroke of midnight Friday. “Sarah Shell of Rutland said it made sense to go out all night to shop.” When asked about it, “she has a simple answer. ‘I tell them, ‘Do you know how much we save? … I can give up one night’s sleep.’”
A sermon for the people of St. Mark’s, Southborough on the First Sunday of Advent. Based on Mark 13:24-37.
The season of sleep-deprivation has begun. Long hours at work trying to get things done before the New Year, decorating the house for guests and parties. We need to get out Christmas cards and hit the malls for gifts. There are concerts at school for the kids, and wrapping presents and menu planing and chopping down the tree and baking cookies. The holiday season pulls back the curtain on the reality of our lives: many of us are usually overtired and this just adds to it.
It’s clear that many of us don’t get enough sleep, never mind the parents of young children in our midst who are only getting by on a cocktail of caffeine and love.
In fact, 20% of Americans report that they regularly get less than 6 hours of sleep. In a 2005 Sleep in America survey, “over one-quarter of working adults —28%—said they had missed work or made errors because of sleep-related issues in the previous three months.” (WebMD) Web MD tells us that a lack of sleep puts us at greater risk for heart attacks, heart disease, obesity and, most troubling, an early death. Are we squeezing out every last minute of our days for the fullest life only to have it slowly taken away from us in the process?
So it’s a bit brazen for our patron saint, Mark the Evangelist, to share these words of Jesus, “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.” Keep alert. Stay awake. Be careful or you’ll miss it. Doesn’t Mark know that there’s a buzz in the air right now? We are over-caffeinated, hyped up, stringing along in order to make this season happen. He can accuse of of many things, but being asleep isn’t one of them.
And yet, as Preacher Lillian Daniel puts it: “Let us be clear that while the world’s busyness may seem pointed toward Christmas, it is seldom pointed toward the coming Christ child.” We may be amped up along with our culture, but the voltage leads to hyper-consumerism and a desire to achieve a sort of picture perfect holiday that we saw in a catalog. We tend to forget that those pictures take place on location and have dozens on the team to make it just right, in addition to having the benefits of Photoshop to make it look stunningly unrealistic. There’s no Photoshop app perfecting real life.
So in our desire to achieve the unrealistic, to get all the things done on the check list, to have the most amazing holiday season ever, we squeeze in only a few hours of sleep. As Daniels writes, “We may not be physically asleep, quite the opposite. But in our wakefulness to worldly ways, we fall asleep to the spiritual season, and so we need a wake-up call from the Gospel.” (Daniel, pg 22)
Pay attention to the fig tree, Jesus says. Notice it every day for the tender shoots that will emerge in the springtime. When you do, you’ll know that summer is coming soon. And that’s what it will be like for you when I will return. Pay attention.
While Jesus tells us to keep awake, are we just too tired to notice the subtle changes in our world signaling his return? Would we have enough awareness to notice the fig tree sending out shoots, if we had any idea what a fig tree looked like anyway?
In this season of Advent we await not only the coming of the Christ child in 25 days, but we also long for Christ’s return to this world. We desire the peaceable kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, for that time when joy and peace and love will reign rather than fear and unrest and hatred. Too often, too, too often we see the later in our world. We need only to watch the drama playing out in Ferguson this week, or the one in the Middle East, or possibly the one that took place at our own Thanksgiving tables. Oh, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to those things, to fill our vision instead with the glossy photos of impeccable holiday scenes, but that’s the kind of thing we need to be woken up from. That’s where Jesus’ admonition hits home.
So this is the question before us this morning as we embark on this journey toward Bethlehem: Will we pay attention to the right things this year? Will we continue in the frenzied harried pace of our culture, or will we slow down and get some rest so that we can be fully present in the moments of Christ’s return?
Any preacher will tell you that they preach first and foremost to themselves. For me this is very much the scenario of the cookware dialing over to his friend and saying, “Hey, Kettle? This is Pot. You’re black!” At a clergy wellness conference over a year ago, I spoke with a nurse about my physical health and she politely yet forcefully told me I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I needed, she said, a bedtime routine that I adhered to religiously.
I politely nodded. Bedtime routines are for kids, I scoffingly thought, but I know she’s right. In looking back over the past year, when I have attempted her suggestion to get to bed earlier, to follow the plan of turning off the TV sooner (or never turning it on at all) and reading a book and then saying my prayers, I felt more refreshed and alert the next morning. More awake. More able to notice things.
And so that is my personal plan for this Season of Advent. To get more rest so that I can keep alert to the important things. I don’t want to get so physically drained that come Dec 25 I miss out not only in the joy with family and friends but the amazing beauty of Christ’s nativity. I don’t want to be so tired that I do not notice the breath-taking changes in the natural world this season. Like the arrival of Orion in the night sky. Or the birds coming to the feeder more regularly. Or the frosty chill in the air reminding us that all things must rest for a time in order to spring back to a fullness of life.
Additionally, I do not want to be so distracted by the trappings of this season that I do not notice the places in our world desperately needing the good news of Jesus. Like the hundreds of homeless and those seeking rehab who have been displaced from Boston’s Long Island center due to an unsafe bridge that will take millions of dollars and a few years to repair. Or the young men and women currently in the dozen lock-up units in Westborough. Or those in our own congregation who feel alone or frightened. Jesus’ coming as a child and his coming again in glory bring hope and new life. He ushers in transformation.
So let’s not be so tired and dazed that we miss it this year. Rather let’s get both the physical and spiritual rest and renewal we need so that we can keep alert, and notice the signs and joyfully open the door to the master of our hearts when he returns. Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.
(Lillian Daniel. “Mark 13:24-37: Pastoral Perspective.” Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 1, Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, eds. Pg 22.)