November 29, 2020
“Keep awake,” Jesus says. Stay alert. Pay attention. Perhaps, in today’s vernacular, we might say, “Stay woke.” That term was first used in the 1940’s to refer to awareness of social justice issues. In more recent decades, it has found its way into songs and poetry and common language. Dr. Marcia Riggs of Columbia Theological Seminary defines woke as “being aware of, enraged by, and willing to protest in solidarity with people who are pushed to the margins of society because of systemic oppression manifested as racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia—any and all forms of objectification and dehumanization we enact upon one another.”
Keep awake. Stay woke. For God is coming.
But two thousand years after his life and death, what exactly are we waiting for? And how long can we be expected to keep watch? Doesn’t Jesus understand that alertness is inversely proportionate to the amount of time we are awake? It really seems like an impossible task—a task that isn’t realistic. Isn’t it time we get on with our lives?
Which, of course, is what people have been saying for months, now, as we have been waiting to come up for air—to get back to life, get on with things, go back to normal. Our normal, sleepy, everyday lives, filled with the things we can do almost without thinking. Because we’re tired of waiting. We’re tired of being diligent and watchful. We’re tired of precautions and distancing and the blessed yet cursed technological advances that make education and worship possible and yet seem to fry our brains by the end of the day. We’re tired. We don’t want to stay awake any longer. We’re ready to rest from the challenges that this world has brought us.
The first century Christians would have understood that sentiment. I can’t imagine that their lives together in the glow of a newly resurrected Christ were exactly rosy. Amidst persecution and condemnation, economic adversity and family division, those who followed Jesus knew the reality of exhaustion. They, too, were waiting for change. They, too, were waiting for Jesus to show up and fix the mess this world is in. They, too, were wondering if the restrictions would ever be lifted—if they would be allowed to worship together like they longed for, to gather with friends and family who had been taken from them, to be seen for who they truly were in public—showing their full faces, as it were.
No, we are not the only ones who wait for the true life that Christ has promised. We are not the only ones who find it hard to stay awake when the waiting has become too much. And yet, Jesus tells us stay woke—for God is on the way.
So, Advent—this time of waiting for the coming of the Lord—gives us gifts to share while we wait. We begin with the gift of Truth. In Christ, we are compelled to tell the truth of the world and of ourselves, whether we like it or not. We are broken. The world is broken. And there’s no way to whitewash that reality, no matter how much we want to. The Truth is that racism is still alive and well among us. The Truth is that we’d rather take care of ourselves and our own before we worry about others. The Truth is that our nation was built on the backs of native and African people. The Truth is that we waste money and energy on ridiculous, frivolous things that eventually end up in the trash less than a year later. The Truth is that it is far more comfortable to talk about truth in general terms—brokenness, sin—than begin to identify with the specific things for which we, as individuals and communities, are responsible.
I know that many don’t want to hear a sermon that makes us feel bad about ourselves all the time. That’s not the point of telling the Truth. To tell the Truth means that we can then see our need for a Savior. Without recognizing just how broken we are, we begin to think that the idea of Jesus is precious and sweet—not scandalous and earth-shattering. Yet, that’s exactly what it is. Even though we are preparing for the Christmas Season, we aren’t waiting for a newborn baby to show up in a manger on a silent night. We are waiting for God—the God whom we crucified because Jesus told us the truth about us, and we didn’t like it—to break into this world and shatter the façade we have built around ourselves.
This God—this Christ—is coming back, and that thought should stop us in our tracks. Are we really ready? Do we really want this? And yet, this arrival is the only way to set the world right—to re-create what we have destroyed. Stay woke—God is on the way.
The second gift of Advent is the discipline of waiting. I know—fun, right? Like we haven’t been waiting for these past nine months? Nine months of waiting usually produces something more exciting than additional isolation and zoomed-out kids. But the practice of waiting is important. In our world of instant gratification, we like to speed the process up and get to the end. Instead, we are to learn how to wait with patience—like watching a chrysalis open and a butterfly emerge. If we try to help it along, the butterfly will be forever disabled and unable to fly. The struggle of emerging is what gives it its strength.
So, the ability to wait is like a muscle that needs to be built and strengthened. It needs to be worked. This waiting for the end of the pandemic is so hard, in part, because we’ve forgotten how to wait. We want to speed things along—get back to normal before the world is ready. And in doing so, we hinder ourselves. But we wait for that which is worth waiting for. And those things worth waiting for begin in the dark—in the soft, fertile soil of growth. They begin in the womb of possibility. So, we learn to wait. We learn to be and stay woke—for God is on the way.
The third gift of Advent is the preparation of God’s return. But the God we wait for will not be the God we get. Isaiah cries out for the God who tears open the heavens and makes the mountains quake. He wants the God who destroyed adversaries with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And now in exile, God’s face is hidden, and the people fear that God will not return to them.
This past year has felt like exile to many of us. Between the pandemic and the protests and the injustice and the elections, it’s natural to wonder whether God will really come. We pray the way Isaiah prayed—for a Big God to do Big Things. “Lord, come down,” we pray. “Heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring justice to the oppressed, bring truth to the lies, feed the hungry, strengthen the tired, bring hope to the hurting. Root out corruption. Destroy systemic racism. Thwart corporate greed. Protect this wounded planet before we ravage it past saving, and most of all shield us, O Lord, from our sinful, self-destructive selves.”
It is good that we pray these things—that we hope and even expect these things. But what we’re looking for, waiting for, keeping watch for is a God who comes to us unexpectedly. Frederick Buechner said, “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant's child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too."
Our limitless God chose limits—the dark womb of humanity, the backwater town in a powerless nation, a single life and an agonizing death. This is the God we wait for. It is not the God we choose but the God who chooses us, in spite of all that we are and all that we’ve done—to God, to creation, and to one another.
Therefore, to be woke—to keep awake—is more than just waiting and watching for Jesus to come and set things right. This Advent practice is an opportunity to enter a reality we often want to ignore, especially if we are privileged enough to not have our lives assaulted by the beliefs and ideas of others. To be woke—to keep awake—means to not only look for but to initiate the signs of God’s kin-dom. It means to practice the love of Jesus so that, when the Son of Man does return, those around us can recognize him because they saw him in the faces of those who claim to follow him.
And so, as we wait, we learn to tell the Truth. We learn to be disciplined in our waiting. We learn to expect the unexpected. And we learn to stay woke—to keep awake—for God is on the way.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church