Are You Sleeping?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 33
November 19, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Whether we are sleeping or awake, Christ will return like a thief in the night. No one knows when that will be, so we have to be prepared at all times. Paul's message to the Thessalonians is to stay sober, rest well at night and don't sleep in the light. Like the first-century church, we need to stay awake so that we don't miss seeing the Lord's work that surrounds us.

In the nursery rhyme round "Frere Jacques" that many of us learned as children, we asked the question: "Are you sleeping, Are you sleeping? Brother John? Brother John?" We then chided Brother John with the refrain, "Morning bells are ringing. Morning bells are ringing. Ding, ding, dong. Ding, ding, dong." In other words: "It's time to wake-up, John, for morning has come and the bells are beckoning us to a new day."

We have all been on both sides of a wake up call. It can be so hard to get out of that comfortable, cozy bed when we know we could easily sleep for another hour or two. And then to have someone standing over us, barking at us like an insistent puppy to wake up and get up, is more than some of us can take. But it's equally difficult to be the one who has to roust another from a deep, comfortable sleep and into the challenges of a new day.

Paul wants the Thessalonians to avoid being rudely awakened and taken by surprise. He's telling them to always be ready for the Lord's return so that when Jesus comes, they will not be unprepared. Like a woman who goes into labor, he tells them, once the process starts there is no turning back.

Sleep patterns

It's interesting how our sleeping patterns go through cycles. As preschool children, we were often the first in our household to awake, especially on days like Saturday when the older members of the family might not have to get up for any particular reason. We went to bed as darkness fell and awakened at first light so as not to miss out on anything.

Then we hit the teenage years. Then, we liked to stay up late into the darkness of night and if no one disturbed us, we could sleep until noon or even later, able to sleep for 10 or 12 hours at a time. The darkness seemed more appealing to us than light during those transitional years.

As we get older, the ability to sleep long hours seems to diminish, and 7 or 8 a.m. becomes "sleeping in" for us, while 10 p.m. might be staying up late.

So both early in life, and during our later years, we make the most of the daylight by staying awake, while our in-between years may well be years of spending more time in the dark. To go along with that, as youngsters we are often afraid of the dark because of the unknown that we cannot see. As we get older, we are afraid of what might happen to us when we are alone in the dark. Conversely, during those middle years we have little fear of darkness and might even border on worshiping it.

Our lives as Christians have a definite resemblance to our sleeping patterns. There are times when we are wide-awake in the light and are able to rest well in the darkness because we are confident that Christ will protect us. There are other times when we live recklessly in the darkness and sleep in the light without regard to what time it is. And there are those times that we fear the darkness and lie awake trembling in worry over some situation of our lives.

William Marshall tells a story in Eternity Shut in a Span about a woman who had been having trouble getting to sleep at night for several years because she feared burglars. One night her husband heard a noise in the house, so he went downstairs to investigate. When he got there, he did indeed find a burglar. "Good evening," he said to the intruder. "I am pleased to see you. If you would, I'd like you to come upstairs and meet my wife. She has been waiting 10 years to meet you."

Spiritually awake

Paul, in his writing to the Thessalonians, is giving them the assurance that in Jesus Christ it doesn't matter whether we are awake or asleep, we are safe. His message is for us is to stay "sober," rest well at night and don't sleep in the light. Know when to sleep and know when to be awake, and be prepared for the day of the Lord's returning at all times, because it will happen like a thief coming in the night. If you have made spiritual preparations for such an event, you have nothing to worry about. If you haven't made preparations, then do so immediately.

During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington and his Continental army had secretly crossed the Delaware River and were advancing on Trenton, New Jersey, where the Hessians were encamped. A loyalist spy hurried to the headquarters of Colonel Johann Rall, the Hessian commander, carrying this urgent message. The spy was denied an audience with the commander and instead was instructed to write his message on a piece of paper and leave it. A porter took the note to the Hessian colonel, but because Rall was involved in a poker game he stuffed the unread note into his pocket. When the guards at the Hessian camp began firing their muskets in a futile attempt to stop Washington's army, Rall was still playing cards.

Without time to organize, the Hessian army was captured on the day after Christmas, 1776. The Hessians were sleeping when they should have been awake.

Every once in a while, something comes along to wake us up: a death, a birth, a sickness, an accident or a loved one heading off to war. Or perhaps we fall in love or the one we love tells us that he or she is leaving us. Maybe we get a poor report card or the opportunity to take a better job or a promotion. Or, and this is the biggest one of all, we hear the call of Jesus. We go through life as though we are sleeping until something comes along like a slap in the face and wakes us up to the fact that life is not a sleepwalk. We are suddenly aware that we cannot just walk around in a daze oblivious to what is going on around us, and in disbelief that our lives will one day come to an end.

Awake to others

In The Divine Intruder, James R. Edwards writes about a catastrophe on Mount Everest in May 1996 in which a dozen mountaineers perished. One of the most disturbing stories to come out of this tragedy was that of two Japanese climbers who bypassed three injured, freezing climbers because they were so focused on reaching the summit themselves. It was later revealed that the Japanese climbers had sufficient provisions to render aid to the stranded climbers, but they did not want to jeopardize their own ascent by stopping to help. As a result, all three climbers died.

When asked why they had not stopped, one of the Japanese climbers put it this way, "We were too tired to help. Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality." Edwards was sickened by this story. He felt it was a callous and contemptible example of the selfish nature of humanity, an example of turning a sleepy eye to the needs of others.

Then a few years later, while he was leading a college study tour to the Middle East, he was hiking up Mount Sinai, hoping to reach the summit by sunrise. He describes this hike up 7,500-foot Mount Sinai as being tame in comparison to Mount Everest. As Edwards and his students neared the top of Mount Sinai, two Bedouins carrying a man down the mountain passed them. The man was unconscious and appeared in critical condition. Edwards suspected that the man was suffering from pulmonary edema, a malady of mountaineering caused by ascending too rapidly. This condition can be fatal unless the climber affected is taken rapidly to a lower altitude. Edwards considered stopping to help carry the man down the mountain. But his own desire to make it to the top in time to see the sunrise won out over his charitable feelings. Without further thought, he gave one of the Bedouins his flashlight and continued upward. He assured himself the man would make it.

Edwards says that the sunrise from the summit was glorious, but it was overshadowed by what took place on the way down the mountain. Not far below the place where they had passed the Bedouins, a figure draped with a blanket was lying on the ground. It was the man who had been carried by the Bedouins, and he was now dead. From there, every step down the mountain jarred his conscience. What he had found so disgusting in the two Japanese climbers on Everest had been essentially repeated in his own action on Mount Sinai.

In our sleep, we can't see the needs of those around us.

We should not sleep when we have to get our house cleaned up for the return of a King. We should not sleep when we have to get our lives in order for the work of our Savior. We should not walk in our sleep when it makes us forget that Jesus was once here and that he has promised to return, and that we have work to do in preparation.

Morning bells are ringing. Ding. Ding. Dong.