Keep awake

Not long after I arrived in King’s Lynn, I was asked to address an Afternoon Club for the elderly and speak about my life and ministry. So I gathered together several of the scintillating episodes and intriguing aspects of my life. But as this fascinating speech was delivered,  slowly but surely, one by one, almost everyone closed their eyes and drifted off to sleep. To speak after lunch at a conference is not called the graveyard slot for nothing!

How excruciatingly difficult it can be to stay awake when you are tired. How maddening it is to drift off while watching a television programme you really want to see.  It is almost impossible to conceal sleepiness when someone is talking to you and they see your eyelids closing .  

'Stay awake' says the Lord. Easier said than done.

Staying awake, being vigilant is one of the key Advent themes. In the gospel reading today (Mark 13.33-37) Jesus tells us not to be like servants who abuse the trust of an absent master, but who are active in service, knowing that he could return at any time.

Watchful vigilance is necessary for good defence. A sentry must never fall asleep during his watch, the security of his comrades depend upon him. To fall asleep on sentry duty was formerly a capital offence. One veteran recommended that any soldier who fell asleep on duty should say ‘amen’ when they woke up, so if an officer had caught him, he might just think he was praying!

In his First Letter St Peter recommends sober vigilance, because our adversary the devil prowls around like a lion, waiting to catch an unsuspecting victim to devour. We must not drop our spiritual guard. We have to be vigilant, and not to drift off into bad habits.

Isaiah bemoans that God has given us free will, and questions why God lets us sin. That freedom of action is the work of a loving creator not of a coercive controlling dictator. He has placed in our hearts the ability to do great good and to continue his work of benevolent creation. (Isaiah 64:1-8)    

We can choose to follow the Lord’s ways or follow the path of selfishness and sin. Isaiah uses a striking image of  shriveling up with sin, the life dried out of us, like dead autumn leaves, our self-control is so slight that we are carried away by sins.

Isaiah begged  the Lord to rend the heavens and come down. What Isaiah yearned for, we have received in the coming of Jesus.  

At Christmas we will sing ‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.'  Advent is the time to muck out the spiritual stable, to be in a fit state to receive the Christ child.  ‘O come to us, abide with us our Lord Emmanuel.’ We yearn for God to be with us, but are we getting ready to receive him?

A tired toddler who does not want to miss out on more fun does not give way to sleep without an angry struggle. It can be a veritable struggle for us to resist temptation, but we might also slumber away into bad habits, without realizing. We may just drift off, with at best a pathetic excuse for our bad behaviour. Advent is a good time for a spiritual stock-take in preparation for the great feast of Christmas, and there is no better way of taking stock than examining your conscience and making your confession to a priest.

In the 12th Century, King Stephen and his cousin Matilda fought for the possession of the crown, this country suffered the ravages of anarchy and civil war. A chronicler wrote that during this period of great evil and suffering, ‘Christ and his saints slept.’  That was how it seemed, but it was not true. As Psalm 121 reminds us, ‘he who keeps you will not slumber, behold he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.’ The Lord is never asleep, he is ever watchful for us; present and waiting, every moment we decide to turn to him. As St Paul says, ‘God is faithful.’

This Advent, may we accord our faithful, kind master with the same courtesy, diligence and respect. May we be stirred from our spiritual slumber and be ever active and watchful in his service.