Stay Awake / First Sunday in Advent

Matthew 24:36-44

42Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your LORD is coming.

Have you ever fallen asleep at the wrong time or in the wrong place? That’s so embarrassing, but it’s a common experience. It’s hard to fight off sleep when your body decides to shut down, especially on a Sunday morning. But did you know that during the 2019 Super Bowl game, the deputy editor and producer with Sporting News, spotted a man sleeping in the stands and took a photo. She kept an eye on the man and reported that he slept through the entire first quarter of the game. The photo was posted on Twitter that afternoon, and by that evening it had received almost 5 million views.

To put this into perspective, this game was viewed by an estimated 102 million people worldwide. The average ticket price was between $5,000-$6,000. And the Kansas City Chiefs, who hadn’t won in 50 years, came from behind to win it. And yet this fan, who was sitting in the thick of all this excitement, couldn’t help but fall asleep.

I myself have fallen asleep during a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert sitting in the second row, stage left at the Palace Theatre, so I get it.

In the early 1900s in the United Kingdom, at a time when alarm clocks were expensive and unreliable, you could hire a human alarm clock to ensure you didn’t oversleep. This person’s job consisted of going around to people’s homes and knocking on their doors or windows until they finally got out of bed. One well known waker-upper used a fishing pole to tap on people’s windows. Another, was known around London’s East End for using a pea shooter to shoot dried peas at her clients’ windows until they finally woke up.

And even though she can afford the best alarm clock in the world, I read that Queen Elizabeth liked to be awakened by Scottish bagpipes. A piper plays under her window each morning from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Jesus’ warning in our scripture lesson this morning can be summed up in two words: WAKE UP! Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 24 just a few days before His arrest and crucifixion. He knew He wouldn’t be with His disciples much longer. And even though this passage sounds like one long warning, it’s also a message of tremendous hope.

In our Bible passage, Jesus told His disciples that a day is coming when He will return as the Son of Man, the Messiah. And though there may be false prophets and false messiahs and frightening world events that precede His coming, it wasn’t their job to be afraid. Followers of Jesus are never meant to operate in fear. It’s not our job to speculate or to wait passively. Instead, we’re to watch and be ready. As verse 42 in our lesson reads, therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. And that word He uses for “keep watch” is literally translated as “stay awake.” Therefore, stay awake, because you don’t know on what day your Lord will come.

There is a town off the coast of Norway called Long-year-byen which just happens to be the most northernmost city in the world. And because they’re the northernmost city in the world, they’ve developed a tradition of keeping watch, of staying awake, which happens in the springtime every year. On October 25, the sun sets in Long-year-byen below the horizon and doesn’t rise above the horizon again until March 8th. For four long months, the town of Longyearbyen is plunged into darkness. Can you imagine how depressing that would be?

But on March 8, all the citizens of Long-year-byen gather on the steps of the local hospital. Everyone in town is watching, everyone in town is waiting, no one wants to miss it. Around 12:15am every year, the sun peeks over the horizon for the first time in four months. And the moment that the sun appears above the horizon marks the beginning of a week-long festival in Long-year-byen to celebrate the return of the light.

Can you imagine anyone in this town sleeping through the first ray of sunlight in four months? So, it’s even more ridiculous to think that anyone, having been warned that Jesus would return, would sleep through His arrival. But then Jesus goes on to say in verse 44, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him.” So how do we make ourselves ready for Jesus the Messiah to return? What does it look like to live moment-to-moment with the expectation that Jesus is returning? What would become most important in our lives, and what would lose its importance? Jesus gives us the best example of what it means to live every moment in hopeful, obedient expectation of God working in the world. So, we can look to the daily life of Jesus to see how to live out that call to stay awake and be ready for His return.

We learn from Jesus’ daily life, is that He prayed regularly and intentionally to align His heart and mind with God’s. A pilot had been flying through fog when he crashed into the side of a mountain. Another pilot says that it was a standard part of their training to fly up higher in a fog. They were supposed to rise high enough to see over the fog. As he said, they keep going up until they CAN see.

And that’s the point of our prayers too. The Bible tells us that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55: 8-9). When we pray and align our hearts and minds with the heart and mind of God, we are rising above our current circumstances and priorities to see life as God sees it.

We also learn from Jesus’ daily life that He paid attention to the needs right in front of Him. This is another thing to remember about living in hopeful expectation of Jesus’ return. Jesus paid attention to the needs right in front of Him. He viewed every moment of life as an opportunity from God to use His resources and influence to change people’s lives. This was Jesus’ nature and His calling. How can we make it our nature and calling? That goes back to praying in such a way that we align our heart and mind with the heart and mind of God. We have so many competing priorities and demands on our time and resources. To pay attention to others’ needs in the way that Jesus did requires both discipline and love. We need the discipline to sort through those competing priorities and demands while asking ourselves the question, what needs has God put right in front of me that I can meet?

And we learn from Jesus’ daily life that He never missed an opportunity to share God’s love. It takes boldness to live a lifestyle of love in our culture. We live in an individualistic society. And this individualism can lead to loneliness and lack of trust in others. It creates a sense of anxiety that urges us to put our needs first. But read through the life of Jesus, and you’ll see that He never missed an opportunity to share God’s love, even when it cost Him time and energy and His reputation. And, of course, it cost Him His life.

The cross, the central symbol of the Christian faith, is indisputable proof that Jesus’ love for humanity has no limits. Jesus’ love is still changing the world today. Imagine how we could change the world around us if we looked at every moment as an opportunity to share the love of God.

A few years ago, a professor was teaching at a college in Michigan. One of her students didn’t seem interested in the course. She avoided eye contact with her; some days she even put her head down on the desk and napped a little in class.

One morning when she walked into class, the professor felt a sudden strong urge to give her the money in her wallet.  But she brushed it off, worried that it would offend her or create a strange relational dynamic between them. Professors don’t just give their students money for no reason. So, she didn’t follow through with the urge.

But as the young student left class that day, another thought popped into the professor’s head. This thought went like this: You keep asking me to give you big opportunities, but you haven’t been faithful in this small one. Uh-oh. Now she was convinced this urging was from God. She thought, she had been praying for God to use me, and now maybe He was, and she was ignoring the opportunity. She pulled $20, the only cash she had, from her wallet and rushed out in the hallway. The student was nowhere in sight. She had missed her opportunity.

The following Monday morning, the professor asked the young girl to stay after class to talk to her. She pulled $40 from her wallet and handed it to the girl. She apologized for making her uncomfortable, but, she said, God had told her to give her the money and she hoped she would accept it. The girl began to cry. She said, before I stepped in this class, I did something I haven’t done in several years. I prayed.

The student, it turns out, was a single mother who had grown up in foster care. She had no family support for raising her child and had a desperate need for diapers. She had asked a friend for help, but her friend didn’t have any money either. The friend had suggested she pray for the diaper money, a suggestion which offended her. She didn’t even believe in God, but she didn’t have any other options. Just before class, the two young women had prayed that God would provide her with enough money to buy diapers for her baby. And now her professor, whom she had tried to avoid, was answering the prayer she prayed to a God she didn’t believe in.

Over the years, they stayed in touch. The young student became a Christian a few years later too. And, as the professor says, I’ll never ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit again.

I understand that Jesus’ words in this passage are frightening. They’re a clear warning about the threats we all face as we wait for His return. But we can’t let the fear override the promise: Jesus is returning someday! And He has challenged us to stay awake, to be ready because we don’t know the day or the hour. The best way I know to be ready is to live our daily lives as Jesus lived His: praying to align our heart and mind with God’s, taking care of the needs right in front of us, and never missing an opportunity to show God’s love to others. In this way, Jesus will find us ready when He returns to redeem this world.