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Keep Awake The First Sunday of Advent

Cecile B. DeMille was the founding father of American cinema - the first director and

producer of what are often called “epic” movies. Like that version of “The Ten Commandments”

in which Charlton Heston played Moses. It’s said DeMille once gave some advice to a young

movie maker: “Start with an earthquake, then build to a climax.”

From the very first words we heard, in the first verse of our first lesson, where Isaiah

invites God to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at

your presence” (64:1)…to those ominous words in our Gospel passage…On this first Sunday in

Advent our lessons, as the young’uns would say, are Epic!

In this, the beginning of a new church year, we’re given a blockbuster-movie-like ending.

And the thing we hear three times in the final verses of our Gospel text today, the last words

before Mark will turn the page, in his version of the Gospel, to the plot to kill Jesus…the words

of Jesus are: “Keep alert…keep awake…keep awake” (13:33,35,37).

Does anyone here really want to hear those words? I don’t know about you, but I think -

in our sleep-deprived lives, in our 24-7-365, sleep-apnea-impacted world - I think these words

do not fall well on our ears. “Keep awake”? Really? Really, Jesus?

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the preferred translation by most

Episcopalians and other Christians since 1989, renders the phrase “keep awake.” The “old”

Revised Standard Version put it this way: “Take heed: watch!” To keep watch is to stay on the

lookout, to be vigilant, constantly, especially in dark, dangerous times.

Like when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane. We can find Jesus there in the next, the

fourteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. In the garden, Jesus found his disciples sleeping. He woke

Peter up and said, “Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not

come into the time of trial” (Mark 14:38). There’s a chant that describes the invitation of Jesus

to that “keep awake” kind of mind: Stay with me, remain here with me; watch and pray, watch

and pray (Taize).

Of course, in the movies, especially when the plot is thick and deep in a battle or a war,

there’s a sentry, soldier, or spy who keeps watch. If they’re lucky, the actors in those movies who

play someone keeping watch have others with whom they can take turns sleeping, while

someone else stays awake. But our Gospel story isn’t a movie.

Neither is the story of our 21st century lives. Christian educator Debie Thomas made a

list, in case we can’t or don’t want to remember it all: “Relentless war in Ukraine. Unspeakable

violence in Israel and Gaza. Ongoing…poverty, political brokenness, and racism.” Let’s add

rampant local crime to that list. “As we approach (Advent) and a new Church year,” she says,

“we find ourselves, once again, in a world that threatens to overwhelm us. Many of us are

bewildered, grieving, fearful, and exhausted” (“Naming Where We Are,” 11/26/23). My friends,

we may wonder, “Why stay awake for all that?” We may even wonder, but may be afraid to ask:

“Where. Is. God?”

Happy New Church Year?? Is this really how it starts? In the midst of what one song

calls “the most wonderful time of the year,” our Advent lessons help us get real. These days, our

world is not OK, let alone wonderful.

I think asking “Where is God?” can be another way of saying “God, we need you. We

need you to show up - and stay. We need you to hold us, heal us, and restore us to sanity. We’re

your beloved children, God, and we need you to share some love with us.”

So, we wait. We prepare. We get ready for God to show up. And, maybe, we even try to

keep awake, to watch and pray, while “we wait for a future, now hidden from view,” in the words

we sang while lighting that first candle on the Advent wreath.

Jesus suggests that whether it’s watching a fig tree to see when it’s ready to put forth

leaves and bear fruit; whether it’s staying awake while waiting for the master of the house to

come home - Jesus suggests that, no matter what, we need to get ready for, we need to stay

awake for, what the future holds.

And what does the future, God’s future look like? What if it’s a future that’s more like the

present, here and now? What if, instead of nowhere, God is here, God is now?

Of all the news emerging from Israel and Gaza since October 7th, it’s the stories of

children who have died, children who are being held hostage, children who have finally been

released - it’s those stories that keep me awake to suffering and injustice, to the need for God in

our world. It’s the stories of children that wake me up to the God who is here and now, the God

who is waiting for us to do something, the God who wants and waits to help us make a

difference in the lives of those children, children who live with us in this broken, beautiful world

- the only world we have.

War stories about children help keep me awake to the need all children have to be safe,

healthy and free. Children are always “the least of these who are members of (God’s) family,” to

borrow a phrase from last week’s Gospel account (Matthew 25:40). We, too, are God’s children.

We, too, may feel like or even be one of “the least of these.”

And so, these days, during this season of Advent, we are called to “keep awake” for the

God who comes, the God who is in Jesus, the Christ Child. These days there’s another

expression that has to do with staying awake. It’s called staying “woke.” “Stay Woke” is a phrase

first used by African Americans in the 1930s to describe how to be more aware of injustice -

especially racial injustice - and how to do something about it.

Nearly a century later that old phrase “stay woke” has fallen on hard times. And yet, to

stay “woke” to the wars and injustice of our world is, I think, another way for us to consider how

we can get ready for the coming of Jesus, the Christ Child.

Fellow children of God: God is not nowhere. God is now here - here, now.

And God is coming. So…Take heed! Watch! Keep alert! Keep awake! AMEN.

~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg


All Saints’ Episcopal Church

1508 South White Station Road

Memphis TN 38117


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