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It's Hard to Stay Awake. Light the Candle of Hope

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse

First Sunday of Advent

Sunday December 3, 2023

Gospel ~ Mark 13:24-37

We tend not to be the best sleepers, in this modern age. We live in a world where the lights never turn off. We go to sleep with our phones. We wake in the middle of the night to worries that seem large and overwhelming. We now have apps to teach us how to sleep – which really comes as natural as breathing – and podcasts to lull us to close our eyes. The use of sleeping medications is on the rise. This pattern hardly improves as the holidays approach, and the demands on our time grow, our anxiety about family rises, and the expectations we put on ourselves seem heavy. And so, in the gospel this morning, when Jesus urges us to “Stay awake,” we can be forgiven for thinking wearily: it is just one more thing to add to the list. Maybe we will stay awake next year.

And yet, we know what happens when we sleep through life. When we go through the motions. There are the big picture societal mistakes, when we fail to see evil as it is happening, or injustice when it occurs, and because of this, because we are all dozing at the wheel, evil creeps to power while our eyes are closed. These mistakes are real, especially now, in a world of distractions, polarization, and argument.

But today, I want to talk about what it means for us to stay awake as individuals guided by the gospel, especially as we take our first steps into Advent, and the daily countdown to Christmas, and all the potential joy and the real stress that it can bring.

We are all creatures of habit. Habits form from the time we are children, from interactions with our parents and siblings, the friends we have, the teachers we get. Those habits form who we are, and how we engage with one another. Over time, they become more entrenched.

Some of these habits – resilience in the face of hardship, for instance – are gifts. Others are clearly burdens we carry, both for ourselves and for those around us. And these are the ones we need to stay awake to. These are the ones that make it hard for the gospel to act through us.

It is not easy. Some days we feel it is, frankly, impossible. In fact, our behaviour and attitudes are extremely hard to change. Workplaces have been trying to do so by offering diversity training to CEOs and managers. By teaching them about unconscious bias – the ways they might exclude or fail to promote women or those from diverse backgrounds without even realizing they are doing so. In the same way, campuses are trying to teach bystander-training so that people will intervene when they see harassment or sexual assault.

And yet, what the research shows is that while these programs are effective as education, the changes they make in attitudes don’t often seem to last – and they have had even less success in changing actual behaviour. That is, people eventually go back to thinking the same way they always did. Our attitudes and behaviours are hard to change.

In other words, we constantly need to be hearing the lesson of the gospel. Jesus is a great teacher. It’s as if he understood cognitive science long before scientists could actually study the brain. He teaches us the same lessons – kindness, generosity, tolerance -- over and over again, with his parables and with accounts of his life in a way that tries to keep our brain interested. He is trying all sorts of ways to get through to us, so that we can try to truly incarnate the gospel.

In other words, he is trying to keep us awake.

So, what should we be especially awake to? This Advent, perhaps we could all think about the bad habits we have fallen into – thinking the worst of people, trying to control others, losing our temper. We need to stay awake to those moments – and have a plan to stop them when they happen. We also need to be careful of the expectations we have for what is to come, and of the narratives we write before they happen: the ones that say people will always behave a certain way, or this family gathering won’t go well. These are the kinds of moments we need to stay awake to.

Perhaps, we’ll want to say a prayer, or recall a parable that we have heard over the last few months. Maybe there is some other reminder we can put in place. I know someone who wears an elastic band that she snaps when she finds herself spiraling into negative thoughts.

When I was a young boy, my parents started an Advent practice where on first Advent we gathered as a family and chose a name out of a bowl. The name on the paper was known only to the recipient. That name became our Advent Secret Friend. And we spent the Season of Advent doing random acts of kindness for that person without their knowledge that we were doing them. At the end of the season, we would reveal who our secret friend was. The interesting thing about this exercise was that the true revelation was received in both directions. The giver of good deeds was awakened to the joy of giving as much as the receiver. The Season of Advent helped our family to wake up out of the sleepiness of our routines and habits.

Stay awake. For this, as our gospel says, is when and how we will see Jesus. Not only in those around us. But also, in ourselves. Amen.

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