Keep Awake

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 04: Usain Bolt acknowledges the crowd during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the London Stadium on August 4, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Isaiah 64:1-9Psalm 80:1-7, 16-181 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37.

Keep awake. Keep awake.

These December day are short; it’s dark. This morning the sun rose at 6:54 and will set at 3:59 p.m. The darkness can be metaphorical, too, for periods of loss or trouble or worry that can grip our lives. In Mark’s telling, Jesus was speaking to a people who lived in the deep darkness of an oppressive and violent empire.

For those dark days, Jesus advised, “Keep awake.” Now, that might sound like Jesus being a drill sergeant, or a parent on a school day, or your spouse at the opera who has just nudged you back into consciousness, but I think Jesus was giving the people who lived in those dark, desperate days back then… AND us who live in our own dark, desperate days, a genuinely helpful strategy for living hopefully – even in the midst of the darkness.

The first part of the strategy Jesus was passing on here is what author Amy Cuddy calls “faking it until you become it.” In her research she’s found that when we practice physical postures associated with positive things, our brains chemically become more positive… more confident… more awake!

You know how when you win something, you feel incredible and your arms automatically shoot up? It turns out it works the other way too! Even before a race begins, if you put our arms up in that Victorious V shape, our brains release the same chemicals as if we’ve already won! We get those same feelings of accomplishment up front. And with that confidence we can run the race, believing from the start that we can win!

When Jesus says, “Stay Awake” he’s telling us, “fake living in the light until you live in the light!” It’s easy to do God’s work in the world when we feel God is with us. Feeding the hungry, challenging hurtful systems, bringing calm to chaos, and loving one another all flow naturally from that secure feeling we have when God is with us.

When Jesus says “Keep Awake” he’s telling us it works the other way too! When you do the Master’s work… even in the most challenging of times, the work itself the acts of generosity, compassion, of healing and justice open us up to the truth that God is still with us.

The other thing I think Jesus’ command to “Keep Awake” is meant to do, is to train our minds and spirits to see the smallest bits of light around us, even in the darkness. Jesus knew we would be tempted in times of darkness to simply put our heads down, grit our teeth, clench our muscles, and wait for the world to lighten up again.

But Jesus also knew that hunched over, tensed up, with our eyes closed, we’d likely miss even the light of stars falling from the sky!

Jesus asks us to begin now to train ourselves to notice the big things, like moons going dark and the Son of Man coming in the clouds, by practicing noticing the little things. Start by noticing things we often miss… like spicy smell of evergreens. Advent is a season set in darkness and it’s a season calling us to Wake Up even in that darkness.

Our Advent offerings are all designed to help you stay awake or, if necessary, give you a nudge to “Wake Up!”

  • Judy Mullins is leading another 4 part session on contemplative prayer. I urge you to do this, but – wake up! – it starts this Tuesday.
  • Next week, we begin a series of luncheon workshops on “Spirituality for the Second Half of Life”. We’ll provide the lunch and often bring in a speaker or facilitator to touch on matters that are near to the hearts of older adults.
  • On the 16th we’ll again have a guided Quiet Day — to de-numb yourself from pre-Christmas craziness.

Finally, I want to say a word about our liturgy. You know, liturgy (the form and shape, the movement and structure that gives our worship flow) is ancient, predating even Rite One by centuries, and is designed to help us be awake to the presence of God. It is designed to lead us into an encounter with the Holy.

One of my favorite liturgics scholars, Aidan Kavanagh, once said liturgy is like this: we are standing on the edge of a cliff where we are on solid ground and are comfortable, but there’s something of the divine within us that calls us into mystery, into something larger, something less well known, which is the Divine itself. Liturgy is the thing that invites you to step off the cliff and into mystery.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that that’s not a scary thing. Annie Dillard once famously said we all ought to be issued crash helmets for worship.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …. It is madness [for ladies] to wear … straw … and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For … God may draw us out to where we can never return.”

We are beginning a new liturgical year and a new church season and I want to invite you to be open to where this service – with its older language, more sung parts, and glorious renaissance music – will take you. Be open to how it leads you into mystery.

  • Notice the differences in language (thee’s and thy’s, please – or the repeated poetry about mutual indwelling that is one of my favorite parts of the Rite One Eucharistic Prayer),
  • Notice how we hold our bodies differently, kneeling rather than standing if we are able (do not strain yourself ).
  • Notice what it feels like to sing more of the service (creed and Lord’s Prayer)
  • Notice what the mood of the music does for you. It is not meant to be easy. But, arms up, you will learn it and be so enriched by it.
  • Notice, you are stepping off the cliff and into mystery.

This is the season when long ago Wise men began to notice stars moving across the sky, women noticed babies leaping in their wombs, and it ended with shepherds noticing angels appearing in the sky.

What would happen, if every morning this Advent, as you lie there in the darkness, you asked God to help you notice. Notice the small things. Notice the birds, the smells when you bake this week, the name of the person who bags your groceries, the colors of the sunrise.

The promise of Advent is that as we practice noticing, as we seek to be awake, we will be able more fully to see the possibilities right there in front of us, lying in a manger, when he comes.

Amy Cuddy, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are,” TED Global 2012, available from

Aidan Kavanaugh, OSB, On Liturgical Theology: Hale Memorial Lectures of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 1981, (Collegeville, MN: Order of St. Benedict, Inc. reprint of Pueblo Publications, 1984), 1991.

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

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