Of all the dreams I can remember, I’d say probably 45 to 55 percent of them have to do with sleeping through my alarm and missing an important meeting or arriving at school only to find that I’m the lead in a play I’ve never heard of. I particularly hate these dreams because I wake up stressed out, sure that I’ve forgotten something, that the deadline is past, or that I’m definitely not going to graduate from high school regardless of the fact that I did 10 years ago.
I’m guessing that we’ve all had dreams like that or, heaven forbid, experiences like that. A crisis is at hand, and no matter how hard we try, no matter how fast we talk, we are still going to have to walk out onto that stage when the curtain rises.
When I first began preparing for this Sunday, that same kind of ominous feeling crept over me as Jesus spoke to his disciples about the end of all things, the final coming of the Son of Man. In those days, the sun will be darkened, and the stars will fall. Children will betray their parents, and parents will turn against their children. All of the beauty and power we see in the world will come crashing down just before the Son of Man returns in glory. “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” Which sounds sort of like a nightmare. How many of us can imagine ourselves dozing off and then waking up, dozing off and then waking up, torn between the need and desire to sleep and our anxiety at being caught sleeping when the boss gets home. The master in the parable doesn’t sound like a particularly understanding guy. “I’m leaving,” he says, “and I don’t know when I’m getting back, so stay awake because I don’t want to get home and catch you sleeping.”
There’s no caveat, no get-out-of-jail-free card. Just stay awake until I return. To be fair, the parable doesn’t actually tell us how the story will end—and the foreboding feelings may just come from Jesus’ description of all the terrible things that will happen before he gets back. But if we really think about it, if we look hard at ourselves and ask why we feel so nervous about this brief story, we may realize that we’re anxious and resentful because we know we would fail.
It’s not that we’re undisciplined or lazy. It’s not even that we don’t know what to do. It’s that we know our limitations. And I, at least, like the bridesmaids in a previous parable, would absolutely fall asleep.
What will happen, then, when the master returns? Will we luck out and be awake, with all our work done and our affairs arranged? Or will we be asleep and thus liable to whatever punishment the master can cook up?
When I look at my life, I have to conclude that my odds are not good. I am too conscious of my failings to feel sure that I will succeed in the task our Lord has set. After all, I’m human and I live in a fallen world. I’m sinful, selfish, and sleepy—which makes me, which makes everybody, not really that different than the exiled Israelites, whose plea we hear in our OT reading. “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” The Jewish people knew all too well what sins they had committed—sins of pride, of greed, of idolatry. They knew how noxious they had become to a holy God. They sensed that he had turned away from them once and for all because he was tired of always finding them sleeping. “We have become like those over whom you have never ruled, like those who are not called by your name. . . . But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.”
The Jewish people beg the Lord to rend the heavens and come down just as he once did. But in the end, he doesn’t—or, at least, he didn’t come back in the way they expected. When the Jewish exiles finally returned to Jerusalem, when they finally rebuilt its walls and finished its temple, they waited for the Lord to descend, to manifest himself, to rekindle the glory that they had once known. And they waited. And waited. And continued to wait for 400 years—only to find that, in the end, God didn’t come in lightning and thunder as he once had at Sinai; but instead came into the world as a baby boy, whose precarious life ended in a horrible death.
Stay awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
The people of Israel and each one of us here today have the same thing in common: we’re all waiting for the Lord’s return, and we don’t know when he’ll get back. Until that day, we go about our business as best we can, checking and rechecking ourselves to make sure that we’re awake, that we’re doing enough to please our master, so that when he gets back, he won’t reject us. Stay awake, we mutter to ourselves. Try harder. Do what you’ve been told to do.
But is that really what the master wants? What he intends for our lives to look like?
Not a single one of us, not even the saintliest of saints, not even Jesus’ own disciples can stay awake through sheer striving. We are weak, we are sinful. And we are constantly distracted by our own needs and wants and problems and pain. Where, then, does that leave us?
“I give thanks to my God always for you,” the Apostle Paul tells us, “because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus . . . . who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of [his return].”
We do not know when that end will come. We may even think anxiously that when it does we won’t be ready. Our confidence in ourselves is brittle—we know how bad we can be. But it is just when that realization hits us, just when we confess that our iniquities have taken us away, that we find the truth and find our hope. Because it’s not ultimately up to us to save ourselves. Only Christ can do so. And he has done so, waking us from the sleep of sin and death.
The master has gone, it is true, and we don’t know when he will return. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to wander the world in perpetual aimlessness. It doesn’t mean that we’re left to fend for ourselves. Every time we open our Bibles, every time we gather as a Body, every time we reach out our hands and hear “the Body of Christ, given for you,” Jesus shakes us gently awake, saying, “Here I am. Don’t be afraid.”
We worship a holy God who wants perfection, who will settle for nothing less than utter devotion—and Lord knows we can’t give it to him. But there is someone who can, someone who is for us, someone to whom we can cling when we’re afraid, who will lift us up when we stumble. Stay awake, he tells us, because you don’t know when I’ll be back. When you’re tired—and I know that you will be—don’t be afraid. Just think of me. And when you’re frightened, when you wake up without knowing that you had been sleeping, remember me, ask me for strength. I have overcome death. Can I not also overcome a little sleepiness?
Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Until then, we wait for him, relying not on our own strength but on his perfect obedience, for he will not rest until all are gathered under his wings. AMEN.