“Beware; Keep Alert, for you do now know when the time will come.”
Every once in a while God gives you a gift in the way of insight into a scripture passage. Mine came during an unexpected nap. I was battering against this scripture passage, trying to figure out what it has to say to us. When I do that, contemplate on a text, I quite often recline back in my chair, close my eyes, and run the various possibilities over in my mind. But I am getting to an age where assuming the posture of reflection and contemplation can be a dangerous thing! Before I knew it, I was catching Zzz’s instead of chasing sermon ideas. I awoke in a start and a snort and sat upright trying to gather my thoughts again.
It was in that experience that I suddenly gained some insight into this text and into what Jesus is trying to say to us.
Falling asleep is something that just happens to us while we think we’re doing something else!
We get ready for bed, or we lie down on the couch, close our eyes, and wait, but we don’t just fall asleep right away, turn it on or off like a light switch. Sleep comes over us. It washes over us like a series of waves.
Sometimes we can feel it and find ourselves to fighting against it, like when you’re driving and you feel that heaviness that comes to settle upon you.
So what should we make of this command to keep awake? In the end, it is impossible to be awake all the time. Sleep finds you one way or another.
In the parable the warning that Jesus gives has to do with the specifics of running the household. Each servant is given their specific task in this parable, and each, one would hope, will be found doing what they are supposed to be doing at the proper time of day, whenever that happens to be, so that the Master will find you doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.
I don’t think what Jesus is saying in the parable is “don’t ever sleep”. Rather, he is saying “don’t get caught off guard and napping while you’re supposed to be working! Be vigilant about being on task!”
Here is the truth of the matter. If someone had walked into my office when I was “contemplating” the text, their assessment would not have been that I was hard at work!
This also is the truth of the matter of our faith lives. Through the Gospel we are called to be Disciples of Jesus. Through the Gospel we are all given tasks that are specific to our gifts and our talents, to be good news tellers through our words and our actions.
We are also given a very specific time frame in which to do these things, the time between now and when Jesus comes again. But, we are pretty good procrastinators. It’s pretty easy for us to just kick back, close our eyes for a while, and say we’re “working on it.”
Yes, Jesus, I know that you want me to follow you, and I fully intend to do that …someday. When the kids are grown, or when I’ve gotten a little more financial independence, or when I’m a little more comfortable with the bible.
Yes, Jesus, I know that you call me to love my neighbor, and I fully intend to just that …. as soon as I get a little more tolerant myself. Just as soon as I get my own act together, figure out how to love myself, find neighbors that seem a little more loveable.
Yes, Jesus, I know that the Gospel calls us to be salt and light and leaven in this world, making a difference wherever you have placed us. And I fully intend to do that …. someday, when I’ve got a little more clout, or when I’m a little more sure of myself, or when I have a little more authority, or a little more free time to devote to doing good works, or when I’m not so overwhelmed with my job, my family, my situation, etc. But for right now, just let me close my eyes and think about it — just let me try to visualize it here, what it will be like on that vaunted “someday.”
I don’t think Jesus means that we are literally caught sleeping.
I think what Jesus is talking about is that we become sleepy eyed to the opportunities for ministry and service as they arise. We become too dull-witted to pick up on the cues of where and when to use our gifts and talents.
We miss the opportunities that arise before us, or we don’t recognize them as opportunities because they look so different from what we expected! That’s what the next part of the parable is about. When the fig tree starts to get tender, you get excited about what is about to come your way – summer, abundance, fruit! You can recognize that because it’s something with which you’re familiar, it is expected.
Do you get as excited about the opportunity when it looks a little strange, a little “different?” Are you as diligent in reading your community? Assessing the needs around you? Looking to see what God is already at work doing in your neighborhood that you might join with rather than see as competition? Or has that become something you’d rather sleep on? “Let me think about that, Leave to another day, another time?”
This is how it is with us. It is so easy for us to get sleepy or drowsy about what God may already be doing around us! God knows this matter of “keeping awake and ready” will be a great difficulty for us, and so Jesus warns us. Beware! Keep Alert! Be attentive to life, don’t sleep walk through it!
But there is more good news in this Gospel lesson than just an admonition not to take things for granted.
If it were only up to us to keep vigilant and be ready, we pretty much know where that would lead us. It would doom us. We can no more be constantly on watch for Jesus than we can go without sleep. The world wears us down, eventually sleep always overtakes us.
And so, it is Good news to hear in this Gospel that while we are called to be vigilant, we are also given a promise that Jesus will not come without diligence in gathering. “he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
This is good news! While we are called upon to be watchful, about our tasks and to be ready and working; God in God’s graciousness knows that we are but mortals and mortals will have failings. We will from time to time (even when trying to do the work they are called to do,) slip into a nap, doze off or get distracted.
We are to be vigilant, yes, and to be about the work of the Kingdom given to us. But the coming of the Kingdom does not finally rest upon our shoulders. It rests upon God’s shoulders. “He will send out….he will gather.”
That is the good news of Advent. It is a time for us to consider our call.
It is a time to watch and wait and be ready.
And, it is also a time to be about the tasks given to us with a sense of urgency.
Urgency, not because we’re afraid of God, but because we are sure of God! Sure of God’s promise! Sure of God’s hope and confidence in us to be his followers, and sure of the promise that even where we fall short, God continues to work and to will.
Beloved, may these days of advent, of looking to Jesus’ coming find you watchful and ready.
May you do the work you are empowered to do, with joy and thanksgiving for the day to work.
May the Son of Man come soon, that the work left to us may finally be finished and complete, and this be world made right at last.