Wake, Awake for Night is Flying
Wake, Awake for Night is Flying
December 3, 2017
Isaiah 64:1-8, Mark 13:32-37
“Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
the watchmen on the heights are crying;
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Wake up! Wake up. We do not know when we will need to be awake – in the evening, or at midnight, or at dawn. You do not know, so keep awake.
That is helpful if vague advice, helpful when there is something we are waiting for, something special, something long promised. Something just… about…here. And so we are to wait, alertly, ready for the arrival of…something.
There is an expression you may have heard, one of relatively recent vintage: being woke. Now, fair warning, this description may disturb the ardent grammarians among you. I might even slip into using “they” as a singular pronoun. Yes, rough territory indeed. You have been warned.
Being woke is a relatively recent term that refers to political consciousness. “Woke” here is used as an adjective. The first reference to “woke” I could find was to a 1962 article by William Melvin Kelly entitled “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” I know, deep, deep wisdom of the 1960s.
The term arose from African American slang. It was used artistically and in counter-cultural writing. It came back into wider and more common usage after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri regarding the shooting death of Michael Brown. Since that event, “being woke” has continued as a social term in the tense political and cultural environment of the United States. One can be “woke” in response to racial injustice, income inequality, and a sense of inherent unfairness.
This Sunday is the first day of Advent, the first Sunday in the countdown to Christmas. Not Christmas as a holiday, which had the retail clock ticking some time in late August. No, Christmas as a holy day, to mark the observed date of birth for Jesus of Nazareth.
I say observed because there is absolutely no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th, or on any particular day at all. In other words, we have no way of knowing if Jesus was a Capricorn.
December 25th famously coincides with numerous then contemporary holidays such as the Roman feast of Saturnalia or the Germanic festival of Yule celebrating the winter solstice. Given the mystery of the actual date, these were convenient occasions to incorporate into a new tradition.
The winter solstice in particular makes both thematic and theological sense. It is the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the time of deepest darkness. As the light dies out so too will the light return, every night growing just a bit lighter day after day, the sun coming back.
This is also why Advent can come off as a gloomy season, almost funereal. Time to hold off on the more joyful hymns, and especially the Christmas carols. Which is funny, because Advent is not meant to be depressing or sorrowful. Advent is about preparation, getting oneself ready for what is coming. Not preparing for the parties or gift-giving, but for what is about to come. The birth into the world of something, someone, that can make all the difference in the world. So keep awake.
Keeping awake versus keeping woke. In one sense these are similar ideas.
Objection! You might say. And I just did, so there you go.
Keeping awake is a Biblically sanctioned reminder of the significance of Jesus entering into the world, offering a transcendent presence to the people, an incarnation of the divine itself into our lives.
Conversely, keeping “woke” is a hippy dippy term of passing relevance stemming from contemporary political, cultural, and racial disputes in modern America that have no bearing upon the what was intended in the Gospel of Mark. I rest my case.
I do realize that I am posing objections to myself as judge, while also serving as objecting and responding parties. Don’t worry, I will not charge any extra for the service. My hourly billing rate is eminently reasonable.
Anyway, I would argue that while keeping awake and keeping woke are different terms in some ways, they represent similar expectations, religiously and socially.
Why are you supposed to keep awake for Jesus? We know he is coming on December 25, so what is all the worry about being awake? Because keeping awake actually has nothing to do with Christmas. Not about getting ready for the day or even commemorating the event.
Neither the Gospel of Mark nor the Gospel of John even mention Jesus’ birth, so for those authors it was seemingly not an important event. What was important to be aware of, the keep awake for, was the pending return of Jesus, the Second Coming. There is the old joke: Jesus is coming back, so everyone try to look busy. And yet there is quite a difference between looking busy and being busy, being busy doing all that Jesus asked of his followers. All that Jesus thought was important.
Keeping woke, or being woke, is about paying attention to what is going on in our nation. The term has mostly been used in the context of racial inequality, but it has migrated into other discussions, broader anxieties about the social fabric of our country. It might be argued that the term has been misappropriated, diluting it across these other unrelated concerns.
There are certainly enough worries to go around, enough difficulties to fill every waking hour with nervousness and disquiet. But as I have said before, we do not always have the luxury of having one problem at a time. And so we may be forced to multi-task our way through several at once.
When we hear “Wake, awake for night is flying…” it is not one event in question, not one day approaching with calendar based certainty. It is about being awake to what is needed, what has been asked of us. In the lessons of Jesus, there was no one thing we were supposed to be doing to complete the assigned tasks. Jesus asked a lot of his followers.
Okay, I will love the neighbor I see next, but then I am done for the year. Give out a sandwich, offer a nice warm coat and that is all I got in me until New Year’s Day.
This is not about assigned homework, trying to get a few chores done in the allotted time. Being awake in this sense is a lot like breathing – you do not get to take a break without rather stark consequences.
But how can I be awake all the time? Isn’t that impossible? If we were talking about being awake literally, yes, it would be a tall order. But if instead we are asked to be aware, awake in the proverbial sense, then it is another story.
Aware of those who are hungry, those who are thirsty. Aware of those who are homeless or lonely, those who are grieving or sick at heart. Those who face injustice or who seek mercy. Describing the challenge as being aware rather than being awake does not necessarily make it easy to do, but the need remains all the same.
And what about being woke? In this sense, woke-ness is a process of staying attentive to what is going on. It can be so easy to lose focus because there are so many worries we can choose from to absorb our attention. We get to fret about tensions with North Korea, violent weather and climate change, political turmoil in Washington, protests over the National Anthem, ad infinitum. And then there are personal difficulties. Health problems, our own and those of loved ones; job stresses and job reversals, friends or family members struggling with alcohol or drugs or mental illness or even algebra.
There are so many possible reasons to splinter our attention span that is it any wonder that we are not aware of everything in the world, everything problem that matters. We are not aware and, perhaps, we are even seeking distraction from many of those nagging problems.
Years ago, a member of this church, George, was discussing with me his wishes for his funeral. There was one thing I solemnly had to promise George: I had to begin his eulogy by saying that George was a drunk. And so I say it again today, George was a drunk. George had been sober for 52 years when he died, mind you. I know this because I attended the Alcoholics Anonymous ceremony at which he was awarded his 52nd anniversary coin. We had cake.
I can also say about George, with due confidence, that he saved more people during his life than I ever could. He dragged people to AA meetings, often making them give him rides as he was in a wheelchair for many years. George was not a little man, so scooping him into your car was not without it challenges, believe me. George took his charges phone calls at all hours of the day and night, and in turn checked in with them again and again. Honestly, George could be a well-intended nag.
And so George was a good-natured pain for at least 52 years, 52 years spent being aware. Fifty two years being awakened to his need to be vigilant about his choices, and yes, his weaknesses. And he never blinked from telling his story – he was the least anonymous alcoholic I knew. George was aware and awake, alert and alive. And he dragged a host of others along, trying to keep them aware and awake, alert and most of all alive. In all the years I knew George, I never once saw him let up from doing what he thought mattered, focusing on his sobriety and the sobriety of others.
Being awake in the sense of Advent is much like the years George spent caring for himself and those around him. He never let up because he felt that it was what was needed, what would keep him and others alive. You can remain alert or you can remain asleep. And sleep has consequences.
You do not know when the time to be awake will be. It’s not Christmas you have to be alert to, but instead the values and virtues that make Christmas meaningful, that make the lessons of Jesus the teacher enduring.
Christmas serves as a reminder even as the season of Advent serves as a time of preparation. It is not that you should only be awake during Advent, any more than there should be peace on earth, goodwill toward all only on Christmas morning. It should be every day, every hour, every minute. There theoretically should not be any down time from doing what is important – no holiday from the expectation of loving each other.
And yet. And yet it happens. People are not awake all the time. People can become so riddled with anxiety that they cannot help but look away, taking a break from all…that…stuff. People can become so fatigued under the weight of life’s challenges, that they shift their attention elsewhere, anywhere. And people can become so jaded, so numb, and even so uninterested in what matters, in who matters, that an annual reminder becomes necessary. Wake, awake for night is flying.
This is not about being awake in church, by the way. If you need the nap, feel free. I had to wake George up after more than one service. And I took no offense.
No, this task is about being awake outside of church, out in the world. It is about being awake and about being woke. And I knowingly conflate those two terms. Loving your neighbor requires being awake to what your neighbor needs and being woke to the conditions that cause those needs. Do they need food or shelter? Here you go, but why is this so? Are they lost or alone? Here I am, but why did this come to be? Are they suffering under some injustice? Are they seeking forgiveness? Are they trying to find a way forward? Here we are and how did we get here?
Not every political altercation requires our attention. Not every claimed grievance is as important as every other. But the need to discern what matters and what does not does not make this challenge any easier. You have to be awake even if it is a false alarm, even if there is little or no true injustice in that particular moment of focus. Wake, awake for night is flying and it is really hard to see in the dark. Which makes being awake all the more important because what needs to be seen, what needs to be witnessed, can so quickly slip buy.
The lost child in the night, the lonely soul out of sight. Those who withdraw into themselves because they are grieving or embarrassed or confused. The social problem, yes, but also the human needs. We need to pay attention.
But can’t someone else do it? You, Mark, can’t you pay attention for us? Not really, no. I can’t do that, I can’t do all that. I can’t know everything, I can’t be everywhere.
We are all called upon to be awake because many hands make lighter work, if not light work. We will not always be awake, let’s be honest. But the more people that stand awake, the more folks who are “woke,” the more chances we have together to be ready, to be alert. To see where help is needed all around us and to stand as witnesses to what might be deeply wrong in our nation.
When George dragged his people along, he was not alone. He worked within a community of people trying to keep each other sober, trying to take one day at a time together. Many eyes looking about with concern. Many ears listening to the anger and the hurts, the desires and the desperation. All together, stronger in the darkness.
Of course, some people turn away. They zero in upon their own concerns or lose themselves in any number of distractions. No one, least of all me, is asking any one person to save the world, to eliminate hunger or homelessness, addiction or aggression. Being awake, or woke, means banding together in shared concern for that which matters in this life. People not things, justice over injustice, well-being rather than wealth.
Let’s keep this simple. Think about what you concern yourself with during the course of a day. Is it just about you? Maybe add in your cat, your dog, your spouse – hopefully not in that order.
Take another step outward from there. Add in some others. Family and friends, and not just those who ask all the time but maybe someone who has been quietly struggling so as not to worry anyone. The neighbor who you have seen puttering around less and less. Build out from the center, adding another band of the circle of concern, taking stock at each level.
And, do not forget, if you are in need, if you would like for someone to be awake for you, be aware of that need. Then say it out loud to someone. A healthy community is about give and take. And it is about being aware and knowing when it is time to ask.
I realize this is not an easy checklist, like a letter to Santa. I wish I could be more specific, but there are so many things for which we all have to be awake. That is why no one person can do it all. No one group can make it all better. Again, we do not have the luxury of facing one problem at a time. But we do have the opportunity of sharing those burdens; the challenge of being aware and being responsive in cooperation with others. Many eyes opened and many ears listening. Many hands ready to serve however that service might come to be.
Wake, awake for night is flying. Awake together, awake as one. Awake even in the darkest night, knowing that in time the light will grow and dawn will come again.