First Sunday of Advent (B) St George’s Cathedral, 29 November 2020

‘Stay awake; stay awake; stay awake stay awake!’

Dear friends, when any words are repeated in a text of the Scriptures we know that something especially important is being communicated to us. Not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times today the Lord Jesus calls us to ‘stay awake’ – to come out of sleep, to rise from our slumber. Other translations tell us to ‘keep alert’ or to ‘be ready.’ It’s as if Reveille, the bugle call to wake up soldiers at sunrise, is constantly sounding. It’s a call to action. Not just to ‘wake up’ but to ‘stay awake.’

So, I wonder how awake you’re feeling this morning? Perhaps you didn’t sleep too well, because of worry, or illness, or caring for someone else. Maybe you’ve been at work, or became caught up with something until the early hours. The most common causes of insomnia are stress and trauma, and we probably all know what it’s like to have a sleepless night at some time or another. Even if we sleep more or less ok, we can still feel sleepy, even when we’re up and about.

Today, at the beginning of Advent, the Lord Jesus summons you and me to ‘stay awake,’ He’s obviously not suggesting that we never sleep. We need sleep as part of a healthy, balanced life. No, the Lord Jesus is describing the inner attitude we need as disciples. He’s speaking about our outlook on life and on the world around us. He’s talking about how we live by faith, always attentive to the things of God, always attentive to friendship with Christ, always attentive to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We say of Christ in the Creed that one day ‘He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.’ As disciples, staying awake means living in this in-between time, this graced interval between Christ having already come in the flesh, born of Mary, and His future return. Whatever our physical struggles with either sleeping too much, or not sleeping enough, no matter how drowsy or upbeat we feel, the Lord Jesus is calling you and me to a new and more enriched spiritual attentiveness.

The invitation of Advent is to live consciously in God’s time, according to God’s purpose and God’s promises. The invitation of Advent is to live attentively our personal biography, our history so far, as part of the history of our salvation in Christ. The invitation of Advent is to live steadily, and without blame, as beloved sons and daughters joined to God’s Son, united with our coming Saviour.

The spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, reminds us that ‘life is little.’ We do not know the day or the hour when we will meet the Lord. Graveyards are full of the bones of people who thought there was plenty of time next year or next month, next week or even tomorrow. I remember a confessor once saying to me, ‘Remember, this could be your last Advent!’ None of this should depress us. None of this should frighten us. Instead, it should encourage us. It should inspire us.

‘Stay awake,’ says the Lord Jesus. In Christ, we are called to make our life count. To make it count for Him, for His Church and for His people. To make it count for His Gospel and for His world. ‘What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’ (Mark 8: 36) Perhaps this Advent, looking forward to Christmas, we can be more attentive to what really matters: our faith, our family, our friends, the weakest and the poorest. ‘Advent,’ says Pope Francis, ‘is a favourable time to open our hearts, to ask ourselves concrete questions about how and for whom we expend our lives.’ (Angelus, 2 Dec 2018)

In dark days during the Second World War, a German Jesuit priest, Fr Alfred Delp, was arrested by the Nazis in 1944 for opposing the Third Reich. A few months short of his 37th birthday, on 2nd February 1945, his resistance to Hitler cost him his life, and he was hanged in a Berlin prison.

In 1943, a year before his arrest, Fr Delp preached a sermon on the First Sunday of Advent. In an era of intense violence and insecurity, he knew that only faith in Jesus could make the darkness radiant with hope. Speaking of the Advent wreath, he said ‘light the candles wherever you can.’ We can only do this if we are spiritually awake, if we are spiritually attentive.

Imprisoned during the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany of 1944 into 1945 Fr Delp wrote meditations about the truth of our identity in Christ. He spoke of us being shaken up, shaken awake, of waking up to ourselves, so that the inner light of Christ might shine in our hearts: ‘light the candles wherever you can.’

Shortly before he was executed, Fr Delp wrote:

“…we often feel tired and frightened and disheartened because we do not trust the Spirit of God sufficiently for him to be able to make something of us. We believe more in our own unworthiness than in the creative impulse of God – who is living our lives jointly with us. It all hinges on trust, on whether we are willing to receive God’s creative blessing and let it fulfil our lives…” (Essential Writings, 153-154)

‘Stay awake’ says the Lord Jesus. Wake up to new life and love as a disciple of Christ. ‘Stay awake’ says the Lord Jesus. Wake up to new live and love in your relationships, your choices, and your decisions. ‘Stay awake’ says the Lord Jesus. Make the one life you have count, through Christ’s light, with Christ’s light, and in Christ’s light. This is our Advent invitation. This is what it means to have an attentive Advent heart.