Based on Joshua 5:9-12, 2Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:11-32
If you pay attention at all to the news cycle and popular culture over the last few years, you will have seen and heard about people being “woke”. Now, this is not just an instance of the popular use of poor grammar (which it is by the way); it is a term used to denote that someone has become aware of something that they had been sleeping through. It is a term that has been around since the late 1930’s, but which gained traction starting in the 1960’s to denote people who were becoming aware of and advocating against, the many social injustices in America. Currently, it is being employed, most often in a negative way, to disparage social media posts, news articles or interviews from people on one side of an issue from those on another side – especially issues of race or gender identity. In general, however, we as followers of the Christ must honestly admit that living woke is something that Jesus (and really the whole of the Bible) is calling us to do.
You may be sitting there in your pew half-awake wondering, “Pastor Dan, how often does the Bible tell us to stay awake and pay attention to what God is doing?” I’m very glad that you roused yourself to ask me that question. To get an estimate, I employed an online Bible concordance – a reference that catalogues how many times different words are used in the Bible (I know, pretty wonky, right?). Turns out that there are at least 89 references about being awake across the Bible…89! That makes it one of the most repeated words in the Bible (behind love and repent). There are also a few oblique references to our need to be awake and alert, like our Gospel reading for today from Luke.
Our scriptures are leading us to some revelations of God and the way that the people of God need to live awake to be an active part of what God is doing. The Israelites awake to find that their long journey in the wilderness is over. The Apostle Paul teaches that those who are in Christ are part of a new creation. He tells them to see how it is that everything is different. Finally, Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes some parables about how to awaken to how God is present and active in the world. Before we go farther, let us go to God now in prayer asking for God’s help to live lives that are woke…
The Israelites have made it across the Jordan River with God’s help (God dried it up so they could cross). This has brought them to the vicinity of the city of Jericho. In response to reaching the Promised Land, all males are circumcised and then all the people celebrate their first Passover. Their long journey with God in the wilderness has ended, Moses and all of the older generation who left Egypt are now dead. The people awaken to the new possibilities of settling down and living every day in a land flowing with milk and honey that God has given to them.
The Apostle Paul in the second letter to the believers in Corinth is teaching about living by faith. In our reading today, he is teaching specifically about living in a ministry of reconciliation in Christ with God. He is possibly responding to a letter he received that called into question some things he said in his previous letter(s) that the believers did not understand. He tries again to help them understand that they have to awaken to the fact that if they are in Christ, and believe that Christ died for them, then they have all died too! That is why Paul can write, “…From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!…” They need to live woke to a new reality that they are in a new creation and should therefore live with the love of Christ leading them on.
Jesus is having yet another disagreement with the scribes and Pharisees. They are complaining that Jesus is attracting all kinds of “unacceptable” people (e.g., tax collectors and sinners) at his lectures and dinner table. Jesus tells them parables about a missing sheep, a lost coin, and about a family with two lost sons. The younger son insults his father and brother and runs off with his portion of the family fortune. He wastes it and becomes homeless and employed feeding pigs (tough work for an observant Jew)! Finally, he awakes to what he has done, repents and decides to travel home. The key to this story for our purposes today is that one of the sons wakes up and the other does not, at least by the end of the parable.
The parable tells us that the younger son, “came to his senses”, “came to himself”, “that (feeding the pigs while starving) brought him to his senses”, as described through some different translations. It is what happens to us when we wake from sleep. We have been dreaming and snoozing and suddenly we are returned to our awake minds. Some folks refer to this as a raising from the mini-death of our sleep each night. We come awake and return to our ability to “make sense” of our world again, to see and interact with the things that happen. Though we wake every morning and get out of bed to start our days, how often do we just fall back asleep again once we get in the car for our commute or once we engage with our workdays?
We are all so busy being distracted by worldly cares and content that it often feels like we are robots, blindly going about our tasks, watching the clock until it hits 5 pm or the calendar until it reaches Friday. We don’t notice whether what we do every day, five days a week, 2080 hours a year for 40+ years, actually makes a positive difference in our lives, the lives of those we love, or the lives of our neighbors – or if it actually fulfills anything we are asked to do as disciples of the Christ. In fact, we often are made so somnolent by the monotony of what we are doing that we fail to even be able to recall what happened in our day. We are sleep walking – dreaming of the time when we are no longer doing the job we are doing or doing some other job that we feel is better able to use our gifts and graces.
I think that this is one reason we are living in the “great resignation” era. I believe that the societal and work-life reset we know as the COVID-19 lockdown has allowed many to wake up and come to their senses about how they are living lives that are not feeding them. How they are starved for living lives with meaning and purpose – lives that fulfill the great promise of their God-given gifts. For a long time, many of us have moved through our days like we are asleep, befuddled by emails, deadlines, death, fears of infection and of each other – never noticing how each and every day, God is being born again and again and again all around us. We have been so stuck in a rut, like I preached about last week, that we can’t seem to awaken to the beauty, the fragility, the wonder, the newness of what God is doing in us and around us. We continue to dream of a world where we could be fulfilled and have enough to spare to help others – and forget to wake up and make the dream a reality!
Scientists tell us that we sleep about one-third of our lives away – yet, like the brothers in the parable, I think that percentage is actually much greater. I wonder how often is God reaching out to each of us, trying to shake us out of our stupor and into a fully awake condition? I am certain that we will never know the answer to that question. The Bible tells us over and over to live woke. To be alert and aware lest the bridegroom arrives, and we miss him. To focus ourselves on that which is most important for living in the kingdom and spreading the good news that when we live in the Christ, we have died to the narcotizing effects of the worldly chase for power, prestige and popularity. Living woke therefore, is not something to be avoided or to be ridiculed – it is the way that we are created to be by the God who loves us more than anything. Therefore, let us start living woke like the prodigal and turn our prodigious talents to working with God to make God’s dream a reality on earth. Thanks be to the one and only God who woke us up and brought us here today. Amen!