Awake, O Sleeper

By Paul Koch

We have all heard the familiar proverb that says, “familiarity breeds contempt,” but quite often I find that it is not contempt that is bred, but familiarity breeds apathy. Familiarity breeds a lack of concern, a lack of being on guard, a lack of passion and engagement. People will often speak about their marriages in these terms. After years of getting to know one another, there is a routine and a comfortableness that sets in. There is a familiarity about their situation that can often feel lifeless and boring. And of course, the great fear of apathy is that it will breed complacency: settling for a new norm that you may not want, but it is the easy way forward. It’s not just our relationships that are in danger of the terrors of familiarity but our jobs, and our various vocations in life are all susceptible. Even our life as the children of God, as those who receive the gifts of our Lord so freely, even we can easily be enticed by the apathy of familiarity.

When a pilot or a scuba diver or a base jumper becomes so familiar with their sport that they become complacent is when they are in more danger. It is not necessarily at the beginning, when everything is checked and double checked and even triple checked, but when they begin to get lazy. They no longer see the danger for what it is, they no longer respect the possible scenarios of disaster. The same is true with regard to your life of faith, as a receiver of the blessings of Christ. Such a life is not a life without opposition, it is not a life without consequences. You are saved, not by your works but by the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ alone. You are called by the gospel and enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But the enemy still prowls. He still is at work to steal away your hope and salvation. Always lurking, always ready to tempt you into turning away from your God and embrace his darkness.

The danger, then, is when we forget the reality of this evil. As the line from the movie Usual Suspects puts it, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist.” You see, we tend to want to see the world as anything but black and white. We convince ourselves that most things are neutral and there isn’t much danger or opposition to our faith. But nothing could be further from the truth. Christians can lose their faith. They can reject the gifs of Christ. Christians have, in fact, turned away from our God and lived only for themselves. It’s happened before and it will most likely happen again. Sadly, it is most likely our apathy and our complacency that opens wide the door for such a rejection of the things of God. We become so familiar with His blessings that we no longer are worried about losing them. We can take them for granted and just go through the motions.

Over and again through the pages of Scripture we find the call to be on guard, to be watchful, to stay alert, lest we lose what we’ve been given. And with good reason. The world is teeming with things that lure away the faithful into the darkness. There are the passions and desires of the flesh that flow into our homes through our TV screens and smartphones and computers. They fill us with longing beyond what we’ve been given. There is an entire consumer society that finds a willing accomplice in your covetous hearts. Everything is marketed and packaged so that you won’t find fulfilment until you have the latest gadget or the wear the latest style or drive a car that is suitable to your station in life. You know the gifts of your faith, you know the words of promises from your God, but you are not satisfied with such things. You want to fulfill the lusts of your hearts. You covet and secretly desire. The world says, “Good, that is exactly the way it is supposed to be. Go ahead and embrace it. You deserve it.”

Oh, but it is not just questionable moral failings that lure us into the darkness. No, in fact, perhaps a far greater danger to your life of faith is a subtle twisting and reshaping of the Word of God.  At the very beginning of all things, there in the garden, Satan’s original attack was on our reception of the Word of God. “Did God really say?” He says, “You won’t surely die, he just doesn’t want you to be like him!” Sometimes the Word of God is like a warm blanket. It enfolds us and comforts us and we love it for that. But then there are times when His Word is rough and abrasive. It hurts and wounds us. For that Word has a habit of shining the light on sins you would rather keep in the dark. Sins the rest of the world are okay with and accept as normal, but the light of the Word shows it for what it really is. The temptation is to change the Word to make it get in line with what you already desire, to make the Word conform to your life, your understanding, your views of heaven and hell, life and death, sin and righteousness. This is an exceedingly great danger for it seeks to dim the very source of the light and allows you to remain in the darkness.

Yes, you are the children of the light. Yes, you’ve been given the gifts of Christ, but the wolves continue to daily circle around you. They are looking for weakness, looking for ways to pervert the Word. They want to leave you in the shadows and have you believe a lie in place of the truth. They want to lure you away into the darkness itself. They never rest. They never stop and they have a secret weapon. These agents of darkness have an accomplice that doesn’t have to work on you from the outside; for there is a sinner still alive deep within each and every one of you. To wall yourself off from the world, to build a hedge that the wolves cannot cross, that doesn’t deal with the sinner lurking within. The sinner within you would have you turn again and again in on yourself. The sinner within creates a protection against the light, tunes it out, ignores it in your familiarity so that you can create room for the darkness.

That darkness feels familiar. It feels comfortable. It makes sense. It seems reasonable. But it is a denial of who you are in Christ. It is a rejection of all the gifts you’ve been given, it is in opposition to your new life as the children of God. It is dangerous to your eternal salvation and so, St. Paul declares, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14)

Now, that is a beautiful and powerful word from Paul. It appears to be part of an ancient baptismal hymn. So, it is a word that God’s children have heard before. In fact, it is a word that they heard on the day they were elected to be the children of God, as they were baptized and so washed in the grace of God. Imagine that moment, as the newly baptized comes up out of the water and that hymn is proclaimed into their ears, calling them to live in the new life they’ve been given, calling them to be bold and defiant in their new life, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Earlier in his letter to the Ephesians Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10)

In other words, you didn’t create the light nor did you enter it by your own works but that light now defines who you are. Which means that your baptism was not a just some historical moment in time. It is that, it is a moment you can point to and declare that God has cleansed you and hidden your sin in the righteousness of Christ alone, but it doesn’t stop there. Your baptismal life carries on. Every day as that sinner that rises up within you, that accomplice to the ways of darkness, it is attacked by the waters of your baptism. Your baptism continues to proclaim to you the gifts of the light, showing that lingering sinner to be the death cry of our ancient foe. In Christ, death is not your end but life. In Christ, you are forgiven and live now in the light. This is who you are – for in your baptism you were baptized into Christ alone.

Flee, then, from the darkness my brothers and sisters. Be where the gifts are given and the Word is faithfully proclaimed, for that is where the light shines the brightest. Gather again and again where you can hear the good news of the light that is already yours in Christ. The attacks will come, in fact they have never ceased, but we do not cower in the corner. We do not run and cry out, “Every man for himself.” No, we stand boldly together as children of the light. We are an army of the baptized and we sing the ancient hymn, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”