“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Those are beautiful words, are they not? Most scholars believe these words, quoted by Saint Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus, are a piece of an early Christian hymn which has been lost to history. Not only that, but many argue these words would be used as a baptismal hymn. Imagine it. The convert confesses the faith, He renounces the Devil and all his works and all his ways, and then he speaks the Apostles Creed, claiming those words as his own. Perhaps it is all taking place during the Easter Vigil, which was a common practice in the early Church. So, it would be late at night, the only lights are candles and probably a few torches offering some heat. And there as he comes up out of the waters of Holy Baptism, the congregation sings to the new saint, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
This awakening is a description of what happens when we come to faith. In many ways, receiving the gift of faith might be described as one pulled out of a deep slumber, a slumber in which our dreams, our hopes, and even our nightmares seemed to be the most real, the most tangible, the most permanent things we know. But having been awaked by the gift of the Holy Spirit, having been shaken from our slumber by the work of our God, everything we thought we knew changes. It is like stumbling out of a dark cave for the first time in your life and seeing the clear and brilliant sunshine. What you had grown accustomed to were dim artificial lights and the moving shadows on the walls of the cave. But now you see things in brilliant light and the darkness has grown distasteful. In fact, what Paul says is even more powerful than that. Not only did you live in darkness, but you were darkness. But not anymore. He says, “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”
Walk as children of light. This is our charge and our desire. Anyway, there is no going back, not really, and at least not the same way. You cannot just pretend the light has had no effect. Once you have been caught up in the light, it is difficult to completely reject it and return to the darkness. But it can happen. In fact, it does happen, but it happens slowly. It happens not by rushing headlong into the cave of our former belief, but it happens by being lured to sleep. It happens when we get really comfortable with the darkness, and slowly begin to enjoy the supposed freedom the darkness gives. There we begin to practice the very things we were called out of. There we find the comfortable old habits, old desires, old identities which feel like a warm embrace and seduce us to sleep again.
Paul tries to warn us. He says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.” That is a good warning, sound advice to be sure. But you have found it is not so easy to simply shake-off the unfruitful works of darkness. You know the secret things done in the darkness are the secret things that still lurk in your own thoughts, words, and actions. I am not saying you are proud of them. They are not the sorts of things you want others to know about, but they are still there. And it is so easy to fall back to them, is it not? Greed, jealousy, slander, gossip, these are not things you want associated with your name, but these are things you return to over and again. In the Catechism, we are taught to “fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” Everything in the kindest way. How is that working out for you?
Your words and the thoughts behind them can work magnificently to tear apart the Body of Christ, to make divisions, to demean brothers and sisters for whom your Lord gave His life. And if we do this amongst each other, how much more will we do it to those outside of the fellowship? We easily establish nice comfortable places of darkness where our speech can revert to its old ways, where it can embrace the darkness. But it is not just our speech which likes the darkness. No, there are shameful thoughts and desires and the actions that flow from them. There are the sexual desires that consume the pornography which dominates our culture. There is the twisting of the blessings of God into selfish idols that promise pleasure and satisfaction but always leave us desiring more. Oh, in the darkness we can craft all sorts of incredibly intricate idols upon whose altars we sacrifice ourselves, over and again.
So, you this day must hear it. You must hear those ancient words calling out to you, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Awake from the lure of the darkness. Awake from the slumber that would have you feel comfortable with the very things for which Christ has died. Awake, O sleeper. For this is not you, not anymore. Wake up!
Yet, we still struggle. We work hard to turn away from those dark things, or at least we strive to put them behind us. We heed the warning of Paul and try to expose the works of the darkness so the light might set things straight. But it often happens that, just as we finally push back from one thing, we unwittingly stumble into something else. To avoid falling off the fence on one side we jump to the other. For there is another type of darkness, another type of slumber we can be pulled into. It is strange, to be sure, because it looks like light. It is when it appears we have finally overcome and achieved the discipline and dedication Paul calls for. See, we can grow so confident in our ability to do the deeds of righteousness, that it becomes those deeds we trust in. And it does not look like slumber because we are so active, so busy doing this and that and receiving the praises of others that we cannot possibly fall asleep.
But sleep it is, a strange slumber of our own works, of our own righteous deeds. For just as we make gods for ourselves in the darkness, so too we can make idols of our good deeds. Perhaps, this sort of darkness is even more dangerous, for it is the darkness within your own hearts which drives it, and it drives it to the applause of others. It seems so wise, so healthy, and so righteous because you take ahold of the Law of God and use it as a means to measure how far you have come. You can also direct others toward the light; to be more holy, more righteous, more acceptable to the Household of God. Yes, you drift into a slumber of activity, a righteous darkness of your own making which allows you to sit in judgement over others. It offers power, control, and self-righteous contentment. So, you hear the old Hymn once again, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Awake, O sleeper. For this is not you who you are, not anymore. Wake up!
This ancient hymn describes the ongoing and relentless work of the Gospel. Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ is risen again. And it is all for you, for your forgiveness, for your hope, for your salvation. You are not light because of what you have done. You are light because you have received what He has done. And you stumble to live in that light. You struggle to stay awake in His gifts. You get out of one ditch just to fall in the other, and your eyes may grow weary, your desire to sleep is powerful. But not today, not while His Word goes forth, while His gifts are given. No, without hesitation Jesus calls. He cries out, shouting into your slumber, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”