These days I regularly hear George’s voice in the back of my mind as I think about the world today. We’ve gone to sleep on life! How else can you explain the persistence of downers we have decided to live with both socially and interpersonally? We’ve been lulled to sleep—a half-waking sleep, no doubt, but sleep nonetheless. Every Lent I reread as much of Walden as I can, and this year I’m particularly struck by a couple of things that Henry David Thoreau said about sleep and wakefulness. Here’s one: "I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” Here’s another: “I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”
We’ve gone to sleep on life. We have anesthetized ourselves from social injustice and from personal pain. The problem with shutting out the lows, though, is that you soon cease to feel the highs. In order to shut out my own suffering or the suffering of others, I have to dull myself down to a point where I don’t let in the transcendent joys either. As a consequence, we’ve settled for a middling state, one where we exchange being distracted for being fully alive.
There is so much pain in the world. And there is so much beauty there, too. Is it really worth the protection from one to shut out the other? We cannot engage the world in all its fullness unless we are truly awake. God made us and placed us in a beautiful, hideous, complicated world. God made us to become involved with all of it, in all the depths and the heights of its fullness. Most of us have chosen, often for very good reasons, to live with a dimmed down version of what God means by life. But that means going to sleep on life. As the late writer David Foster Wallace once wrote, “Try to stay awake.”
Now we can blame our distraction and our dullness on the stresses of modern life and its soporific technologies, but if you read the New Testament you’ll see that Jesus’s message to his contemporaries could be summarized in David Foster Wallace’s advice: “Try to stay awake.” First century Palestine was a hard place to live. The Romans occupied it. They took all the money and the food. They took the social and cultural dignity of the Jewish population. And so in Jesus’s day, as in ours, people got through life by going to sleep on it. In order not to feel the pain of hunger, poverty, leprosy, political oppression, they pretended that those things didn’t exist.
And then into their midst came Jesus, a fully alive, fully awake human being. He touched the sick, sat at table with the outcast, fed the hungry. And he also got an enormous amount of pleasure out of just being alive. He celebrated life and told stories about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. He gathered around himself a community of men and women who soon began to wake up and be fully present to the world around them. And this community became a place, a space, a zone where human life was lived as it was intended to be—compassionate and joyful.
Jesus’s term for this zone was “The kingdom of God”. He used it to distinguish it from the kingdom of Caesar, the realm of the sleepwalkers. And if you walked the Holy Week journey this week you know what happened: this way of being truly awake made the sleepwalkers of Caesar’s kingdom anxious. As Henry Thoreau said, “I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?” When the guardians of Caesar’s kingdom got a good look at wide-awake life inside the kingdom of God, they couldn’t look that in the face, either. So they decided to crush that life, obliterate that space, put men and women to sleep for good. They arrested, tried, and crucified Jesus, the one wide-awake person they had ever seen. Yet even at the cross, he did not distract himself from the pain of his experience. He did not fall asleep. He reached out to those being crucified with him. He forgave his crucifiers for what they had done.
And so today we’ve arrived at Easter, and our story begins in the words of Matthew’s Gospel, “as the first day of the week was dawning.” The Easter story begins at the first hour on the first day. It is a story about what happens to the one truly awake person at the first hour on the first day of the week. The two Marys go to the tomb and meet an angel who tells them.” "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” The One whom we thought was dead is alive. The One whom they tried to put to sleep is awake. In raising Jesus, God has said “Yes” both to him and to the way he lived. In raising Jesus, God has validated a life both of joy and compassion. In raising Jesus, God has announced what human life is finally all about. God wants us to be not only alive but awake. God wants us to feel the joy and wonder of Easter, and the hard beautiful truth of this day is that we cannot feel Easter joy unless we also open ourselves to Good Friday pain. Easter is about being alive. Christianity is not an ode to dejection. It is an ode to joy, to wakeful, hopeful, risen life. Easter is about being awake. You’ve gone to sleep on life! Try to stay awake.
Among our Bible readings for today, one always claims my attention in a unique way. It’s the reading from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Listen to this part of it again:
You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. [Colossians 3: 3-4]
Easter is about Jesus, but it’s also about us. If Easter were only about Jesus, then we wouldn’t have all this—these flowers, this music, the new clothes and festive meals and egg hunts for the children. Easter is about Jesus, and it’s also about us. From the very earliest days Christians have understood that Jesus’s new life was a foretaste, a “coming attraction,” of our resurrection, too. It’s not insignificant that we heard the phrase, “Do not be afraid” twice in this morning’s Gospel. The promise and hope of Easter are that we need no longer be afraid. And if we don’t need to be afraid, we don’t need to go to sleep on life. We can wake up. We no longer need to insulate ourselves from the pain or the joy of life. We can experience and celebrate life in all its wonderful complicated fullness because Jesus has done that before us, and he has been raised to life. And if he is raised, we shall be, too.
Resurrection means many things, but one thing it means for us this morning is this: God calls you to new, risen, wide-awake life. You can face that life without a sleep mask because Jesus has shown you that all will be well. You do not need to be afraid. In Paul’s language, “your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.”
“Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Jesus lived a life of joy and sorrow, generosity and compassion. What always undergirded that life, though, was a profound depth of trust. Jesus dared to stay awake even through his hours on the cross because he knew, finally, that the One he called his Father would be with him and those with whose joys and sorrows he felt. And that is what Easter means for you and me, too. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” What is true for Jesus is also true for you. You can live, as he did, without fear. You can live, as he did, open to the needs and sorrows of the world. You can live, as he did, as one who fully experiences the joy and beauty and possibility of being alive. You can do that because he did it. And your life is now enfolded with his in God. His life can be your life. His destiny can be your destiny. He is risen, and you can be, too.
Jesus gathered a company of women and men around him who loved him, loved each other, and even loved the people who tried to do them in. Easter is your invitation to be part of the community of people truly awake and truly alive. The only thing God asks is that we not go to sleep on life. Thoreau may never have met a man who was fully awake, but I have, and his name is Jesus. And I can look Jesus in the face because he first looked me in the face and called me into a new way of being. He makes that same offer now to you. His invitation to you today is the gift of new and risen and wide-awake life that you can step into now. Open yourself to the beauty, grace, and abundance of God’s world, made for you and me and all whom God loves. Don’t go to sleep on life. Try to stay awake. Amen.