Listen to the sermon from Sunday, November 27, 2016 titled “Stay Woke” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
“O house of Jacob,” cries Isaiah, “come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa 2:5). Ironic, isn’t it, that we celebrate the coming of the light at the darkest time of the year? Intentional, actually, because the deepest darkness is when we need the light most. And so before we celebrate the light, we remember the darkness. We remember the spiritual darkness of the world before Christ came. We feel the darkness of our world today as we wait for the light of his return. And naturally, in this season we revisit writings from the New Testament called “apocalyptic.”
The Christians of the first century lived in dark days under the cruel crush of Rome. We can hardly imagine, let alone feel what they suffered at the hands of a violent regime with no regard for them as a people. The so-called Pax Romana or “Roman peace” was sustained by ruthless force. By and large, the Romans despised conquered peoples, other races, other religions. They believed these “others” existed only to serve their empire.
Hard pressed and oppressed, Jews and Christians alike turned to the dystopian mood of apocalyptic. It’s bizarre imagery served as a kind of code ignored by the Romans as silly superstition. Apocalyptic also expressed their hopelessness, crushed by the beast, helpless to overcome. Only God’s dramatic direct intervention could overthrow the evil empire. Apocalyptic told them this evil was no accident, but part of God’s plan, that things would get worse and worse until just when it seemed unbearable, God would intervene.
They longed for God to send the Messiah to defeat the cruel Roman regime and create a new heaven and new earth. In our safe and secure lives as members of the American Empire, it’s hard for us to understand their longing for this cataclysmic end to come so God might make a brand new beginning. But Jews and Christians prayed for the Messiah to come – or come again – as a mighty warrior to obliterate the enemy once for all.
Apocalyptic expressed their helplessness and their hopelessness, but it was actually a message of hope. Apocalyptic reminds us of God’s faithfulness, of God’s sovereignty, of God’s love for the downtrodden. It tells us to have faith, that when the darkness is at its deepest, God’s light will shine brightest. God will intervene.
The “Day of the Lord” is always a word of hope in apocalyptic, but Jesus makes it a word of warning, too, saying he will come “like a thief in the night.” People will just be going about their “same-ole, same-ole” routine when suddenly the God-moment will come dividing one from another and the before from the after. “Keep awake therefore,” Jesus warns, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt 24:42). Stay woke, or you’ll miss it.
In this the second coming is just like the first coming of Christ. Everybody longed for it, but precious few noticed it. They weren’t awake. They weren’t ready. He didn’t come as the mighty warrior they wanted, but as a baby weak as the rest of us, born to the vulnerable common folk. He didn’t kick out the Romans by force, but submitted to crucifixion, their most vicious means of subjugating conquered peoples. Nevertheless, through the cross and resurrection, he defeated them. Through peace and love and faith in God, he conquereded them. This is the way of Christ.
I wonder sometimes if the Christian apocalyptic vision of a warrior Messiah doesn’t ignore the violence-absorbing, peacemaking Christ born in Bethlehem in favor of an earlier violent vision they preferred. But, like I said, in the secure place we hold in the American Empire, we can’t relate to the helpless suffering of the harassed and harried victims of Rome’s oppression.
Well, some of us can. In her hit song “Master Teacher” about racial pride Erykah Badu included the lyric “I stay woke.” In a positive way the song calls people of color not to submit to the demeaning vision of themselves the Powers want to press upon them.
“Stay woke” became the rallying cry of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, meaning that people of color need to be aware of the deep structures of institutional racism in our country and keep alert in standing together to demand social justice. It was adapted by other groups to mean social awareness and alertness and sensitivity to injustice.
In our recent election we were made aware of the beautiful diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion, and national origin that comprises our nation. Many of these know exactly what it feels like to live with the insecurity of dominating power and constant threat of hateful violence. Women living under constant threat of sexual assault. People of color subjected to insult and violence that goes unpunished. Muslims persecuted for the misbegotten actions of a few, and Jews maligned for just being Jews. GLBTQ families and their allies despised and rejected in the name of God. The disabled, the refugee, the poor… the list of the vulnerable goes on and on. Truth is, there are many among us who do understand by their daily experience the longing of apocalyptic to be freed by God from persecution and fear.
The election also gave permission to the haters to step out of the shadows and assume power. In the language of apocalyptic, these old beasts are having their last hurrah as they try to reassert their dominance from days gone by. If nothing else, the election and its aftermath clarified the reality of the divisions among us and whose empire they choose.
So I think we may feel the apocalyptic pain this Advent more than before, and long as they did long ago for God to intervene and bring peace. Not the Roman kind of peace enforced by fear and violence, but God’s peace in justice and love. And I think we know, only God’s intervention can make that happen.
As time went on in the early church, and the cataclysmic apocalyptic event did not happen, the second coming of Christ was expressed in another way as a continuing reality. Christ returns in the Spirit poured out on the people. Christ rises in the loving ministry of the church. Christ dwells in the hearts of his followers, as Paul puts it, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” This does not negate our affirmation that the end of history belongs to God. But in this continual return of Christ we find him coming again in the gentle, loving, peacemaking way he first came to us. When you feed the hungry, Christ is there. When you befriend your Muslim neighbor Christ is there. When you stand with the persecuted knowing you may be persecuted for doing so, Christ is there.
So the coming of Christ we long for is upon us. As never before we have the opportunity to be faithful and ready to bring the love of Christ to the lonely, the lost, the left behind, and the left out. In the violence absorbing, peacemaking way he showed us, Christ may come again into our world through you and me and us together as we stand courageously with the despised and rejected against the empire, knowing, as Elder John put it, “The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4: Stay woke, dear church, for Christ is coming soon – through and for and in and with you.
Even so Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen. May we pray?
Awaken us, dear God, to the ways Christ comes to us in this season. We are always looking for you in the spectacular and special when you are present in the quiet and faithful. Awaken us in this season to the ways you come through us in acts of loving-kindness, in collective engagement with injustice, in standing with our beleaguered neighbor. Not by angry violence and warring words, but by patient peacemaking and healing justice let Christ come among us in this holy season. Help us to stay woke to his work and his ways as we shine his light into this dark world. We pray in his dear name. Amen.