As you do all this [love your neighbor as yourself], you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Romans 13:11
Wake up. Then stay woke.
Stay what? I was surprised to hear “stay woke” in my head when I encountered the epistle reading for the first Sunday of Advent. I had to consult Urban Dictionary to confirm its meaning—becoming aware of what is really going on around us in times of turmoil and conflict—to confirm yes, that fit the tone of Paul’s letter to the Romans. But what does staying woke mean for me? For us as the Church?
I am afraid it might mean some work on my part, some going beyond my comfort zone. Which makes me feel the opposite of awake; in fact, it exhausts me. I just want to concentrate on my family and my job and keep my head down. “That’s privilege”, says the whisper of justice inside my head, “a choice you can make as a prestigiously educated upper middle class hetero white girl.” Not everyone has that choice.
Uncomfortable with what Romans is saying to me, I move on to the gospel passage. Which is talking about Noah. This feels familiar; we just studied the flood in our Genesis series. But strangely, Matthew describes the ordinariness of the time: In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. (24:38) These things don’t seem so bad; they describe everyday life, my life, our life. What was the problem? It’s a strange contrast to the Genesis 6 explanation that in God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence.
But maybe that is the connection. Violence and corruption had become so ordinary that people no longer noticed. They were not awake to the everyday violence, but continued about their lives as if nothing was wrong. Our Advent scriptures warn us that the same is happening to us. “Stay woke!,” they proclaim.
I wonder how this relates to our NCF Advent theme, “Light is stronger than darkness”, penned by Desmond Tutu in South Africa in the midst of apartheid. Saturday night, while choosing a purple outfit for the first Sunday of Advent, God pointed out a T-shirt with another Tutu quote If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. I keep reminding God that I don’t wear shirts with writing on them, particularly to church; The God who Clothes Us doesn’t find my objections compelling. Perhaps because not everyone can change their identity by what they choose to wear.
Returning to the Romans passage, I find that it speaks of light in a way I hadn’t noticed before: The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. (13:12 CEB). Weapons of light? What might the weapons of light be? Other translations say armor of light. Something we wear. Clothing for being in a battle. Certainly not something I want to sleep through.
Advent is the time to stay woke. To not be lulled into complacency by everyday life. To recognize that violence and corruption have become ordinary. Yet also to be encouraged, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (Romans 13:11b). Come Lord Jesus. We are awake and awaiting you.