Waking from sleep

“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” the apostle writes. The difference Christ has made in the world is like night and day.

An old Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” responded one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another suggested, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Then when is it?” the pupils asked. “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

“The night is far gone,” the apostle writes, “the day is near. You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Martin Luther, in 1521, preached a long Advent sermon on this text.[1] “Note the analogy between natural and spiritual sleep,” he said.

The sleeper sees nothing about him; he is not sensitive to any of earth’s realities. In the midst of them he lies as one dead, useless; as without power or purpose. Though having life in himself he is practically dead to all outside. Moreover, his mind is occupied, not with realities, but with dreams, wherein he beholds mere images; vain forms, of the real; and he is foolish enough to think them true. But when he wakes, these illusions or dreams vanish. Then he begins to occupy himself with realities; phantoms are discarded. 

The ungodly individual sleeps. … [He] is occupied with temporal, transitory things, such as luxury and honor, which are to eternal life and joy as dream images are to flesh-and-blood creatures. When the unbeliever awakes to faith, the transitory things of earth will pass from his contemplation, and their futility will appear. … But is it not showing altogether too much contempt for worldly power, wealth, pleasure and honor to compare them to dreamsto dream images? Who has courage to declare kings and princes, wealth, pleasure and power but creations of a dream, in the face of the mad rage of earth after such things? The reason for [the mad rage] is failure to rise from sleep and by faith behold the light. 

Awaking to faithif only it were as simple as hitting the snooze button to get just ten more minutes before swinging your legs over the edge of the bed, rubbing your eyes, and giving your arms and back a good stretch to greet the new day. Awaking to faith is more like continuing to see phantoms and dream images while the contours of God’s new creation, a world renewed in the image of Christ, are slowly emerging, revealing what’s really real.

“Pay to all what is owed them,” writes the apostle, “taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves has fulfilled the law. … Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Owe no one anything, except to love one another. In 1861, the autobiography of Harriet Ann Jacobs was published under a pseudonym to protect the identity of the author. Allow me to read a few paragraphs from the opening pages.

I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away. My father was a carpenter, and considered so intelligent and skilful in his trade, that, when buildings out of the common line were to be erected, he was sent for from long distances, to be head workman. On condition of paying his mistress two hundred dollars a year, and supporting himself, he was allowed to work at his trade, and manage his own affairs. His strongest wish was to purchase his children; but, though he several times offered his hard earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded. …

When I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave. My mother’s mistress was the daughter of my grandmother’s mistress. She was the foster sister of my mother; they were both nourished at my grandmother’s breast. In fact, my mother had been weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food. …

On her deathbed her mistress promised that her children should never suffer for any thing; and during her lifetime she kept her word. … I was told that my home was now to be with her mistress; and I found it a happy one. No toilsome or disagreeable duties were imposed on me. My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit. … When I was nearly twelve years old, my kind mistress sickened and died. As I saw the cheek grow paler, and the eye more glassy, how earnestly I prayed in my heart that she might live! I loved her; for she had been almost like a mother to me. My prayers were not answered. …

I felt sure I should never find another mistress so kind as the one who was gone. She had promised my dying mother that her children should never suffer for any thing; and when I remembered that, and recalled her many proofs of attachment to me, I could not help having some hopes that she had left me free. My friends were almost certain it would be so. …

After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read, and we learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister’s daughter, a child of five years old. So vanished our hopes.

My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.

I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong. As a child, I loved my mistress; and, looking back on the happy days I spent with her, I try to think with less bitterness of this act of injustice. While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory. …

She possessed but few slaves; and at her death those were all distributed among her relatives. Five of them were my grandmother’s children, and had shared the same milk that nourished her mother’s children. Notwithstanding my grandmother’s long and faithful service to her owners, not one of her children escaped the auction block.

These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend.[2]

God-breathing machines – I had swallowed hard when I read of the father whose strongest wish was to purchase his own children. And when I read of the mother who weaned her own child so she could nurse the babe of her mistress. And when I read the words, not one of her children escaped the auction block. But God-breathing machines I couldn’t read on after taking in that hard phrase, that revealing combination of cold, brutal fact and profound, prophetic protest on behalf of human dignity.

It was all legalthe import, the breeding, the trade, the possession, the use of God-breathing machines. The contracts were notarized. The purchases were registered. The will was properly prepared and signed by witnesses. It was all legal. And on Sunday the master and the mistress, the notary, the clerk, the attorney, and the auctioneer all went to church, and they all nodded when the preacher read from the letter to the Romans, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” They nodded, but they didn’t awake; they dreamed on; they didn’t rise from sleep.

What are we missing? What phantoms and dream images are we clinging to, convinced of their reality? Harriet Jacobs points us to the place where the darkness tends to linger long.

My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” … But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.

Neighbors are given to us to love. Delightful neighbors. Difficult neighbors. Needy neighbors. Grumpy neighbors. Weird neighbors. Kind neighbors. They are given to us to love, not chosen by us according to our dreams of life.

With the devastation brought by hurricanes, wildfires, and an earthquake we can easily see what love demands of us. But who are the ones we don’t recognize as neighbors, as members of God’s household, as brothers and sisters?


[1] The Sermons of Martin Luther Vol. VI (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker) 9-27.

[2] Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. Public Domain Books, 2009. Kindle edition. Location 50-102.

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