A few years back, while I was visiting my old stompin’ grounds in Southern California, I learned that a big new shopping mall was to be built out in Marino Valley. Growing up in Riverside, we used to think Marino Valley was way out in the boondocks, but it’s all built up now. The new mall wouldn’t have caught my attention except for the fact that they were building it right on top of what used to be the Riverside Motor Speedway. I’m sure the new owners thought it was a good investment. I was sad to see the change though, because that old racetrack was part of my childhood.
I’ll never forget the first race I went to. I was fifteen, my older brother Michael invited me to go with him to the year’s biggest stock car race; the Winston-Western 500. Mike and I have always gotten along well. I felt so honored that my big brother wanted to spend the day with me. Of course, we weren’t about to get expensive grandstand seats. The plan was to join the general admission crowd on the infield and watch the race from there. Now this all took place way before the NASCAR craze took off. But locally, it was a very big deal. There were a total of six gates that allowed cars onto the infield. Five of them opened at six a.m. on the day of the race. But there was one gate that was open all night, and rather than waiting, Mike and I decided we wanted to get in early. We drove out to the end of a line of cars that had to be at least three or four miles long, no joke. We spent all night creeping forward a few feet at a time in Mike’s little yellow Datsun 510 station wagon.
I remember that night clearly, because I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I didn’t have my license yet, so Mike had to do all the driving. Somewhere between, maybe two and four in the morning he started drifting off. Fortunately, I saw him go the first time it happened. We were rolling forward at the time and just before we hit the car in front of us I grabbed the emergency brake between the seats and pulled it up hard. The car jerked to a stop, Mike woke up and thanked me, started to move forward with the line again, and promptly fell back to sleep. I must have stopped the car that way about a dozen times. We finally made it to the gate though, at 5:30, only half an hour before the other gates opened. It was a heck of a night. As to the race itself, I don’t remember much. It was incredibly loud. I believe Richard Petty won but we weren’t there to see it. Both of us were so exhausted we left after the first couple of hours. We had spent the whole night “keeping awake.”
This time of year, the first Sunday in Advent, we’re always talking about “keeping awake,” and when we do, I usually find that night with Mike going through my mind. Keeping awake fits so well with the theme of the season, which is preparing for the coming of the Christ Child. When Jesus says it though, it ought to be obvious that he wasn’t being completely literal. There are definite limits to how long people can actually do it.
The 1978 edition of the Guinness Book of Records includes this entry: The longest recorded period for which a person has voluntarily gone without sleep is 449 hr (14 days 13 hours) by Mrs. Maureen Weston of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire in a rocking chair marathon on [April 14 to May 2, 1977.] Though she tended to hallucinate toward the end of this surely ill-advised test, she surprisingly suffered no lasting ill effects.
The article where I found this reference goes on to say that “The … problem with determining the record for the longest a person has stayed awake is that people take “microsleeps” without being aware of it. To really determine if a person has been constantly awake you’d need to record their brainwaves throughout the experiment.” So, apparently, the answer to the question of just how long a person can “keep awake” has not been settled. But it’s safe to say that beyond a few days, we’re bound to drift off into “Never-Never Land.”
When Jesus says, “keep awake,” clearly, he isn’t being literal. What he’s doing is standing in a long and honorable prophetic tradition that aims at grabbing our attention and shaking us out of our normal lethargy. It is as if he was saying, “You are living as though the world will always be the world you know, but change is coming. Don’t be caught off guard. Stay alert. Be prepared. Do what you need to do now, so that you will be ready when the time comes.” What he’s not saying is, “Oh yes, and in the meantime, make sure you don’t get any sleep.”
Prophesy is very much a part of the honorable tradition of Advent. But how we interpret prophesy is always an open question. I remember a story that was making the rounds right before the end of the last century. It seems that God had called Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates together for a lunch meeting. When He had their attention he told them that the end of the world was coming and that to be as compassionate as possible about it, He wanted the three of them to go and warn the people. Yeltsin made arrangements to meet with the Duma. When they were all gathered he said, “Comrades, I have two pieces of very bad news. First, we were wrong. God does exist after all. And Second, the world is ending.” Meanwhile, Bill Clinton called Congress together and told them, “I have good news and I have bad news. First, we were right. God does in fact exist. The bad news is that the world is coming to an end.” Bill Gates, for his part, called together all the staff at Microsoft. When they were gathered he said to them, “I have two pieces of really great news. First, as I’ve been telling you all along, I am in fact one of the three most powerful men on earth. Second, we no longer have to worry about the Y2K problem.” I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.
In this morning’s passage though, Matthew makes a special effort to communicate the urgency of the situation. He makes the same point that others have made elsewhere in the Bible; that God is coming and we need to be ready. But then he uses his own very curious analogy. God is coming, he says, like a thief in the night, and we need to keep awake so that we can prevent Him from breaking in and stealing our stuff. Honestly, I’m not sure that’s quite what he meant to say. I can’t help feeling that what Jesus actually said and what Matthew wrote down somehow got a bit mangled in the process. I can’t think of any other passage in the Bible where the suggestion is that those who are faithful should be ready to protect ourselves from God. That just doesn’t make any sense to me. I just can’t relate to the notion of God as a “Thief in the Night.”
I’m left to conclude that what Matthew meant to say was that we should be prepared to receive God with open arms and open hearts; that life is short, that it is a beautiful and extravagant gift and that we don’t know how long we will have it, so we should use it fully and wisely. Keep awake, to me, isn’t about fearing the end of the world or the second coming of Christ, or even our own death. It is simply an urgent and impassioned plea that we avoid sleepwalking through our lives. That we wake up to the magnificence of what God has placed at our fingertips, and live with gratitude for it. Advent comes as a yearly reminder, wrapped in a beautiful and tender story, to receive the gift of God’s grace in the form of a child. I hope the season, for you and yours, is both joyful and meaningful.