This week, I read about a high school English teacher who has to teach the novel *1984* to a class of seniors every year. *1984* was George Orwell’s imagination of life of what life under a technologically sophisticated dictatorship, and so rather than just read the book, every year this teacher turns her classroom into a dictatorship. She tells the students that their “senioritis” is interfering with the common good, and that she and the other teachers have researched the best possible solution. She hangs up propaganda posters about the dangers of senioritis; she and the other teachers create pointless rules just to test the students' willingness to obey, and then they hang up posters about the importance of making sure your fellow students comply. They bribe and buy off potential rebels in the student body. Almost every year, the majority of the students go along to get along, and then the rest of the students fall in line. Years of running this simulation have taught her that George Orwell might have made up *1984,* but the story he was telling about humanity was truer than many of the stories we tell ourselves about history, and about ourselves.
It’s easy to hear a story - a novel, or one based on historical fact and say “Well, if I had been there, I would have…” but there is a great difference in telling a story, hearing a story, and being in one yourself.
When we worship, we place ourselves in the middle of the story that God is telling. We want to know the heart and the love and the purpose of the God who is the author of everything, and since Jesus is the full revelation of all those things, we pattern our worship after the ministry of Jesus. Our worship year begins in Advent with Jesus’ birth, and then it takes us through his preaching ministry. And now we find ourselves in the season of Lent, which walks us through two different experiences of Jesus’ life. On the one hand, the forty days of Lent draw us into the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. At the same time, the seven worship services - six Sundays and Ash Wednesday - walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life.
Last week, we read from Jesus’ wilderness and committed ourselves to knowing his presence and his goodness through various forms of fasting. For the remaining Sundays of Lent, we will look at a different form of fasting each week, and we will see the call to these fasts at work in the week that Jesus gave himself for our sins.
This week’s fast is perhaps the most unfamiliar, and perhaps the one that seems the least like a fast to you. We are looking at the ancient Christian discipline of “watchkeeping,” or “fasting from sleep.”
Now, there’s someone here this morning who is about to cry at the thought that what they need is “less sleep.” Bear with me, there is good news coming. And we take it for granted that we live in an age that is at once desperate for rest and yet desperately inventing ways to keep ourselves from resting. A new shopping center went up here in town, and I wondered what shops might go in it. Someone said the safest bets were a vape shop or a mattress store — it seems we’ll never have enough of either. This year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the biggest technology companies of the world were giving live demos of the future as they do every year, but this year, the most popular products weren’t better TVs or faster phones. No, it seems that sleep is the next frontier of the modern home. Sleep tracking gadgets, personalized mattresses that can be delivered to your door, micro-stimulation eye masks and customizable pillows. The folks who think they shape the world are betting that there’s no limit to how far we’ll go to sleep better.
And I have to admit that as I read about Peter, James, and John falling asleep as Jesus prays, I like to think I’d be better… but I’m not very confident. Put me in a quiet garden, on a dark night, with no chairs to sit on after I’ve had a big supper — that sounds like a recipe for some open mouth, drool-class sleeping right there. I like to think that the presence of Jesus would keep me awake… but I’ve seen enough eyelids on enough Sunday mornings to know it doesn’t always work that way.
And yet, I’ve known other nights, too. I’ve known nights when no amount of fluffed pillows and no turned-down comforter could induce my eyes to close. You’ve known them too, I’m sure. The nights when your worries count the seconds, or your grief makes day and night collapse into a deep well of loss with no bottom.
Jesus didn’t need a double espresso to keep him up that night. He didn’t need his friends to prod him awake. He asked the disciples to keep watch, not so that he wouldn’t fall asleep, but so that he wouldn’t be alone.
And that, as far as I can tell, is the purpose of keeping watch for us today. Even in our world that is dying for more rest, we find people keeping watch together in times of crisis or need. My father is from southern Louisiana, and even though we are Protestants from way, way back - the influence of the Cajun Catholics is so pervasive that even the Methodists will hold a wake whenever there is a death. The grieving family gathers with loved ones who tell stories or sit in silence, all to make sure that no one waits alone. We see something similar in the candlelight vigils that follow tragedies. People may not stay the entire night, but they do wait until it is dark to light their candles and comfort each other that none are alone.
By the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our prayers, we believe we can be present with the suffering of others, even when we are not able to be physically present with them. We are able to say “you are not alone.”
The book of Acts, chapter 12, tells us that the Apostle Peter was once arrested for preaching the gospel, and at night he was asleep in his jail cell when an angel came to set him free. Peter ran to the home of the nearest believer, and when he got there he found that the church was still awake, praying for him. Peter had been asleep, but the church had him covered in prayer. It may even have been their prayers that lifted the burden off him so that he could sleep.
In fact, we know that for as long as there has been a church, there have been some Christians within it who took responsibility at different times to serve as God’s night watch for the world. Luke 6 tells us of at least one time that Jesus pulled away from the crowds to spend a night in prayer, and we have references to the watch prayers of God’s people. In most monasteries and convents, the monks and nuns include a midnight prayer in their daily schedule - they will often go to bed early, and then wake up just long enough to pray. John Wesley wrote a worship service for the “Watch Night” - to be held on New Year’s Eve. While others used that night to indulge or drown their desperation, the early Methodists would commit themselves to praying for the world and for themselves. They were stoking their desire so that they could speak the words of Psalm 130 and have it be their true heart’s cry: “I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the dawn. Yes, more than the watchmen that wait for the dawn.”
I’m not going to suggest that anyone set their alarm midnight this week, and I want you to understand that if you are going to stay up all night, it really helps to wait until a day like New Year’s Eve when you’re likely to have the day free.
No, I’m not here to recommend that we stay up all night in prayer this week - my experience is that when I find myself in such desperate need of prayer, the sleeplessness comes on its own.
But we can keep a smaller watch with all those who have reason to lose sleep this week.
This week, my prayer is that every single person here will commit themselves to praying before they go to sleep each night. Specifically, let’s have our entire church pray over the prayers that are going to be offered this very morning.
In just a moment, when we take our offering, we are going to receive the grace notes covered in your prayers, and the prayers of your neighbors. And tomorrow afternoon, as she does every Monday, Cathrin Owens will send those prayers to our prayer list. If you don’t get our weekly prayer list, then I am asking you right now
If you don’t get our weekly prayer list, then I am asking you right now to add your email address to your grace note and tell us that you want to start getting that prayer list. If you don’t do email, then I am asking you to make a special trip by the office this week to get a printed copy of our prayers. And then, each night, at just the moment you’d like to fall into bed for the night, I’m going to ask you to take that prayer list from your bedside table and say aloud the names of each person on it.
On that prayer list, we’ll also be sharing a prayer this week. And if you happen to wake up in the night, take it as a gift. Take it as an opportunity to join the God who never sleeps and never slumbers, the God who keeps watch over you. When something startles you awake at 1 in the morning, take a deep breath, and grab that prayer list, and pray these words that have become one of my most cherished prayers.
"Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.”
When we walk into the desert, we discover that even there, Christ is with us. When we lay ourselves down to sleep, we are not alone. Even when we reach our final rest, we find that the loving hand of Jesus will not let go, but gently carries us to a new awakening.
In a world that is desperate for rest, what a miracle it will be to have a church that is praying for it through the night. Who knows who might fall asleep and rest in the middle of their desperation - like Peter in that prison cell - because they have the gift that even Jesus asked for - to know that he was not alone.