Waking Up

December 5, 2018

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace at Evensong on 2nd December 2019 – Advent Sunday – using Isaiah 51.4-11 & Romans 13.11-14

I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of dreaming that you were waking up. Sometimes I have had it multiple times in the same night. One memorable night when I was extremely tired I awoke and whatever I did I could not get the alarm clock to stop. I threw it against a wall, I took out the batteries, I buried it under a pillow, I gave it to a friend, but then it seemed to start ringing in my head all by itself. Eventually I awoke and realised I’d been sleeping through my alarm for twenty minutes! I thought I was awake, but really I had been so deeply asleep that I could not be roused.

This evening’s reading from Romans is a call for all of us to wake up.  Advent is a season when there are repeated calls in scripture to do this. “Keep awake! keep alert! Lay aside the works of darkness.”  But what exactly is this referring to? How do we know when we’re asleep and what does waking up look and feel like?

Pondering upon this reminded me of the film Inception which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and came out in 2010.

[See here for the trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hP9D6kZseM]

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief with the rare ability to enter people’s dreams and steal their secrets from their subconscious. He says “Dreams feel real when we are in them. It is only when we wake up that we realise that something was actually strange.”

The film is very clever in that it has multiple layers. At one point the dream architect constructs dreams of three layers,  when the participants awake from a dream, to a dream, to yet another dream. Cobb has trained his mind to use a signal that differentiates between dreams and reality, a spinning top. When he uses the top and it remains spinning he is in a dream state. When it falls, he knows that he is in the real world.

Also, when we dig deeper into the imagery of the film, even the names are symbolic such as the dream architect called Ariadne, an allusion to the woman who rescued Theseus from the minotaur’s labyrinth. She carries a chess piece as her reality signal. The piece is in the form of a bishop, a spiritual guide . Water imagery also features prominently.  In order to escape from the dream state the dreamers need a “kick” which in DiCaprio’s case was a dunking in water reminiscent of baptism.

The film made me question, what is reality and what is not?

And it leads me back to the question I asked before. How do we know when we are asleep and how do we wake up?

Our world has many ways to keep us in a dream state and most of them are good in small doses. It is beneficial to have a bit of escapism and fun from time to time but many ways of escaping and relaxing can become dangerous when misused.

Paul cites some of the dangerous ones in his letter. “Revelling and drunkenness”. Please note that he is not completely against alcohol. The letter to Timothy urges “a little wine is good for the digestion.” But this time Paul is not referring to a little social drink but alcohol as a fog to blot out reality. Paul also mentions quarrelling and jealousy. It can be possible to become addicted to power games or creating conflict rather than seeking the will of God in a situation. For some this gives an adrenaline rush. But there are other ways of getting an adrenaline rush and they can become addictive too such as extreme sports. There are also many other ways of constructing a dream state or false reality which were not available in Paul’s day; novels, television, computer games, social media, live action role playing. All are good in small doses but if any of these takes over a person’s life, blotting out reality, then they become really unhealthy.

Paul also refers to the “works of darkness”. These would be different for each one of us. What is it within you that blots out your light? What disguises the truth or causes you pain? How can you lay that aside and become present and aware of the world around you, the signs of the times, the pain in a friend’s face, the subtle nudges in our mind or your belly that might be the gentle promoting of the voice of God?

When I first arrived at the cathedral, which was before the new lighting was done, I was puzzled by the Guardian Angels chapel. Why did it have such a name? I went into the chapel, but I could see no angels. If I was determined to only use the evidence of my own experience on that day I might conclude that they didn’t exist. Yet it was only when I had the time to ponder and really look, to raise my head and see the world differently, that I raised my head and saw the many angels upon the ceiling looking down upon me. For me, that was a moment of awakening.

I believe that prayer is a two-way form of communication, and I believe God is at work around us all the time, but it is only when we become awake and aware of this that we see the signs of the Kingdom of heaven in our midst. This is, I believe what Paul is talking about us when he tells us to wake up.

I am also aware that death has often been compared to falling asleep, and yet, could it not also be described as the ultimate form of waking up? Waking from a dream world of sepia stillness into a world of dazzling colour and energy, when we shall vividly see, truly understand and really live.  This is the ultimate awakening that we are all aiming for. And to quote from Inception again “It is only when we wake up that we realise that something was actually strange.”

Thus it is, if you have a moment amidst the Advent bustle and busyness, could I encourage you to think about what tools you are using to hide from reality, lay them aside for just a moment, and look, really look, for the signs of the Kingdom of heaven in our midst, for they are subtly dancing all around us. Thanks be to God.

O Lord our God,
make us watchful and keep us faithful
as we await the coming of your Son our Lord;
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.