Keep Awake

Advent 1

Matthew 24:36-44

Marian Free

In the name of God who forms and transforms us so that we are fit for heaven. Amen.

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day* your Lord is coming.” In the light of what precedes these words – reminders of the flood, warnings about one being taken and the other being left – it is not surprising that many people experience a sense of dread about the coming of the end. Some people in fact are so terrified that, nearing their life’s end, they are unable to sleep – literally keeping awake – so afraid are they that God will find them wanting and sentence them to an eternity in the fires of hell. On the other hand there are many who, with little justification other than a belief in their own goodness, are quite confident that they and all whom they know and love will attain heaven when at last their time has come.

“Therefore you must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Being ready and awake probably lies somewhere between the extremes of terror and complacency. It would be absolutely nerve-wracking to spend a lifetime constantly looking over our shoulder wondering what God thinks about what we are doing and asking ourselves how God will judge us. On the other hand, it is unwise to be over-confident, to assume that God is indifferent to how we think and how we behave. The ends of this continuum – anxiety and self-satisfaction have this in common – both those who live in fear, and those who live without any concern at all have unwittingly made themselves equal to God. In judging themselves they have made their judgements the equal of those of God, they have presumed to know the mind of God. Both positions are dangerous and, while confidence is easier to live with than anxiety, neither allows for a true assessment of oneself and of one’s suitability for heaven.

C. S. Lewis is a theologian whose writings have had a profound affect on my own spiritual journey, particularly in relationship to the vexed question of how one prepares. In his book The Great Divorce, Lewis explores in an imaginary way what life beyond the grave might look like. He envisages that the dead enter a dreary, grey existence. There is a bus which offers some escape, but those who take the bus and return have nothing good to say about the place from which they have returned. Those who have the courage to risk the journey find themselves transported to a beautiful grassy field across which they are expected to walk. Again a risk in involved. Some who got there first are returning, complaining that the lush grass feels like needles to the feet. The brave step on to the grass which not as bad as expected, however as they cross the grass, they are confronted by ghosts from the past who taunt or terrify the new comers, so that some who so far were confident and struggle to continue, others find it so hard that they turn back. At last, the souls who have made it across the grass see a great crowd coming to greet them and to welcome them to the heavenly kingdom.

At this point in the story there comes a really poignant moment. One of the new comers who has made it so far, is a man whose wife nagged him mercilessly during her lifetime and whom he had, presumably, envisaged a future in which she would be judged and found wanting. In turn, his suffering at her hands would at last be rewarded. Imagine his shock and consternation when among those running to greet him is his wife – arms stretched out to embrace him, as if all that has happened between them had been of no account. She is filled with joy at seeing him, all vexation has long since been forgotten. However, over the years the man has stored up so much resentment, has so nursed his disappointment and his hurt, that even in this new environment and even though he sees that God has found a place for his wife, the man is rooted to the spot. He simply cannot open his heart to accept his wife’s welcome. He cannot even in this place of joy and peace let go of the past and he turns to go. God has not sent him away. The man has decided he cannot stay. If his wife can be in heaven, then heaven is not what he had been hoping for. At the same time, his pent up anger and resentment demonstrate that he is not ready for heaven.

In another book Mere Christianity Lewis expresses a similar concept in this way: “The point is not that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character: the point is that if people have not got at least the beginnings of these qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ‘Heaven’ for them – that is, could make them happy with the deep, strong, unshakeable happiness God intends for us.”[1]

What this says to me is that achieving eternity is not a matter of being good – that is not doing anything wrong, doing good deeds. Achieving eternity means developing now, in this life ‘a deep, strong, unshakeable happiness’ that pushes out all that is base and mean in us – a happiness that is not reliant on what we do or achieve in this life, a happiness that is not based on what others do or think, a happiness that does not put others down or measure itself against the behaviour of others.

If this is the case, then “being ready” is not a matter of being constantly on high alert waiting for God to reach out and strike us. “Being ready” is more a matter of imagining the heavenly existence and preparing ourselves for it. Readiness involves ridding our lives of all the characteristics that even we can see do not belong in heaven – envy, greed and hatred, but even disapproval and self-righteousness. Being ready means understanding God’s right to choose to include everyone who understands what God is about, everyone who is honest enough to acknowledge that they don’t deserve to belong, but humble enough to admit that they yearn to belong.

In reality, this kind of readiness is much more terrifying than the alertness which waits in fear for God to appear from nowhere and strike us down. It is frightening because it demands honesty and self-examination. It is unsettling, because it threatens our sense of identity and asks us to forsake our ego. It is disconcerting because, rather than asking us to do something, it asks us to stop doing and to accept what God is doing in us.

“Therefore you must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” In order to be ready we must stop striving for worldly goods and values. We must stop building our own identity and instead allow God to be formed in us. We must seek the deep peace, joy and happiness that come only from God. We must have the courage to see ourselves as God sees us, and the humility to allow God to transform us into what God would have us be. Then regardless of whether we have reached a state of perfection, we will have begun to gain an understanding of God and of the nature of the kingdom and though imperfect still we will be ready to be perfected and will find ourselves at home with all the other imperfect human beings who will inhabit with us that place where there is only peace and joy and harmony.

 

 

 

 


[1] Quoted in The Business of Heaven: Daily readings from C.S. Lewis, Ed Walter Hooper, Great Britain:Fount Paperbacks, 1984, 75.

 

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