Homily for December 12, 2010 The 3rd week of Advent


Sunday school teacher asked the children, just before they were to go back into the church service, “And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?”  One little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping!” 

During Advent we often hear some variation of “Sleepers, wake!”  Much as I love that piece and acknowledge the importance of spiritual awakening, I sometimes wonder what it is about church that we’re always sounding wake-up calls.  

 Falling asleep has always been a bit of a hazard in church.  In the 1st century, a fellow named Eutychus fell asleep during one of St. Paul’s sermons and fell out a third floor window (Acts 20: 7—12).  He survived and Paul went on preaching – for hours.  The theme of waking people up is prominent in Advent, which could imply that people are getting way too much sleep, when in fact the opposite is true.  As a society, we are seriously stressed and sleep-deprived.  

I find wake-up calls at this time of year are annoying – the alarm always goes off too early – the darkness comes on so soon in the afternoon – the ads shaming me to get out and buy stuff are way too strident.  I don’t know if it’s the darkness or the rain or the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder but I find myself sleep-walking through this season. It’s all I can do some days not to sleep half the day.  I continue to fight that off but lately I’ve been thinking maybe that’s not the best approach. 

For years, my theory has been that as mammals we are really meant to be hibernating during this dark and cold season, so we may be walking around but we are partly asleep – or we are meant to be.   I always said that as a joke, but I decided to read a bit about hibernation and I think I may be on to something.

The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, says “Hibernation is a state of inactivity … characterized by lower body temperature, slower breathing, and lower metabolic rate.” So far – that’s me to a T.  By January, I begin to identify more with inanimate objects than with people and things that are bouncing around full of energy.  By January, I either need to be in full hibernation or in Cuba.

I am certain that many people actually are hibernating without being aware of it. As someone said, “I’m not asleep … but that doesn’t mean I’m awake!” According to the article, a sign of whether you are hibernating or not is that “with true hibernation, the animal can be moved around or touched and not even know it.”  By mid-December,  many people are like that – almost catatonic.  But the article warns that some people, like bears, should not be awakened too quickly.  People like this can growl or lash out or change lanes suddenly if awakened – so be careful!

Quoting again: “Noise and vibration from snowmobiles, ATV’s, etc. can apparently awaken hibernating animals, who may suffer severely or die as a result of premature awakening.”   This  suggests to me that the noise and chaos of the “holiday season” is actually detrimental to us and we should avoid it like the plague.  The decibel level in a mall at Christmastime is about the equivalent of a Boeing 747, not to mention the people stepping over you and spilling drinks on you.  That can’t be good for you.

The Good News is “Many hibernators can return to hibernation after awakening, and deep hibernators in fact awaken many times throughout the hibernation season in what are called interbout arousals.”  Intermittent awakenings, for things like Sunday services and Christmas dinner, seems to be my own pattern, but if you embraced the concept of hibernation, you would no doubt find your own particular rhythm.

The article says “The ability for humans to hibernate would be useful for a number of reasons,” and it goes on to talk about applications with injured people and astronauts on long space trips.  But I believe earthly space cadets can also make good use of extended times of rest.  The benefits of rest are well documented, and, again the evidence suggests that people in our culture are seriously sleep-deprived, with all the crankiness, sadness, and depression that goes along with it.  Embracing hibernation could be the solution!

The urgent wake-up calls issued during Advent could suggest Christians have a major problem with the concept of sleep, but it’s actually the opposite! 

The Bible offers many positive messages about the value of sleep:

 In the beginning (Genesis 2), it says that God caused a deep sleep to come upon the man (Adam), and, according to the Bible, when he woke up there was a woman next to him. That happened a lot in the 1970’s too (so I’m told).  But the message is that God needs time when he can do his work on us, when we are not being resistant or feeling self-sufficient but are open to the deeper movement of the Spirit.

The concept of Sabbath (rest) is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Genesis indicates that God himself does like to rest – as it says: “God rested on the seventh day.”  It doesn’t mention whether God rests every seventh day, but it raises the question: if God is resting, is there any point in praying on that day?  No doubt the rabbis have debated that one over the centuries!  Psalm 44 suggests that God might spend considerable time sleeping, and the 127th Psalm suggests that sleep is one of God’s great gifts to those he loves.  Luke 2.25  informs us that the Holy Spirit “rested” on Simeon.   


Joseph, the patriarch, otherwise known as the dreamer, had his most profound moments while sound asleep.  So did Jesus’ father Joseph.

Jesus was a big advocate of sleep. During a voyage, while his disciples were wild with panic about what was going on around them, Jesus was sound asleep in the ship’s cabin. In Mark 6.31, Jesus says to his weary disciples: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

 So why all the concern about waking up sleepers?  There are negative comments in the Bible related to sleep, but these negative comments typically refer to spiritual unconsciousness rather than the kind of sleeping you do in bed or on the couch — or in church. 

A sleep researcher at Madison University of Wisconsin, Guilio Tononi, thinks that the sleeping brain appears to weed out redundant, or unnecessary connections, which allows a person to remember what is important and forget what is not.  Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, says, “We think what’s happening during sleep is that you open the aperture of memory and are able to see the bigger picture,” He believes people figure out, while fast asleep, what they didn’t truly understand when awake, “Only when you enter this wonder-world of sleep do these insights occur.”

Getting enough rest is essential to peace and depth of mind, and serenity of spirit, and dreams are extremely valuable to the human psyche. Dr. Rubin Naiman says evidence suggests that “the chronic loss of dreaming may be the most critically overlooked factor in clinical depression.” 

In our manic, compulsive world, sleep is given much lower priority than it ought to have.  We have modelled our lives on machines which virtually never stop, and, driven by envy and competition, we operate with an underlying fear that we must always be missing out on something or being cheated out of something.  The “holiday season” capitalizes on this syndrome.  

Going to sleep physically can mean waking up spiritually!  The irony is that it is by letting go and relaxing our anxious grip on life that God is able to work his magic in us that is so energizing and life-giving. In this sense, waking up to the new reality may mean developing the capacity to step aside from the rat race, and embracing a more restful way. The Buddha once advised one of his disciples to sleep if he was tired and then meditate. The Dalai Lama said “Sleep is the best meditation” – which makes me feel better for all those times when I meditated and ended up face down on the floor!  

The evidence seems to be in – sleep is a God-given gift that even God himself may practice.  As a confirmation, I saw a photo recently of Pope Benedict sound asleep, in full papal regalia, and he was the celebrant of the service!  One could be quite derisive, but then I thought, What courageous leadership! What a great example for all the sleep-deprived people of the world! If he stays on that track he could end up being a great pope after all. The pictures showed his officious assistant gingerly poking the Pope trying to rouse him, but appearing not to have much luck.  Let him be, you interfering bonehead! 

Because I know the value of catching up on your sleep, and also how sleep has a way of catching up to you, I have certain rules for such occasions – if I’m out at the symphony or synod or a party, my typical instruction is only to wake me if I am snoring, drooling or talking in my sleep.  The pope obviously forgot to let his assistant know the rules. 

Last Wednesday I celebrated my 29th anniversary of being a priest, and I realize that not once in 29 years have I missed a service – Sunday, weekday, funeral, or wedding — because of sleeping in.  So I feel like a hypocrite this morning in not practising what I preach.  But, believe me, I am committed to putting people to sleep. 

I realize I can’t exactly hang a sign on my door saying “Rector is hibernating – come back in the Spring!”  But something like “SSSHHHH – dream workshop in progress” or “Meditation class in session” might let people know that something of real importance is going on in there, and perhaps, at least during this season, they might just tiptoe away and let me hibernate in peace. 

Since moving here we’ve discovered this is bear country, but have you ever considered that they’re here among us to teach us something?  So hear the wisdom of the bears this Advent season: while everyone else is rushing around driving themselves crazy — elbowing each other out of the way in shopping malls, standing in line at 4 a.m. on Boxing Day and generally causing a lot of aggravation — don’t resist the urge to stay in your den and sleep – give in to it.  As one of our favourite hymns says, “Sleep in heavenly peace.”  If you wake up, pretend you’re a bear or a chipmunk, eat a little and go back to sleep.  It’s hard to imagine you are closer to God in a shopping mall than dreaming peacefully in the privacy and comfort of your home. 

And be aware that the church is more sympathetic to your case than you might think.  As Jesus said “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Are you asleep yet?  You should be – I’ve preached long enough!  Have you ever stopped to consider that in preaching long sermons, some clergy may actually be trying to put you to sleep?  Think about it – maybe we’re doing you a favour! 

My own practice is, if someone falls asleep in church, let them be. So if you fall asleep, in church or otherwise – give thanks!  It’s probably just what you need, and if you pass out in church, it’s probably my fault anyway for boring you.  One church sign offered this helpful remedy: “Have trouble sleeping? We have sermons — come hear one!”

As the Book of Revelation says, “From now on blessed are the dead … for they rest from their labours.”  So, rest in peace – and if newcomers arrive who have no clue about our sleepy ways here at St John’s, I’ll be sure to tell them on your behalf: “Don’t be alarmed, they’re not dead – they’re sleeping!”