Let Us Not Slumber As Others Do
Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 13, 2002
The word ‘sleep’ sometimes carries a negative connotation in the New Testament. It is a term that is sometimes used as a metaphor for spiritual lethargy.
The apostle Paul speaks in these terms, as he draws out the implications of the return of Christ, “the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night . . . But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day (of the Lord) should overtake you like a thief . . . so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober”(5:2,4-6).
In today’s text, Paul provides our motivation for not sleeping, and he also provides us with an alternative to spiritual slumber. What we are forced to speculate on, however, is the manner in which “others” sleep. Paul issues a command, “let us not sleep as others do”, but he does not spell out for us the various ways Christians may be tempted to slumber.
But let us first deal with our motivation to avoid spiritual slumber. In order to motivate us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, Paul continues to reference the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (2:19; 3:13; 5:2). The Gospel of Matthew records similar instruction in this regard when Jesus says, “be on the alert . . . be ready . . . for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will”(Matt.24:42,44).
What better motivation for godly living can we find than this? Whether it be our dying day, or the glorious return of Jesus Christ, we do not know when the coming of the Lord will take place. We are commanded, therefore, to maintain a state of readiness; we are to live as if Jesus was coming today.
There is an account of Francis of Assisi tending to his garden where he is confronted by a friend, “Francis, if you knew the Lord was coming for you within the hour, what would you do?”
Without any hesitation, Francis responded, “I would finish my gardening.”
I marvel at this response because it reveals the preparedness of Francis to meet his Lord. How many of us could honestly answer as Francis of Assisi did?
Truth is, we are scarcely ready to receive a visit from a friend without advance notice. We like to know ahead of time who our visitors are and when, precisely, they are arriving. When we know the arrival time of our guests, we can better manage our time as we scrub floors, clean counter tops, prepare food, and set the table with our finest dishes.
I have watched, with much curiosity, the Queen’s visit to Canada this past week. Do you think there was any planning involved in her visit here? Do think there were any advance preparations made to accommodate her during this visit?
Imagine for a minute that St. Giles Kingsway was the Queen’s choice for Sunday worship this morning, and imagine that her attendance in worship was to be followed by a tour of our facilities. And, if we were aware of this visit ahead of time, what kind of extremes would we go to in order to ensure that our facility was immaculate?
Friends, I reckon that the Lord Jesus Christ could come at any moment. What preparations have you made for His coming? Have you prepared for His coming by living in a manner worthy of His glorious calling? More simply, are you ready for the return of Christ?
The apostle Paul warns that there are many people who are not ready for the coming of Christ. He describes them as being asleep, and warns the Thessalonian Christians not to sleep “as others do”(5:6). This brings us to the question we raised earlier: “In what manner are we tempted to slumber?”
Let me begin to answer by saying that there are many who are in a deep spiritual slumber who are wide-awake towards the things of this world. For the sake of money, for the sake of providing for our family, we rise early and we work late. In this age of competition, we are diligent and careful in the execution of our vocational tasks because we know that if we slumber in this regard, someone will take our place.
And though we are wide-awake in regard to our temporal interests, and because our temporal interests sap us of energy, we are prone to sleep concerning the interests of our souls.
Using real occurrences of sleep in the Scripture, I’d like to share with you 3 ways we are tempted to sleep with regard to spiritual matters.
One of the most common ways we are apt to sleep is in regard to our sin. Because our consciences have been shaped in large measure by the standards of society, we are in real danger of becoming oblivious to our sin. I think of the prophet Jonah in this regard. Prior to being swallowed by a whale, Jonah had been instructed by the Lord, “Arise, go to Nineveh”(Jonah 1:2). “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord”(Jonah 1:3).
Jonah disobeyed God’s direct command, finding a ship that was headed, not to Nineveh, but to Tarshish. As a result of Jonah’s disobedience we are told that “the Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea that the ship was about to be broken up”(Jonah 1:4). And what was Jonah doing during all of this? We are told in the verse that follows that Jonah had “fallen sound asleep”(Jonah 1:5). Jonah was oblivious to the storm that had been caused by his sin.
Jonah typifies what is possible for each one of us. It is possible for us to be disobedient to God; it is possible to be completely oblivious to our sin, and to the storm that our sin has caused. Friends, we must not slumber with regard to our sin. For if the storm God sends does not lead us to repentance, He will likely send a whale. Let us not slumber in regard to our sin; let us not slumber as others do.
Another way in which we are apt to sleep is in regard to our prayers. I think of Jesus’ disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, who was in anguish over His impending arrest, kept returning from periods of prayer only to find Peter, James, and John sleeping. Jesus rebuked His three disciples and instructed them, “Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation”(Mt. 26:41).
Notice how Jesus marries together “watching” and “praying”. The apostle Paul does the same in writing to the Colossians, “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it”(Col. 4:2). Prayer is an activity that demands effort and attention. Yet, for many of us, prayer is a time when our minds are most prone to wander. In this respect, we sleep in regard to prayer.
I recently read of a discussion that took place between two of the early Church fathers on this matter of concentrating in prayer. The one Church father was lamenting on how difficult it was to remain alert in prayer. He went on to assert that he doubted whether anyone could pray the Lord's Prayer without allowing their mind to wander. The other Church father disagreed, indicating that he thought he could do it.
And so the one Church father said, "OK, I'll bet you a horse that you can't pray through the Lord's Prayer without your mind wandering. I'm trusting you, so you will have to be honest with me on this."
The other Church father then began to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name . . . " And then he stopped.
"Why did you stop?" asked the one Church father.
"You are right. I couldn't do it. When I got to "hallowed be Thy name", I began wondering if you would throw in a saddle as well."
It is a difficult thing to maintain alertness in prayer, but O, how important it is that we try! Let us not slumber in regard to our prayers; let us not slumber as others do.
Still another way in which we are apt to sleep is in regard to hearing the Word of God. I immediately think of a young man named Eutychus, who we read about in Acts 20. We are told that Paul was preaching a “prolonged” sermon when, at about midnight, Eutychus, who was “sitting on the windowsill . . . was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor”(Acts 20:7-12).
But of course, literal sleep is not the only thing we need to guard against when listening to the Word of God. There is a temptation to sleep during the Scripture reading and sermon, even if you are wide-awake. There is a temptation to think about what temporal affairs need attending to when you return home. There is a temptation to be distracted by every little noise and every little movement, that we might as well be asleep because what has been read or preached has not penetrated our heart.
I recently read an account of a 19th century congregation that had eaten too much for lunch, and had come to the chapel in the afternoon very sleepy. The preacher, wanting to rouse them, shouted with all of his might, ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ When, starting from their seats, some of the congregation asked where the fire was, the preacher told them it was in hell reserved for slumbering sinners (Spurgeon). Friends, let us not slumber in regard to the hearing of God’s Word; let us not slumber as others do.
In his well-known fiction, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis chronicles the advice given by a senior devil to a junior devil. At one point, the senior devil notes, ‘Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep’(Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 40).
Of course, you well know, it is my business, as Christ’s under-shepherd, to keep you from complacency. It is my business to rouse you with exhortations from God’s Word.
If your aim is to walk the worthy walk; if your aim is to glorify God and to give Him supremacy in your life, then heed these words: Prepare for the coming of Christ. Prepare as if He was coming today.
Let our preparations begin with repentance from sin. Let us devote ourselves to prayer, and to keeping alert in it. Let us devotes ourselves to the teaching of Scripture. This is no time for sleep. Let us not slumber, let us not slumber, as others do—for Jesus’ sake. Amen.