Sleep

Sermon for 2 before Lent in St James Colwall

Genesis 2: 4b–9, 15–25; Luke 8: 22–25

To listen to the (imperfect) recording of the sermon as you read:

"He giveth his beloved sleep," or so says Solomon in Psalm 127. I’ve always been slightly envious of folk who fall asleep easily and readily; it isn’t a gift I’ve been blessed with. I hope you are one of the easy sleepers, but I dare say there are quite a few of us here, who can recount frustrating times when sleep wouldn’t come, because our minds were racing and wouldn’t quieten. Or almost as frustrating, times when sleep came unbidden, and we awoke to find we’d missed our station on the train home.

So, I have a bit of sympathy, if your response to the psalmist’s promise that God giveth his beloved sleep, was a slightly disgruntled “I wish!” Sleep is just one of those topics where we’ve all got something to say about it—whether it’s about how sweet the baby looks when she’s napping, but why won’t she sleep at night? or whether it’s about the trials of insomnia, or the really weird dream I had last night—sleep can always be relied upon to start a conversation.

Two very different experiences of sleep in our readings today. Firstly, let’s watch Adam in his deep and trusting sleep, awaking to find he had a new companion, and not even noticing his missing rib, what does that speak of? It tells of a time of innocence—I suppose—a time when humankind was without anxiety and shame and guilt and all the troubles that have beset us since. It imagines a blessed state when things were as God intended them and his creatures delighted in Him alone. It’s a beguiling picture of a world free of sin and anxiety and at peace with itself.

But then we heard of Jesus, asleep in a small boat despite the storm raging all around; Jesus at peace in a threatening, dangerous world which threatened to engulf him and his terrified followers. And as he wakes up and calms the storm, we are presented not only with his astonishing powers, but also with the intriguing question that he puts to his disciples. Where is your faith? They had been afraid for their lives, and it’s as if he’s saying, “If you had faith, you wouldn’t have been afraid; you too might have slept peacefully.” I have to admit to struggling a bit with the counsel of perfection that says Christians should never be afraid or worried, because we are safe in the hands of the Lord, but these words of Jesus do present us with a challenge to put a bit more trust in our Lord when we find ourselves getting a bit over-anxious or fearful. For Jesus the opposite of faith is not so much unbelief as fear, and in times of fear, we can turn to him and he will be there, for “he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” That’s another quote from a psalm.

Now I wonder where your mind was wandering during the story of the storm. Possibly it was back to the stormy weather we’ve been enjoying here recently, but maybe it wandered to other sleep-related bible stories. There are certainly two strong contenders, both of which contrast interestingly with this one.

In the garden of Gethsemane, the tables seem to be turned completely. There, you will recall, the disciples were nodding off while Jesus was praying fervently, sorrowfully, we are told. Was he even, whisper it ever so quietly, a bit anxious because of what lay ahead? So, this time they were asleep when they should have been awake: “Couldest not thou watch one hour?” said Jesus to Peter. On a superficial reading we might feel that the disciples could be forgiven for reminding him that he slept on the boat when they were scared half to death, so what’s so wrong with them dropping off on this occasion?

But we don’t do superficial here, do we? On the other hand, we would like to get home some time before teatime, so let me make just one suggestion. The gospel writers are using sleep to signify very different things in these two stories. On the boat Jesus’ sleep signifies trust, faith, confidence in God’s protective arms. In the garden of Gethsemane, the sleep of the disciples speaks of a failure, a failure to appreciate the momentous events which are about to unfold; that is, a failure to take on board what Jesus had just spent the evening explaining to them in that upper room at that last supper. If they’d understood the half of it, they would not have slept, for they were about to be present at the events which heralded the salvation of the world. The gospel writer must have been looking back and thinking “how did they manage to sleep through that?” You’ll no doubt have your own reflections on all this because they are hugely contrasting events, with sleep figuring quite differently in one from the other.

And so, to that other great sleeper on a boat, and I dare say you’re ahead of me, I always enjoy a chance to talk about the reluctant prophet Jonah. I hope you’re reasonably familiar with the story because there’s not time to do it justice but again the parallels and contrasts with the storm story are quite striking. Jonah, called like Jesus to preach to unbelievers, is so reluctant that he sets off in completely the wrong direction to avoid his task. Like Jesus, he falls asleep easily on a boat in a storm, but when the terrified sailors waken him, he has no power to still the waves, so he suggests they throw him overboard because he knows this is all his fault. Well, that does the trick, we get the bit about the whale or whatever it was and Jonah, again reluctantly, finally gets to the place he’s supposed to be preaching and tells the folk there that they’re all doomed. To his dismay, they all repent, and God spares them. The Jonah story is amusing in its way and his reluctance and grumpiness are in marked contrast to the demeanour of Jesus who in his ministry presents a God who is merciful and gracious and full of loving kindness.

Three of the gospel writers recount the story of Jesus calming the storm and I can’t help thinking they might have had the Jonah story in mind if only to emphasise what a very different kind of prophet Jesus was.

So, there we are, I hope all this talk of sleep hasn’t caused you to drop off, and for any who do struggle a bit with sleep, I wish you good rest. I started with Psalm 127 verse 2, so let me finish with it in a verse from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Of all the thoughts of God that are
Borne inward unto souls afar,
Along the Psalmist's music deep,
Now tell me if that any is,
For gift or grace, surpassing this,
"He giveth his beloved, sleep!"