The year 2020 will go down as one of the most momentous years in a generation. Some years are shy and unassuming and easily blend into the others. But, there are some years that stand out as defining markers, challenging our assumptions, calling us to lean in to what God might be saying to us, and summoning us afresh to new discoveries about who God has called us to be as His church in the midst of a fallen world. 2020 is such a year. This year will not be easily forgotten, nor should it. This year is not about “business as usual.” This year is not about “steady as she goes.” Three events have converged on this year with an almost hurricane force. First, the COVID-19 pandemic bringing with it disease, masking, social distancing, and a major disruption of our life together as a community. Second, the global economic downturn, which has unleashed untold despair and loss of hope around the world. And, thirdly, the stark reminder of the festering wound of racial injustices in our country, which has been represented to us in poignant and tragic ways. The question before us at Asbury Theological Seminary is this: What does it mean for Spirit-filled, sanctified men and women to “spread scriptural holiness” in our day? Or, to put it another way, What does the mission of Asbury seminary look like for our time—this time, for our generation, in the midst of the challenges of racial disparity, economic instability, and a global pandemic?
As your president, I submit to you on this solemn occasion of our ninety-seventh opening convocation at Asbury Theological Seminary that the 2020 disruptions should serve as a wake-up call to the church of Jesus Christ! “Wake up, O Sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” This verse is a little fragment of poetry right in the New Testament. The language of this hymn fragment draws upon themes in the Old Testament. Perhaps you hear echoes of that great text in Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” Or, perhaps, you faintly hear Isaiah 26:19, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!”
Put them together and you begin to see something of the power of this fragment from what is surely one of the earliest Christian hymns. Since this fragment has been found attached to the earliest Eucharistic liturgies, some of the Church Fathers concluded that this verse should be viewed through a spiritual lens: You were dead in your trespasses and sins, but through the gospel you have been awakened.
Clement of Alexandria wrote that this admonition was about the church being awakened from heresy. He says “He awakens us from the sleep of darkness and raises up those who have wandered in error.”
Archelaus said that this text was the transition between the law of Moses and the light of the gospel. Moses, he writes, was the guardian of law until the sun came up in Jesus Christ.
Hippolytus saw it as referring to the final call of Jesus on the day of general resurrection at His second coming. “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” is envisioned as the call that accompanies the great angelic trumpet at the return of Christ. He reminds us of that great truth that someday we are literally going to be raised from the dead. Like all good hymns, I am sure it has many facets of meaning. But, somehow, all of these meanings come together in harmonic resonance in a year like 2020.
Indeed, this verse just might be the call to the church of Jesus Christ in 2020 to awaken from our spiritual slumber. To realize afresh that He is Lord over death itself. It is a call to awake and rediscover afresh the power of the gospel for our time: the call to be a Spirit-filled church; a supernaturally empowered church. The wider culture has lost its way and is desperate for a word of hope in the midst of this crisis. But, the greater problem is that the church is asleep. The church must to awaken to the great harvest that is before us. Brothers and sisters, the crisis of a global pandemic, social unrest due to painful racial disparities, and economic fragility is nothing less than a call to a great awakening. This is our moment. This is our summons. This is our wake-up call!