I am given to understand that sleep deprivation is one of the records which is no longer supported by the Guinness Book of Records, for reasons of health: the previously listed world record holder lasted for eleven days without sleep, but suffered from problems with concentration, memory, paranoia and hallucinations.
So I think we can probably be fairly sure that the command that we hear in today's gospel at the beginning of Advent, that we are to "watch", to "stay awake", lest we be found asleep, is not to be taken literally. Either that or critics of our faith are correct in suggesting that Christians can't think straight, refuse to accept historical fact, are paranoid and delusional.
"Well, of course," you might say, "Our Lord tells us to 'watch', to 'be awake' in the context of a parable, and therefore spiritually rather than physically." And you would be right. But play along with me for a moment, and let us suppose he was in fact speaking about staying awake in a literal sense.
There are some innocent-looking words that our lectionary adds at the beginning of our gospel reading to put it into context: "Jesus said to his disciples." Which disciples? Well, if we look earlier in the chapter we find that it is in fact four disciples: Peter, James, John and Andrew, the first four of the apostles to be called. And the gospel reading divides the night into four parts in which the master of the house might come: the evening, midnight, cockcrow and the morning, just as the Romans divided the night into four watches. And who is to watch in the parable? Not all the servants of the master, who have their own work to be getting on with, and no doubt need their sleep, but the doorkeeper. It is not unreasonable then to suppose that it is these four apostles, as doorkeepers, holders of the keys to the kingdom, who take turns to watch through the four watches of the night.
That, I think, puts a slightly different spin on things. Of course, the whole household has to be ready for the coming of the master, "each with his work", but in the first place it is the apostles who actually keep the four watches so that the house can be roused when the master comes.
This apostolic ministry is extended to all of us by the fact Christ says at the end of the parable, "and what I say to you" - that is, to Peter, James, John and Andrew - "I say to all: Watch!" But we watch in the same way as those apostles: not just looking out for ourselves, depriving ourselves of sleep and making ourselves ill in the process, but looking out for each other and depending on each other. We watch for Christ in the watch assigned to us: watching for Christ in the poor, the sick, the hungry, the prisoner; watching too for the hope of the gospel. We watch for Christ not just as individuals, but as part of a community, his household, the Church.
As we prepare for the liturgical coming of the master at Christmas, the Church gives us four Sundays of Advent, four watches you might say, when we look out for him: four different aspects of the Lord's coming that we look for. In the second, third and fourth watch we will see how it is that the Lord will come. Today, though, we are reminded not only what it is we do in Advent, but who it is who is coming: it is the Triune God, the God of Abraham, recognised by Isaiah both as our Father and our Redeemer, the God who formed us as a potter forms clay. We watch for the one who enriches us with speech and knowledge and the gifts of the Spirit as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So over these four weeks, let us watch with the Church for the Lord, and watch out for each other and those around us, that we may be better prepared to receive the Lord when he comes at Christmas, or indeed whenever he comes.