Acts: Caught Sleeping
August 16, 2020 Pastor: Series: The Book of Acts
Topic: Awareness Scripture: Acts 20:7–20:12
We all love a good inside joke, don’t we? Whether it’s within a group of friends or inclusive of a much wider audience, there’s just something about being able to laugh collectively over something common to a group of people. And they pop up everywhere. We all had them in school, didn’t we? And, as we grow, we find them in new places. In the places where we work, in the sports fanbases, we are a part of, they can even be as common as to what state you live in. Now, it’s true, sometimes inside jokes can be at someone else’s expense. That’s not ok. Don’t joke about or laugh at someone behind their back. Not cool. But oftentimes, inside jokes are harmless and worth a giggle. They even occur within the church.
I’ve seen them within committees, small groups, even the worship team. Phil and I even have a running inside joke. He won’t let us put him on camera, but I guarantee you he’ll roll his eyes. The inside joke between Phil and me is that I get two hugs per year. I love working with Phil. He’s an incredible blessing to our church, and personally, someone I deeply respect and am thankful to have in my life. That being said, it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes in a room with Phil and me to discover we’re quite different people. One of those differences is the level of jovial physical touch we can both tolerate. I’m a hugger. I love a good handshake. These have been difficult urges for me to suppress during this pandemic. Phil, on the other hand, I don’t think has had much trouble with that. So, Phil and I have a running joke that I get to hug him twice a year. But there are also inside jokes about churches that encompass virtually every congregation. And the most popular one, I’d say, is falling asleep during a sermon.
Now, I will neither confirm nor deny whether this joke has any validity here in First Pres, but I can share the one time it happened to me at my last church. I was preaching in our contemporary service in our fellowship hall. That space was set up with round tables and chairs instead of pews or lines of chairs. I’m about 10 minutes into the message and I catch a quick jerk of movement off to the left. It was someone’s head. It took me all of a few seconds to realize he had snapped back after nodding off. What happened for the remainder of that sermon was a concerted effort on my part to do two things. First and foremost, preach faithfully and genuinely. Second, keep an eye on Rip Van Winkle seated off to the left. I’m happy to report that the gentleman did not succumb to his slumber. Once his wife noticed, she made sure a steady diet of elbow jabs kept him fully engaged in what I’m sure was a stirring sermon.
For the record, I’ve had no idea over the last few months whether or not any of you have fallen asleep during my sermons so I’m just going to assume not and that you have been fixed with rapt attention every Sunday. But it’s not just comedy sketches and our own churches where folks have dozed off during a sermon. As we continue our journey through the book of Acts, we find it actually happened within the Bible as well. Though, for the individual within our text thing morning, we find there were much more dire consequences for being Caught Sleeping. We’re in Acts 20:7-12.
This event is a biblical concoction of tragedy and humor. On the one hand, a young man has fallen several stories and reportedly died. That is tragic. But the reason for his almost-demise can’t help but induce a smirk. My old youth pastor told us that “Paul preached the kid to death.” Regardless of how we describe it, this young man suffered a lot more than elbow jabs and embarrassment. But before we talk more about that drowsy dilemma, we should take a wider look at the context.
Remember, when we began our journey through the events of Acts, it was simply the original disciples of Jesus and a calling to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Since then we have heard inspiring tales of unity, healing, and transformation. The followers of Jesus have increased in number and across the region, people are hearing about a Savior who died on a cross for their sins and rose from the grave. A movement, originally called The Way, has morphed into a group of people so much like the risen Jesus, that in the city of Antioch, these people began to be referred to as “little Christs” or Christians. The followers of Jesus had seen the miraculous and endured terrible persecution and violence. Still, gatherings of Christ-followers were now forming in multiple cities for fellowship, teaching, and the sharing of compassion. The events of our text this morning in Troas is one such example. And this group is privileged to hear from Paul himself. You get the sense that the group can barely take their eyes off him. That is, except for this young man named Eutychus.
While Paul is preaching, Eutychus is Caught Sleeping, and - as his eyelids fall shut, so too does he fall from his perch in the upper window. One biblical historian offers some explanation for what happened. “The hot, oily atmosphere caused by the crowd and the torches made it difficult for a youth who may have put in a hard day’s work to keep awake, despite the priceless opportunity of learning truth from apostolic lips.” For the record, that’s how I want my preaching described: a priceless opportunity of learning. Anyway, this young man had likely worked a full day and then found himself in a warm, crowded late-night lecture. It’s likely no amount of caffeine could have kept Eutychus alert. And tragedy strikes.
The gathered community is stricken, and Paul is quick to intervene. This is any public speakers’ worst nightmare: someone has fallen critically ill amidst their offering. Paul, though, proves himself far more than an intellectual. He goes to the boy and we’re told he wraps him up in his arms. Paul embraces Eutychus. We’re not told how or what it looked like to the gathered crowd, but this young man is revived. And what does Paul do next? He goes back and finishes his message.
There is a lot we can gain by exploring this account. And no, the primary lesson is not that preachers should keep their sermons short. The first person we can learn from in this event is the young boy, Eutychus, who provides us a good lesson. He shows us how dangerous it can be when we put our guard down when we stop paying attention, especially when we place ourselves in a dangerous space. For Eutychus, that was a windowsill. For us, our precipitous fall could come from being lulled by the many voices of conspiracy and prejudice that are swirling in our midst. The heat of debate and opinion and privilege and politics can, just like the heat of those lamps in Acts 20, dull our ability to perceive the danger we are in. It can also impact how we see and understand the presence and activity of God, if we are not careful.
We also learn a valuable lesson from Paul. Paul is a stalwart of Christian wisdom and discipleship. His penned letters to the various churches he fostered literally became a majority of the New Testament. But did you notice what is missing from Luke’s account here in Acts 20? The content of Paul’s sermon. We don’t get so much as a single sentence or anecdote from Paul’s lengthy discourse. But that doesn’t mean Paul has nothing to teach us.
Paul pauses in his very purpose for being with that crowd and rushes to the person in immediate need. It doesn’t matter that the boy fell asleep during his message. It doesn’t matter that Eutychus was very likely one of the least regarded people present. There was a person in dire need and Paul’s first instinct was to rush to that person’s side and provide presence and care. We can learn much from Paul in this example. All of us have responsibilities, obligations, and priorities. But sometimes, something happens that requires us to divert our attention and energy away to a situation of need, to a place desperate for compassion and presence.
We are all trying to get by at the moment. Between the seemingly countless different crises surrounding all of us, we can get Caught Sleeping and convince ourselves that we need to keep moving forward, keep working, keep doing no matter who we pass along the way. For each of us to not only notice but to approach someone who is hurting or in need at this very time in our society is perhaps the most Christ-like action we can take. We need to pay attention, and then we need to spring into action when we encounter a story of suffering.
In this brief and somewhat comical account, we find an incredibly compelling dissection of Christian purpose. We are called to be vigilant and passionate in our sharing of the Gospel, while, at the same time, equally called to notice and address the needs of others. I love the way N.T. Wright articulates it: “Somehow the church is called in every generation to keep its eyes both on the larger horizon and on the immediate, practical, homely, personal and often pressing calls of our time, prayer, and attention.” From Paul, we learn to preach and to heal. From Eutychus, we learn to guard ourselves and to be aware of our surroundings. If we fail to heed either example, our witness and impact as Christ-followers are diminished. A preacher with no compassion for the hurting is little more than a snake oil salesman or televangelist. A person concerned with the need of others but possessing no awareness in their place in God’s love for this world are suspect to become the very victims they wish to save. We don’t have to suffer either of those fates. But it requires us to grow in our faith in Christ, to actively put ourselves in places and relationships where we can flourish and find purpose and meaningful endeavor. It requires that we not be Caught Sleeping.