Bunny, a pastor, known for his lengthy sermons, noticed Ralph get up and leave during the middle of his message. He returned just before the conclusion of the service. Afterwards Bunny asked Ralph where he had gone.
'I went to get a haircut,' was the reply.
'But,' said Bunny the pastor, 'Why didn't you do that before the service?'
'Because,' Ralph said, 'I didn't need one then.'[i]
Aren’t you glad your preacher doesn’t talk long enough for you to need a haircut? Acts 20[ii] tells about a long sermon that resulted in more than just a pile of hair on the ground. Verse 7 says, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.” According to the custom of that day, we can assume that this is the evening meal, and not lunch. So if Paul got started during dinner, then he was preaching for six hours straight!
When it got dark, they brought out lamps that filled the house with smoke, leading one young man named Eutychus to seek fresh air by sitting in the sill of an open window. But the apostle preached so long that even the fresh air couldn’t keep Eutychus awake. He could feel himself nodding off and jerking awake, nodding off and jerking awake. Finally, the last time he nodded off he did not jerk awake, because he fell three stories to his death! Yes—the Bible has a cautionary tale about falling asleep in church.
I remember one church I was part of, where the pastor preached sermons that were theologically intriguing, but he did it with such a monotone voice and dull delivery that it was tough keeping my eyes open. Staying up too late on Saturday night may have also had something to do with it. I found myself sitting there, practically peeling my eyes back to hold them open, and biting the inside of my cheek to keep myself from falling asleep. Maybe Eutychus had been trying to do the same thing, but failed.
You’ve probably had the same experience, of being drowsy in church. We go to great lengths to avoid falling asleep—hopefully because we want to hear what the Lord has to say to us in the sermon. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we get really embarrassed about falling asleep in public. Some years ago I served a church where there were two brothers who frequently fell asleep in church. Truth be told, these young men didn’t fall asleep—they went to sleep. Thinking they could disguise their slumber with a prayerful posture, they would lean forward and fold their arms on the pew in front of them, bowing their heads against their arms. Little did they know when they shook my hand and said, “Good sermon, Preacher,” that I was inwardly laughing at their messed up hair and red marks on their foreheads!
Sometimes we fall asleep in church accidentally, but sometimes we actively go to sleep. But I’m not talking about the kind of sleep that leaves us with drool in our chins. I’m talking about complete obliviousness to the things we ought to be paying attention to.
Many in church are spiritually asleep. They have tuned out the Holy Spirit long enough that no matter how much He nudges them, they just won’t wake up. It’s difficult to hear from God when you haven’t listened for so long that you just drift into oblivion. These people care more about a religious performance than a connection with the Divine. They come for the fellowship or the family reunion, but listening to God is something they haven’t done in ages, if ever. Believers need to be spiritually awake, so they can avoid a big fall.
Others in church are mentally asleep. You know, you shouldn’t have to disengage your brain when you walk through the church door—but some people do. And honestly, some religious leaders expect people to! We need to encourage people to ask the tough questions that produce hard answers. But it’s easier to sit back comfortably and say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” The problem is that when you mentally check out like that, you might know what the Bible says, but you never learn what it means. Don’t accept the opinion of your Sunday school teacher or your pastor without studying, praying, and thinking. Christians ought to be mentally awake, or else they’re in for a disastrous kind of faith.
Still others in the church are socially asleep. Unaware of the needs around them, they go about their lives with blinders on. Poverty and sickness and broken society cry for attention, yet these people would rather go around with their head in the clouds, worshiping God without noticing the hurting people beside them. Just as Jesus touched the hurting and cared for the outcast, so today’s believers are called to do the same. But we can’t do this if we don’t see the needs. If we don’t open our eyes and see with compassion, then while our faith might look alive, it will be truly dead at the core.
When Paul saw that Eutychus had fallen from the window, he rushed outside with everyone else. Dr. Luke was on the scene, and pronounced the victim dead. But Paul threw himself on the body, prayed for him, and the Lord did a miracle. The young man got up, restored to life. Just as some are spiritually asleep in church, there are certainly some who are spiritually dead. But Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” Just as He did for Eutychus, God wants to do a miracle and lift you up to walk in the way of His love. I pray that you will wake up, spiritually, mentally, and socially—before you fall. But for those who have fallen, I pray that God will restore. This is why it is written, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you (Ephesians 5:14b).”
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NRSV.