Advent 1, C1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
Today’s lesson puts me in mind of my Boy Scout days. (Don’t bother to check your hearing or my mental status, I said Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts had less interesting activities where I was growing up. With a name like Sam and a father who was the scoutmaster, well, you get the idea. And there really was not a gender box to check on that form…)
Anyway, you all know the motto of the Boy Scouts – Be Prepared. It was immortalized in the words of satirist Tom Lehrer:
That’s the Boy Scouts’ marching song.
As through life you march along.
Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well.
Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell.”
The song goes on and doesn’t get any more reverent, but thus far it reminds me of today’s lesson. Be on guard, be alert, be prepared. I knew what all that meant as a boy scout. It’s a little less clear here. Oh, ask the right people and they’ll tell you exactly how to get prepared for the end times. You’ve seen stories of the doomsday preppers, foretelling the moment of universal doom, watching the skies and tending their stockpiles of food and water, weapon supplies, fallout shelters. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.
It’s Advent. Literally, “a coming into being”. We’re looking forward to the birth of the Christ child. Expectation of hope and joy abounding. Yet we are assaulted with images of fear and foreboding, distress among nations, the sun the moon and the seas doing crazy, crazy stuff. I’ll be honest with you. I’ve never been a big fan of apocalyptic stuff. Biblical truth or science fiction, I just don’t like it. It seems dark and angry, and beyond my control. It conjures images of destruction, death, and judgement. In a word, it’s frightening. And that, perhaps, is the point.
Christmas brings the gift of the Christ child. When we’re not wrapped up in the hype of the secular season, we’re all wrapped up in the beatific image of the warm, cozy manger, lowing cattle, adoring family, soft glow from the North Star, and the cherubic infant who never cries. It’s beautiful, cozy, comforting. But without the gift that we are given today – the chance to encounter stark fearful reality in all its chaos, all its sheer power, the birth is meaningless. It’s a cute baby born into a sweet, fluffy world, where bliss and contentment prevail already. Faith in the power of love and justice would be easy enough if those things already governed the world. That is not the world we live in. That is not a world that needs a savior. Our reality is far more daunting, and most certainly does. As folk artist Arlo Guthrie sang, “You can’t have a light without a dark to put it in.”
In simple, stark terms, reminiscent of the Old Testament apocalyptic writings that preceded him, Jesus asserts the inevitability of the palpable presence of profound fear – the very “powers of heaven will be shaken”.
Here’s the thing about facing deep, visceral fear – for the most part, given an option, we just don’t wanna. We want to stick our heads in the sand like so many ostriches, and refuse to see. Some people drink, or use drugs or food. Many of us use our business. If we worry enough about the (relatively speaking) inconsequential day to day morass of concerns, we can anesthetize ourselves against genuine awareness. Alternatively, we huddle behind the illusion of security in a psychological deep defensive crouch, building up our walls of money, or insurance, or stuff, or political power, or whatever gives us the illusion that we control the uncontrollable.
We would like our faith, Christ’s love, to take away all fear and danger, a cosmic tit for tat – “I believe in you, God. I did my part. Now please don’t make me deal with this.” (whatever “this” may be for you). We would trade the anesthesia of business, of worry, of drink, of security, for the opium of a magic belief that renders us immune from the world. “I’m not afraid of dying” quipped Woody Allen, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Jesus makes it quite clear that no one has exempt status from the things which frighten us most deeply, “For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth”
As we embark on our Advent journey, a time of preparation, of communal and personal introspection, the church has focused our attention on deep, dark fears, and on Jesus’s invitation to his followers to stand tall and raise their heads. Face and embrace your deepest fears, for on the other side of that fear lies hope. As Og Mandino said, “I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.”
The gospel gives some very practical advice, although not necessarily easy to follow. Be on guard, be alert, and pray.
Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life. Dissipation – I had to look it up – is the sense of nausea and general ill health of the sort generally associated with over-indulgence. We are asked to wrestle our natural inclination towards avoidance, towards self-induced numbness and live in awareness within that tension of fear and hope. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann, referencing his own book Theology of Hope says, “I tried to present the Christian hope no longer as such an ‘opium of the beyond’ but rather as the divine power that makes us alive in this world.” (emphasis added)
Be aware. This does not suggest the hyper-vigilance of the hunker down mentality, but rather a sense of mindfulness. Awareness of self, neighbor, God and environment and the relationship amongst all of them
Pray. Perhaps the easiest to ignore in the list, and arguably the most important. This is our communication, our lifeline, our hope. It is our constant cue to mindfulness of God in whom we live and move and have our being.
May the Lord make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all…And may he so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.