1st Sunday in Advent
When we arrive at the season of Advent, and when normal people are already well into the Christmas planning and executing season, your pastor brings you not to the beginning of things, where the birth stories of our Lord are told, but rather he drags you to the very end of things, far beyond the crucifixion and death and resurrection narratives, and into the passages where our Lord discusses his eventual return to this earth. Now why do I do that? I’ll tell you; I don’t know. It is just that some of the earliest followers of Jesus believed that before we can celebrate the birth of a cute little baby, that we ought to understand that one day, this cute little baby boy will return to this earth, not as something cute and cuddly, but rather as the reigning and ruling and judging king of the universe. And that just may be why we prefer the cute little baby boy at this time of year. We aren’t really looking for a judge. We don’t really want one.
We have endured and are now enduring the effects of the single most significant event in all of our life-times. A devastating world-wide pandemic is something that should catch our attention. In addition to the pandemic, and occurring nearly simultaneously, there has been a revival of hatred, racism and violence toward and among our fellow human creatures. That also should catch our attention, because we are treating one another abominably. But the question is, why should things like this capture our attention? I’ll tell you: I know the answer to this one. Jesus says very plainly, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Heaven and earth are temporary.
There are times when I think that we believe just the opposite of what Jesus says. We are convinced that this world is still here, broken and permanently damaged, because that’s what we see everyday, but that Jesus’ words have already passed away. We have perhaps concluded that Jesus’ words are no longer relevant in this world, and so we have abandoned the world, and given up on it. And perhaps we have done this so that its devolution into chaos will hasten our Lord’s return. If this is true, then we have ourselves become complicit in the world’s devolution, because we have throttled the words of our Lord that lead to peace, and healing. We are no longer proclaiming the good news. But rather, just sitting it out until Jesus returns, and the world be damned. If this is the case, we need to rediscover our callings as Jesus’ followers and disciples. Jesus never intended for his kingdom to stumble and fall. He intended that it would storm the very gates of hell.
And yet among the followers of Jesus there is confusion, fear and dread, when it comes to fulfilling our mission. And we must break out of this fear and dread and confusion, and lay hold of our mission once again. But we get discouraged. We despair. We may even experience terror, or at least the fear of terror. But Jesus commands us to rise above our human natures. And if he commands us to do that, then it is absolutely possible for us to do it. Jesus does not give us commands that are impossible for us to carry out. We have seen this time and time again in the Scriptures.
We all know how easy it is to slide into despair and hopelessness. Troubling things have happened to all of us. We are not immune from the brokenness of this world. We’ve all been there. We don’t have to work hard at getting there. It just happens naturally and easily. We don’t purposefully intend to go into a state of doom and gloom, we just end up there. and as a result, mission suffers.
I’m sure that that is why Jesus tells us to be on our guard, and to stay alert. It takes some work to do that. It requires that we face our troubles and trials head on. It requires that we take control over our feelings rather than allowing our feelings to take control over us. We must acknowledge the power that despair has over us, and we must determine, first of all, not to slide into a state of despair to begin with. We know that despair paralyzes us and keeps us from fulfilling our God-given missions. And so we must determine to rely on the all-encompassing power of God to drag us up and out of the dark places of our lives.
Jesus says that we ought not to be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life. I like it that Jesus says, don’t be weighed down. It is very apt. Being weighed down is carrying around burdens that we weren’t designed to carry, and that we have no business carrying. Being weighed down is unnecessarily taking on stuff that drags us down. It is spending too much of our lives and times focusing on the excessive and the useless. The radical and surgical cure for that is shedding everything in our lives that does not fill us with hope and joy. And sometimes the cure for this is helping someone who is filled with fear and dread. This is one way to bring ourselves some hope and joy. Our Lord has come alongside of us, we ought to be coming alongside of others. Being loving and caring and accepting in these dark times stands in strong opposition to the dread and fear and hatred that surrounds us on a daily basis. The most powerful way to change the world is to stand in the face of evil. The most effective way of standing in the face of evil is to love the world, one person at a time. This is exactly how Jesus conducted his ministry, and it is exactly what he meant when he said, “Come to me all you who are burdened and heavily laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Isn’t rest, peaceful rest what every person living now needs in this on-going covid affected world? Is all of this hatred and fighting not a symptom of tired and exhausted hearts? Why have we held back the message of peace in a time when it is most desperately needed?
The end of the world will come upon all who live on the face of the earth. That is assured. For some, who are caught up in the troubles of this life, it will come unexpectedly, as if being caught in a trap. And it will come like a trap for all who live in fear and in dread, and with feelings of gloom and doom. And it will come like a trap for those who are already caught up in securing the pursuits of this life at the expense of others. It will come like a trap for all of those who are already ensnared by the power of sin and death and hatred. Those who put themselves first, and above others will quickly discover, irreparably, how low that they have fallen, and how far from God’s grace they have willingly and intentionally traveled.
The faithful disciple, then, will not be trapped in any way; not in a trap of his or her own making, and certainly not in a trap that brings fear of judgment. The faithful follower of Jesus is always looking up and living ahead. The faithful follower of Jesus knows that there is much going on around us that has the power to distract us, and so we avoid those things. Our ultimate goal is redemption. Redemption ought to be our focus. The message of Advent is anticipation, and joyful anticipation at that. That’s why Jesus counsels us to stand up, raise our heads, and know that our redemption is drawing near. Let us look ahead, and let us live ahead, leaving the cares and distractions of this world behind us, as if they were useless, heavy baggage.
Finally, Jesus encourages prayer. Prayer is good. Jesus counsels us to pray that we will have the strength to escape all these things that will take place. On one level, Jesus is encouraging us to pray that we will have the strength to escape all of the doom and gloom that he has predicted. And that’s fine. I will pray every day to escape any doom and gloom that is headed my way. I would love to avoid all of that stuff. But Jesus is talking about praying for strength to escape, not that we would be exempt from the troubles and trials that come our way. And that leads me to further pondering. This is not a simple prayer of avoidance. I believe that Jesus is speaking of strength to endure and strength to live above and beyond the doom and gloom that comes our way. We may not be able to avoid the doom and gloom that Jesus predicts that is headed our way, but we can certainly pray for strength to get past it. And, in that there is ultimate escape. If we are freed from all despair and fear and dread, we have indeed escaped. But even beyond that, not even considering the things that are yet to come, that have yet to impact us, I believe that Jesus is encouraging us to pray that we will find the strength to escape the other things that he warns us about in this passage, namely being weighed down with the cares and the concerns of this life, and the excessive and the useless. Jesus wants us to live with joy and hope in this life and in this moment. Our prayers in this matter will help us to look ahead and to live ahead with joyful anticipation. Today is always the gift of God, and we live every moment of it in the presence of a loving and caring God. But tomorrow, we stand forever in the presence of the Son of Man. That is the direction in which we look, that is our destination, and that is all that ultimately matters. In the presence of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, the cares and trials of this world will seem to be but a shadow. They will be like a dream forgotten at the moment of waking. That is what we joyfully anticipate.