“Stay Alert & Wait” Colchester Federated Church, November 28, 2021, First Sunday of Advent (Luke 21:25-36)
When I was living in Massachusetts, I could occasionally leave town in the early hours of the morning to attend the first two services of the day at Glastonbury Abbey (a Benedictine Monastery in Hingham). Vigils begins at 6:30 AM and Lauds follows at 7:45. It’s hard for me to concentrate in the morning—my thoughts are often all over the place. On some mornings at the Abbey they ranged from: did I actually turn off the coffee maker before I left the parsonage to is that monk wearing crocs as his shoes right now? Being at the Abbey was wonderful because observing set times of prayer with other Christians could help leave distractions behind to be centered in God. Being in the present moment may come naturally to some of us. But for others, it can be a real struggle. Knowing spiritual practices that help to bring us back to the present and to God-with-us can make all the difference in living out one’s Christian faith.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is about being centered in this Liturgical Season of hopeful waiting for the birth of Jesus Christ into our midst. Advent is about pausing and not necessarily sprinting ahead to Christmas. No matter what songs we hear on the radio, or the Christmas displays at stores, or the Christmas specials we see on TV (some of you are probably already bingeing those Hallmark Christmas movies). Now this is not to say that no one is allowed to decorate for Christmas early or sing uplifting Christmas songs or watch those cheesy Christmas movies. Life is hard enough, and if that stuff brings us joy—maybe we shouldn’t be so judgmental. I don’t want to start out Advent with a Grinch-like sermon. However, the liturgical season of Advent as we observe it in the Christian Church is about waiting and trusting in the promises of God.
How does one get centered in a season of waiting? Not easily. Our culture does not thrive on waiting, and certainly not waiting with any level of patience. If you’re out with people and someone asks a question that no one knows the answer to—someone is likely to take out their phone and turn to Google. If a car in front of you is turning, you make a lane (where there actually isn’t one) and speed on around them. If you work in retail or other occupations—you may not even have had all of Thanksgiving to be with those you love because Black Friday begins as early as Thursday afternoon in some stores. We don’t wait well, and often desire instant gratification.
Though in some ways not waiting well is not just our modern culture, it’s part of the human condition. Think back to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God tells them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Everything else in this Garden is fair game. But don’t go there, please, for your own well-being. And what do human beings do? Succumb to temptation and go for that very thing God told them was off-limits. Maybe if they had listened and actually waited, God would have taught them the knowledge of good and evil eventually. We don’t need to interpret Genesis literally to understand that it’s a timeless story about how human beings operate. If you tell us not to do something, we want to do that very thing you just told us not to do.
Human beings struggle with waiting. And that’s why Advent is good. Waiting is hard, and waiting can be important and character-building in the end. Benedictine nun and Worship scholar Joan Chittister explains, “The liturgical year does not begin at the heart of the Christian enterprise. It does not immediately plunge us into the chaos of the Crucifixion or the giddy confusion of the Resurrection. Instead the year opens with Advent, the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious. It trains us to see what is beyond the apparent. Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.” Thankfully we have a couple weeks before Christmas to explore the spiritual discipline of waiting and trusting in God as we wait. Waiting can help us have hopeful anticipation for the miracle that is to come. This isn’t easy, but it’s good for us on a spiritual level.
This season of waiting begins with apocalyptic readings—showing us a potential future of chaos, destruction, and judgment. Imploring us to stay alert and be watchful as we wait for Jesus’ return. This waiting for the return of Jesus was not always deliberate and patiently observed by the early Christians. In the Gospel of Luke, this passage is called the Little Apocalypse—the sun, moon, and stars showing signs, earthquakes, crazy seas, the heavens shaking, and then the Son of Man coming to judge the people. Luke wrote: “I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.” Except that generation of the early Christians (who may have taken the Little Apocalypse literally) waited and waited and waited some more. But this apocalyptic moment didn’t literally come to pass as they may have hoped that it would.
Apocalyptic writing can be interpreted metaphorically. Jesus was, is, and shall ever be Emmanuel—God-with-Us. So this idea of the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory in the future misses that the presence of Christ never disappeared. The world was full of injustice during Jesus’ life on earth. The Romans occupied many lands and the people were oppressed. It seemed like good never triumphed over evil. Perhaps in these later generations of believers it seemed that Christ was no longer present because life wasn’t any better than it was when Jesus was going about preaching, teaching, and healing. Apocalyptic thinking was meant to give people who were waiting for justice some hope. God is on your side. Sometimes there are events that are beyond our comprehension or control. Though ultimately, we’re not in charge. God keeps God’s promises. Just hang on a while longer and you will be vindicated one day.
The moral of the story is to be alert, keep awake, and be good people who love one another all the time because you don’t know the day or the hour when Jesus will return (if it’s going to happen like that anyway or not.) Luke writes: “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.” In other words, don’t give up hope no matter how bleak life seems. Don’t get lost in the anxieties we experience day in and day out. Wait with hope and trust in God.
Looking around at our world today, Luke’s story still holds meaning. And it’s still difficult to heed these warnings. We can’t let our hearts be so weighed down by life’s troubles that we succumb to despair. Though we also know that sometimes that’s easier said than done. Maybe our job in these uncertain and sometimes downright chaotic times is to stay alert to the movements of God in our world and in our lives. Maybe we are being called to wait with hope. We can do this hopeful waiting knowing that we do the best we can with what we have wherever we are to shine some light into our world with God’s help. Thanks be to God. Amen.