Luke 21:25-36 (MSG) – See passage below.
“Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” Luke 21:28 (MSG)
[Jesus said:]25-26 “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.
27-28 “And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”
29-33 He told them a story. “Look at a fig tree. Any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. The same here—when you see these things happen, you know God’s kingdom is about here. Don’t brush this off: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.
34-36 “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”
This year more than ever before I resented the forced schedule that begins on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The advertising campaigns start much earlier than that. My inbox is overwhelmed with urgent messages saying that if I don’t act IMMEDIATELY then I will lose the chance to get THE BEST DEAL THAT EVER WAS OR EVER WILL BE. Some of them sound like thinly veiled threats.
You know the schedule. There’s Black Friday when we’re expected to show up before sunrise to claim one of the limited numbers of bargain items available in stores. That’s followed by Small Business Saturday, when we atone for all of the spending we did at the chain stores by supporting our local merchants – which is a good thing to do all of the time. Then we have Cyber Monday, when we realize that they were just kidding about Friday being the BEST DEALS EVER because now you can only get the BEST DEAL IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD if (and only if) you order online using this ONE TIME ONLY DISCOUNT CODE THAT WILL EXPIRE AT MIDNIGHT. And all of that is capped by Giving Tuesday, when I am besieged by every organization to which I have ever given any kind of donation, however small. I fully support being generous in charitable giving, but it’s a lot to take in on one day.
This year I found myself responding with a kind of stubborn resistance. I didn’t like all of the pressure. I didn’t like having the sequence of the calendar dictated so insistently. I didn’t like being flooded with e-mails urging me to spend more money.
Which brings us to Advent. Advent is a weird season. I heard someone say this week that Advent is a frank acknowledgement of Christian non-conformity.[i] And it is. When we are surrounded by frantic messages to go here and do this and buy this and be this in order to have THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS, Advent gives us permission to pause for a moment, to slow down. Advent is a season of remembering, a season of waiting, a season of watching. We remember that Jesus first came to us in a completely surprising way, as a baby born in the backwoods. We wait for the time when Jesus will come again to restore God’s creation to wholeness. And in the meantime we watch. We watch for signs of where God is showing up now, places where God is giving us hints about what that future time will be like.
Unlike human time, God’s time is not a forced march of consumerism and excess. God’s time is not even strictly linear. It invites us to see with eyes of faith how God’s promised future breaks into the here and now. Jesus gives us the image of a fig tree, but it could be any tree. When the tree is bare during the bleakest parts of winter, we trust that it will not stay that way. We know that there is new life on the horizon. Eventually we see the tiniest beginnings of leaves on the branches, but those just confirm what we already know: Our God is a God of resurrection, and new life is always showing up when and where we least expect it.
That’s why on this first Sunday of Advent we usually get an apocalyptic gospel filled with dramatic signs of that coming kingdom and all kinds of urgent messages to stay awake and alert. I especially like the language that’s used in the version that I read a few minutes ago. The Son of Man – often another name for Jesus – The Son of Man will be welcomed in grand style. “When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”
A bit later Jesus implores the disciples – and us – to be on the lookout: “Be on your guard,” he says. “Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping…whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch.”
Stand tall with your heads high. Don’t go to sleep at the switch. We’re called to be observant, watchful. Where is God showing up in this life, in this moment? God can show up in all kinds of ways. In a conversation with a colleague beside the photocopier that helps you see that person differently. In a song on the radio, when a certain line of music strikes you in a way that you hadn’t noticed before.
God can show up while you’re driving your kids to soccer practice. Or while you’re rushing around to make breakfast in the morning. Or while you’re stuck waiting for a train that is late – again.
God can show up when you let yourself be still long enough to notice what is moving in your heart and in your spirit. Whatever it is, whether it is settled or restless, tell God about it. Tell God what is stirring within you. God always shows up to hear our prayers.
God can even show up when you’re shopping. On Friday I had a ten-minute conversation with a complete stranger in the grocery store that started when she asked me if the book she had picked out would be right for a second-grader who is an advanced reader. By the end of that ten minutes I had learned how much she misses that little girl, who is her godchild and whose family recently moved much farther away because of a new job. God shows up when we are present to each other – even when we are standing between shelves of pasta and shelves of spices.
Passages like today’s gospel are often used to frighten people. The message becomes “Get your act together or you will suffer the consequences.” And there is an element of that pressure in these apocalyptic readings. But such urgent, dramatic readings give us a chance to remember that it’s not about getting our act together in order to be saved from destruction. We have already been saved. Jesus has already done what needs to be done. Now it’s about living in a way that reflects that good news – living in a way that reflects the hope and healing that we know is coming.
Jazz composer Wayne Shorter is among the artists being recognized at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors. In a recent interview he talked about his belief that everything is connected. In that interview he gestured toward an open window on a breezy October afternoon in California and said: “There are colors we can’t see, but they’re connected to the ones we can. There’s a connection between everything.”[iii]
God’s time is full of colors we can’t yet see, but those colors are connected to the ones we can see. Let’s be careful not to miss them.
Heads up, people of God.
Don’t go to sleep at the switch.
Watch for the messiah in our midst. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]See this week’s edition of the Sermon Brainwave podcast from Working Preacher: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1076