Scripture: Luke 21:25-36
For a lot of people warm pajamas, hot chocolate, and a Christmas movie is the recipe for a perfect December evening. There are a lot of Christmas movies to choose from, and I imagine everyone has their favorites. There are no shortage of Christmas movie lists out there that attempt to rank the movies by the best or by most popular. Broadly speaking most of the movies on these lists can be divided into two categories. First there are the sweet and sentimental Christmas movies. This category includes classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, as well as literally every Hallmark Christmas movie ever made. The second category are comedies which includes favorites like Home Alone, Christmas Vacation, and Elf. Most lists of best or favorite Christmas movies that can be found are dominated by these two categories. However, on a lot of these lists, usually just outside of the top ten is a movie that does not quite fit the mold. A lot of Christmas movie lists include the Bruce Willis action movie Die Hard. Like a lot of Christmas movies this takes place on Christmas Eve, but unlike most it is rated R and for extremely good reasons. Now you may not personally consider Die Hard a Christmas movie, but its inclusion on so many lists show that a great many people do. Cable stations like VH1 and SyFy also play the movie in heavy rotation throughout December as part of their holiday programming. Compared to most Christmas movies, Die Hard does not fit our expectations and it sticks out as not quite fitting in. I think the same is true of this morning’s scripture.
This morning’s scripture which talks of anguish, apprehensiveness, and people fainting from terror is not the kind of scripture we expect to hear read when our sanctuary is decorated in greens and we are lighting candles. We expect to hear prophecies from Isaiah of a child being born or perhaps stories of a pregnant Mary visiting or cousin Elizabeth. During this time of the year we are likely expecting sweet and sentimental scriptures. Jesus’ end time’s proclamations are usually not what we associate with Advent and this time of the year. In a lot of ways this feels like a scripture that might be picked out by someone who is fed up with the commercialization of Christmas and just wants to say “humbug” to it all. Like Die Hard, it this morning’s scripture sticks out as not quite fitting in. Despite that, this scripture is the traditional gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent and that has been the case for centuries. In the Western church liturgical readings were not standardized until 1570, and when they were this morning’s scripture was included for the first Sunday of Advent. Even though this scripture feel a little out of places, there is a good reason why it has stuck around in the church’s tradition for so long. This morning’s scripture reminds us what Advent is all about.
This morning’s scripture is a snippet of a larger section where Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple and things to come. In earlier verses Jesus mentions some of the event that will cause people to faint from terror and be apprehensive of what is coming: earthquakes, famines, pestilence, and nation rising up against nation. This morning’s scripture continues the carnage by mentions the roaring and tossing of seas as well the heavenly bodies being shaken. All of these events is leading up to the second coming of Jesus in power and great glory. I think we can easily get distracted by the drama and of this morning’s scripture that we miss the most basic point it is making.
Despite that elsewhere Jesus states only the Father knows the times and place, that has not stopped people from making predictions of when the second coming is going to occur. It seems there are always people who are looking to connect the dots and find patterns that show how various natural disasters and calamities are connected and point to scriptures like this morning being fulfilled. There is an allure to look for signs in the sun, moon, and stars. However, when we can get so focused on all of the surrounding stuff that we complete glaze over the fact that Jesus is coming back. The way of this world will not go on forever, suffering will not continue on indefinitely, and redemption will draw near. This morning’s scripture may not feel seasonally appropriate, but during Advent a reminder that Jesus will return is exactly what we need.
The cultural holiday celebrations has ballooned into such a seasonal juggernaut that Advent just becomes part of the Christmas season. For a lot of people Advent is mostly just the countdown to Christmas that is marked by opening daily themed Advent calendars. Advent is more than just part of the Christmas season. Just like the use of this morning’s scripture, Advent is an old tradition. The United Methodist Book of Worship defines Advent as “a season of four weeks including four Sundays. Advent derives from the Latin adventus, which means “coming”. The season proclaims the comings of Christ- whose birth we prepare to celebrate once again, who comes continually in Word and Spirit, and whose return in final victory we anticipate.”
Christmas itself is a day of remembering when God so love the world, that he invaded it in the flesh. We remember that in order for God to save us, God became just like us. However, our faith is not just one history and tradition. Our faith should not always be looking to the past in remembrance. Our faith in Jesus is more than commemorates the birth of a special baby. Our faith in Jesus is a faith in a risen savior who is, and a faith in a savior who will be back again. Advent is more than just about preparing to celebrate the incarnational first coming of Jesus, it is also about being mindful of how we are preparing for the second coming of Jesus, where instead of coming as an infant he returns as the King in final and absolute victory. There are multiple scriptures that speak of Jesus triumphantly returning, but there is a reason why Christian tradition has so long used this one on the first Sunday of Advent. This morning’s scripture provides clarity and points the way to how we can best prepare ourselves for the return of the Christ. Jesus may or may not return during any our lives, but this morning’s scripture makes it clear that we are supposed to be ready. From this morning’s scripture we can get a better idea on how to do this based off of what we should do and what we should not do.
To be prepared for the return of Jesus verse 34 points out what not to do: “Be careful or your heats will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life.” When we pursue achievement, financial success, and work above all else then we often find our anxieties matter. Carousing and drunkenness was the most common form of entertainment in the first century. While still popular today our entertainment options have greatly multiplied. There is nothing inherently wrong with ambition and hard work. There is also nothing inherently wrong with relaxing and having a good time. However, when those elements get out of balance in our lives, when they become our primary focus and driving goal in life then they do weight our heart down. If we are so focused on what we have to do to get ahead or what we are going to do to entertain ourselves then our heart is focused almost exclusively on ourselves. It is weighed down with because it is inward focused and heavy with apathy to others and towards God.
Unfortunately, we can see evidence of people with weighed down hearts all around us. While it is popular to claim no one wants to work anymore a lot of people still put in a lot of time chasing the American dream. The United States has one of the highest rates in the world of employees putting in over fifty hours a week and American workers only use about half of their given paid time off. On the flip side, it is easier than ever to find entertainment options. It does not matter if it is traditional TV, streaming services, or video games heavy users of media consume up to five hours of it a day, every day. The people who do this are not statistical outliers but around 10% of the users. When our focus is on ourselves our hearts are weighed down, we cannot see the needs around, and we are unaware of God’s working in the world.
This gets us to what this morning scripture states we should do in verse 36, “Be always on the watch and pray.” I think the word watch though gives us the wrong idea, because often we think of watching as a passive activity. We are not supposed to be standing by and always gazing skyward waiting for the return of Jesus. Instead we are supposed to be actively looking. As the scripture we read last week stated, we should seek first the kingdom of God. If we are actively looking for where Jesus is present in the world, if we are actively seeking the kingdom of God, then we will not be caught unware when God moves. We might be surprised with delight, in awe and wonder, or struck in amazement but we will not be unaware.
Jesus’ instruction to be always on the watch, is one that I struggled with at one time because I took it to meant that we were supposed to live each and every day as if we just had hours before Jesus was going to return. I thought it meant we were supposed to live each day with the intensity of athletes in a tied game with less than a minute on the clock. Because of this I was always beating myself up, because living like that every day is a standard I could not meet. It is an exhausting pace that was untenable and I felt like I never measured up. However, I felt like I got a better handle on this scripture when I shifted to a more focused, deliberate pace. Learning about Brother Lawrence helped me make that shift.
Brother Lawrence was a lay brother in a French monastery during the 1600s. He was not an abbot, esteemed theologian, or famed preacher. In fact he spent most of his time in the kitchen of the monastery fixing food and washing dishes. In the midst of doing the same work all day, every day Brother Lawrence developed a deep spiritual life because he put this morning’s scripture into practice. He was always on the watch and he was always praying. Brother Lawrence actively looked for Jesus and found him everywhere in his humble kitchen. For Lawrence even the most mundane, everyday objects somehow pointed to Christ. He also developed a practice of praying constantly, and in the midst of normal work would find himself in situations that can only be described as mystical encounters with the divine. Brother Lawrence wrote about his experiences of finding God in the ordinary in a series of letters that eventually found themselves edited and published as The Practice of the Presence of God. That book has been one that has influenced a number of people since then. John Wesley, found of the Methodist movement, was quick to recommend reading the book to members of the Methodist societies. It point us to how we can practice this scripture.
If our hearts are not weighed down by too much self-focus then we can find God at work in the world around us. The mundane and the ordinary can be extraordinary reminders of Christ. We do not have to live every day as if it were our last, but we should live every day with the expectation that we will encounter God today. Every day we should be actively looking and praying that we would see God at work in the world, and perhaps even be able to join God in that work as we become the hands and feet of Christ. When we do that then we will be ready for Jesus, whenever he comes back.
This morning’s scripture may not fit the typical vibe we expect from this type of year. In fact, it seems to say “humbug” to the normal disposition of this season. Despite that, this morning’s scripture is a vital reminder as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ. This scripture reminds us that we are not just celebrating a past event we are anticipating a glorious future. Jesus came as a baby to Bethlehem, he died on the cross for us, and he will return in power and great glory. As we await that day, may we not allow our lives to be consumed by less important pursuits. But instead may we keep it in balance while we always on the watch and praying, may we seek God’s presence in the everyday and the mundane. Because if we do this then we will not just be keeping Christ in Christmas, but we will be keeping Christ in each and every one of our days.