Luke 21: 25-36
On most normal paper calendars, we have just started the last month of the year, and after December 31 the calendar ends. It has no more months on it. Actual calendar stores pop up seasonally just to sell us new calendars. The signs are around us that a year is coming to an end. For example: last Thursday was the final Counseling Center Board meeting of the year; a new slate of officers and a smaller Board starts in January. By contrast, last Sunday was the end of the Christian year; Christ the King Sunday reminded us of the power and the glory of Jesus Christ: the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. Today starts a new Christian year. Once again we go back into the “Once upon a time” sections of the Old Testament. As “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go,” once again we hear the words of prophets from Christian pulpits: sometimes they are mystical or mysterious; sometimes they are thunderous, reminding people to “prepare the way of the Lord!” We start to hear from the main New Testament prophet known as John The Baptist and his demanding message: “Repent!” We also hear from Major Prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah— called “major” because we have more of their words in our Bibles; and we hear just as powerfully from Minor Prophets like Micah and Malachi—only called minor because we have fewer of their words in our Bibles. If we listen to their words through our 21st century ears, we might, just might, get good guidance for our own lives and get good direction for our own world, not just for the pre-Christian world to which it was first addressed. I invite you to listen and learn during the coming Sundays known as Advent. Synonyms for advent are these: arrival; appearance, or emergence. Christians have been around this block before; we know the words of the prophets; we know what a rude and bare manger scene is at the end of our December journey. Do you look at this time of the year with anticipation; or with dread; with joy or with hope? Some children weave together their love of Santa and a love for Jesus. I think that’s fine. Some youth are very active in this season, hardly getting to think about Jesus in their lives. They are busy with parades (like today) or final class projects, and some are just excited about their upcoming holidays with no school! Young adults and young families may be heavily engaged in community projects, in preparing for concerts, or in getting their home ready for guests. Other adults may have a hole in their soul because of a loss, so they may have, as it has been called, a “Blue Christmas.” Some may enjoy caroling while others enjoy watching Christmas specials on television. Still others attend local concerts and services (especially ours!) These Advent days have many emotions rolled into them.
Theologian Karl Rahner once said this prayer: “Every year we celebrate the Holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and those lovely songs of hope and promise. Every year we roll up all our needs and yearnings and faithful expectation into one word: ‘Come.’ And yet, what a strange prayer that is! After all, you have already come and pitched your tent among us.” [Watch For the Light, Plough Publishing, 2001, p. 68.] Each year we continue traditions that hold our knowledge in suspension, so that we can pretend that Christ has not yet come to the earth, so that we can re-member the old, old story. One blessing of being a pastor of a congregation as long as I have is that I remember; I remember the people; the events; the special days, including the joys and the sorrows of the seasons. On our church anniversary in May we pull out the films and photo albums, we eat cake, and tell stories again. It’s what we do to pass on the traditions and customs! Some among us wisely remind us to write these things down. So for our 60th anniversary three years ago, I bought our church history booklet up to date. Every December my activities fill me with memories too: with each ornament I pull out, my mind fills with who gave it to us or where we bought it. With stockings that are pulled from storage I think about each family member. And in holiday gatherings I get more connected with family and friends than even Facebook allows. But today, let me suggest something specific Jesus told us to do.
First, this lead in: American poet Robert Frost said, in his poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:” “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” He did not write these words that I recently saw on a T-shirt: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one on the left because the one on the right was muddy and I had nice shoes on.” Those were not Robert Frost’s words! But today, I think the road more often taken in Advent is the first road; the road of “Waiting.” After all when someone is expecting a baby, (like Mary was,) for the most part all she and other family members can do is wait. Yes she can prepare a nursery, or get good pre-natal care in our day, but others must wait. When Mary Ann and I were expecting our first son, she and I were not only waiting nine months, but Christopher was not ready to be born until over 3 weeks later! That was a lot of waiting! Waiting is often passive; people wait to see a doctor; people wait for their flight to be called; people wait for a baby to be born. They look for ways to pass the time like playing on their phone or listening to music. They are just waiting!
The road taken less often—we’ll call it the second road—is “Watching.” It is active. After Jesus gave a list of things to notice in the world—changes in the sun, moon, stars, and the sea—Jesus said this in our text today, Luke 21:36: “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” Watching is active. A man recently told me what a gift his grandfather gave him: he taught him to watch, to notice things and people around him wherever he was. And so he does; this gown man notices birds in the trees, or animals that trudge a lawn or a path. He notices the sky and the expressions of people around him. He is always “watching.” Our translation of the passage today says to “be alert.” J.B. Phillips, the famous translator of the New Testament into modern day English, wrote this: “The [man] who works on scaffolds hundreds of feet above the ground has to be on his guard against over-familiarity. The [one] who works with high-voltage electricity must also beware of … danger. And anyone who knows the sea will say to you in effect, ‘By all means love the sea, but never lose your respect for it.’” [Watch For the Light, Plough Publishing, 2001, p. 20, 21.] Watching is being alert; seeing what is around you; being prepared for both the challenges and blessings that will come your way.
This year, Jesus invites us not just to wait for a baby to be born, but to watch, to be alert, and notice the signs that are around us. Who knows when we might see Jesus in another person? Who knows when we might see an opportunity to bring peace from conflict? And who knows what we might see that could totally change our Christmas? Keep watching.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 2, 2018