With the approach of Christmas we have images of bright lights, peaceful evenings by the tree, and gatherings with loved ones. Even with the bleak backdrop of COVID, we anticipate hearts warmed by the preparation for this beloved holy-day. But the Lectionary Committee who choose the Bible passages for this First Sunday in Advent throw this doom and gloom prediction our way—as if approaching Christmas with COVID lurking is not worry enough! So “Ho Ho Ho and get your act together—now!” We scratch our head and wonder, are we awaiting the birth of a Savior or the end of the world? We know how to wait for Santa—most of us remember opening up little windows on paper Advent Calendars as children, excited for the double window we got to open on Christmas Day. The countdown to Santa is measurable. But watching for Jesus? That’s not so easy.
The text urges us to stay awake, to be ready because we don’t know what’s coming around the next corner. I think we’ve learned that lesson pretty well this year, don’t you? Most of us have the luxury of being able to plan ahead. We set a date for our wedding, make big plans and carry them out with lovely pictures to document the occasion! Not this year. The teaching of Jesus invites us to learn from the past so that we can live better in the present. There will be indicators in the present that prepare us for what’s ahead if only we live attentively in the moment!
This teaching takes place in the Temple where Jesus is surrounded by the religious elite. Jesus has shifted gears to preparing His disciples for His absence. The cross is within Christ’s sight and He wants to ensure the readiness of His inner circle of followers. He predicts that the very temple where they are studying will be destroyed. This would have been regarded as blasphemy—and impossible! When we traveled to the Holy Lands several years ago our group smiled for the camera on the stones that made up one wall of that Temple where Jesus taught. They are massive boulders chiseled into square foundation stones. They are still heaped in a giant pile, unmoved because of their size. It’s unimaginable that soldiers would have been able to knock these stones down like a remodeler knocks down a flimsy wall on our favorite HGTV renovation show. But they did, like an army of ants, and we stood on the proof that Jesus’ outlandish prediction came true when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
This passage falls into the category of apocalyptic writing. There are several general traits to this kind of literature. Christopher Hutson writes, “The basic message of apocalyptic visions is this: The rebellion against the reign of God is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. Things will get worse before they get better. But hang on just a little longer, because just when you are sure you cannot endure, God will intervene to turn the world right side up.” So fa-la-la and run for cover! People have used this sort of message for generations to predict dire events in the future. The Jews and Christians who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem would have thought that Jesus’ prophecy was being fulfilled then. Remember the Y2K frenzy? Some folks prepared for the end of the world as we moved into a new millennium. As COVID hit our country, fear overtook us and people hoarded toilet paper to keep supplied until the world as we knew it was over! But, so far, none of these doomsday preachers have been right. The predicted day of annihilation arrives, passes, and we move on with another reminder that no one knows the day or hour of Jesus’ return. So don’t focus on the future. Live attentively in the moment. Remember Jesus’ prayer that we continue to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread…”
Our neighbors operate a beautiful orchard primarily of apple trees. For decades they poured their retirement energies into pruning each tree, spraying regularly to ward off insect damage and finally harvesting bins of beautiful apples that were carted off to market. The past two years have been difficult for this couple. The husband had a heart attack two years ago and was told he might live another year. His wife, who had declined due to Alzheimer’s for several years, died last winter. It had been her parents’ farm. This year the apples hang on the branches of the trees as the fall leaves drop and the first snow brings sparkling cover. It’s heartbreaking to witness the changes in this orchard that was tended to so meticulously. Jesus gives an example of a tree that would have been common to His listeners: a fig tree. A good farmer is going to watch for pest infestation. He will make certain that there is enough water and nutrients in the soil. She will prune the branches and set time aside at harvest to gather the fruit that provides nourishment for the community. A vigilant farmer pays attention to the fruit growing in the present moment so that there will be a crop. Likewise, we are to be watchful in our own time so that we can perform the necessary tasks in a timely manner. If we do this, we won’t need to worry about the future.
Jesus wraps up this particular lesson with an acknowledgement that His audience included more than those Jewish men who sat at His feet in the shade of the Temple. “And what I say to you I say to all. Keep awake.” He made a point of saying that He was teaching His urgent lesson to all. Stretching through the ages, past one dire prediction of end times after another, Jesus even had us in mind as He reminded a preoccupied people that they need to slow down to enjoy the moment rather than worry about a future that we cannot control. He would have remembered how a brutal dictator in 167BC banned all foreign religions in his kingdom. Antiochus Epiphanes asked those in his vast empire to recognize him as a god. He had coins minted with his image and the words, “The Face of a God.” He was a maniac who fought to keep control by removing any form of his subjects’ religion except for worshiping him. The Jews were forbidden to make sacrifices to Yahweh or even to possess a Torah in their synagogues. The Jews had to literally fight to maintain the integrity of their religion. Some 200 years later, in spite of these restrictions, Jesus, a Jew, lived among a Jewish population that had not only survived hard times but thrived. Believers like Esther, Daniel, and (much later) Paul professed their faith in spite of the risk it posed to their lives.
Much has changed for us this year in how we live our daily lives. The Corona Virus has shut down churches and changed the way we celebrate communion. It has forced us to minister to each other with porch deliveries and zoom meetings with family on Thanksgiving. We have revised and re-revised plans for weddings and funerals. We have ceased singing with each other out of concern for each other’s well-being. Some of you spent Thanksgiving alone in your homes for the first time ever. Some of you are quarantining in one corner of your home, fighting a deadly virus, while loved ones tend to you from a safe distance. We have been prevented from doing the things we like and took for granted. We have fought to hang onto some vestige of the familiar while grieving the temporary loss of beloved traditions.
The usual message this time of year is to slow down. Many of us have been forced to slow down. We aren’t throwing parties. We aren’t doing our usual holiday cooking and baking. We are ordering gifts on-line rather than enjoying shopping outings to familiar places with loved ones. We understand, more than any other Advent season, what it means to wait. We are waiting for an effective vaccination that will inoculate us against sickness, loneliness, and fear. We are waiting for our government to work together for the good of its people. We are waiting for business to pick up again, for good health to return, for a chance to wrap our arms around loved ones we miss more than we imagined possible. As the Advent season begins, Jesus calls out to us: Stay awake. Watch the signs of the time. Be ready.
And so we wait. But not like a child who sits in class, pulling on her gum, waiting for the bell to ring. We wait like the batter who steps up to the plate knowing that a ball traveling upwards of 95 miles an hour will soon be flying his way. He is expected to be ready to make contact and turn it into a hit. That’s the kind of watching we are asked to do. Your children open tiny doors on Advent calendars or seek out an elf in a different place each morning. They anticipate the arrival of a man who slides down chimneys in a red suit. But Jesus pleads with us to watch for the places He shows up to shine the light of His glory into dark corners.
We live “in the meantime.” Rather than being fixated on a particular sort of future, Jesus invites us to take pleasure in today. Even with COVID, with hateful division, with economic stress; in the face of hurricanes, raging fires, floods, and melting icecaps; while separated from friends or quarantining in the basement, we give thanks to God who dwells with us “in the meantime.” Those who assembled the lectionary readings want us to know, like every generation before, that much is at stake in this season. So we pray as we sing the words that were penned in the 9th century: “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”