A Long Winter’s Nap and Other Distractions
Luke 21: 25-36
I had a nap two days in a row over the Thanksgiving holiday. What a fantastic luxurious treat, to sink into the couch and just let go, let sleep wash over me and do nothing. It’s one of the finest parts of vacation and holidays, taking a nap. It’s a wonderful Sabbath activity, to let go of your obligations and worries and just settle in, to let God carry on solo with the cares of the world for a while. It can be an acknowledgement that we need rest and rejuvenation and that the world will keep spinning if we drop out for a bit.
Of course, it can be an escape, too. You know how it is when you don’t want to talk to anyone or do anything or deal with that difficult relationship and you decide to just stay in bed for the day? Sleeping too much is a common sign that someone may be slipping into a depression. Just as with alcohol and food, we can drug ourselves with sleep, avoiding for a while the things we don’t have the energy to deal with. And it can be a deadly combination at this time of year, when special meals and treats are omnipresent, the eggnog flows freely, and sleeping instead of studying for that annoying final exam can all be so tempting. Just to escape the noise and the rush and the responsibilities for a while…Maybe that’s why these early days of Advent admonish us to stay alert and wake up.
It’s finally here, after all. Happy New Year! After a bustling, travel-filled, thanks-filled week of turkeys and stuffing ourselves, here we are at the beginning again. Advent. Aaaaaaaah.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? To start another Christian year off in the most stressful weeks of the semester, right after several filling meals, as the light is dwindling to our darkest day? To make ourselves quiet and attentive and watchful, just as the entire culture around us shifts into hyper-crazed, shop-til-you drop, sweets-laden overdrive – like festive, red and green colored lemmings headed over the cliff?
It’s not that I don’t like Christmas or parties or baking or feasting. But I am a big believer in everything at its own time and in due time. And, frankly, when stores continue to call their post-Thanksgiving Friday sales “door busters” even after a man was trampled to death in a literal door buster last year, it’s a wake up call. Time to pay attention. Be alert. Keep vigil. Go deeper.
This is not our usual direction at this time of year. We’re trying to fit it all in. Even in the church, the mania seeps in and distracts us from the quietness of what God is doing. We cram in lessons and carols, hanging of the greens, cantatas, Christmas (not Advent) plays, food drives, community meals, gift exchanges, Christmas gift packages for needy families, and “Blue Christmas” worship services for depressed people and lonely people who feel left out of all the activity swirling around them……It’s exhausting! And distracting. No wonder we drug ourselves with food and sleep and alcohol and whatever comforts we can find. It’s tempting to think that our only options are to join in the fray or to drop out completely and just deaden ourselves to it all until that other new year in January.
On our getting-ready-for-Advent retreat a few weeks back, we talked about gestation. The time it takes for someone or something to grow and develop and be born. I mentioned that I find it curious that God – who was willing to go to unusual lengths to enter life in human form – did not try to speed up the natural process of pregnancy. Think about it. If an angel can appear and inform Mary that the Holy Spirit will impregnate her – no human man required for this one – then why not also skip some of the other usual steps? Why not just tell her she’ll be giving birth the next day?
Do you think there may be some value in the gestation? Do you think God has some purpose in mind for that period of waiting?
We’re in that period right now. We are waiting for the scene at the manger, to celebrate once again the blessed and mysterious birth of the Savior of the world. And at the same time we anticipate the second coming of Christ, which we are told will happen at the end of all time. So from Christ the King Sunday last week – the end of the Christian year and a foretaste of that kingdom come – once again to the beginning in Advent. From the scripture readings, it might be hard to tell on this first week of Advent that we’ve changed seasons. We’re still reading about the Second Coming and that’s the coming Jesus is describing to the disciples in our passage from Luke.
In my experience, preachers who love to preach on the Second Coming tend to focus on fear. Fantasies like Left Behind and disaster films like 2012 pick up on this kind of fear, too. Films and books and sermons like this demonstrate a Titanic-like mentality: there are not enough boats and you will want to do whatever it takes to be in one.
But that’s not exactly how Jesus describes it. His focus is on hope and preparation for what’s to come. In the passage from Luke, he doesn’t holler out for everyone to run to the hills – with a stockpile of food and weapons. Jesus instructs the disciples to “stand up and raise your heads,” “be on guard,” and “be alert at all times” (Luke 21: 28, 34, 36). He says that even as the sun, moon, and stars show signs of what is happening, as the nations are distressed and confused by it all (v.25), even as people are fainting (v.26), “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory” (v.27). The signs that the Son of Man is coming again are scary in and of themselves, sure. It will be a time to rely on inner reserves and prayer to get through (v.36). But Jesus describes all this as a sign of glory. He tells the disciples that these truly upsetting things are hopeful signs “that the kingdom of God is near” (v.31) – just as it’s a hopeful sign that summer is arriving when the fig trees begin to sprout their leaves (v. 29).
Jesus tells them: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that the day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Luke 21: 34-35). Interesting. The only part there that might be construed as an element of fear is the ending, about the trap. But notice what Jesus says. He isn’t talking about people being trapped in hell or left behind on earth. He warns that if we aren’t paying attention – especially if we aren’t paying attention because we are too distracted by the cares and concerns of life – the great day and celebration of his return will catch us by surprise. As one scholar puts it, “The danger is that if the disciples allow their hearts to be weighed down by worldly distractions, the coming of the day will catch them the way a trap catches an animal unawares” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, pp. 409-410).
This is not the first time Jesus has spoken like this. Remember his visit with Mary and Martha? Mary’s the one who sits at Jesus’ feet with the disciples to listen while her sister, Martha, scurries around doing dishes and fretting. “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to [Jesus] and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” (Luke 10: 40-41). God is right there with her but Martha is too distracted by her to-do list to take notice. When she complains, she doesn’t even get the complaint right. She doesn’t ask to be relieved of her mania and busy-ness. She wants Mary to join in her distraction. Just as in our passage from tonight, Jesus warns against this sort of distraction, this tide of concerns and tasks that threaten to carry us away from God.
Jesus says something similar again in Luke, between that passage and the one for tonight (Luke 12: 22-34): “…I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…Instead, strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Is Jesus saying not to do the dishes? No. Is Jesus saying that we shouldn’t be engaged in life but instead be dreaming about some far-off time? No. Is Jesus saying we should be afraid about what will happen, in our lives and in the world? No. Is he trying to put the fear of God in us? Maybe.
I think that last part is worth reflecting upon in a time like Advent. Maybe as an antidote to the way we are urged to spend our Advent. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How we spend our time and our money speaks loudly about what we value, what we treasure. How we spend our lives, what we choose to do and not do, and who and how we love – all of this is where we store our treasure. There are a lot of calls out there and you can choose to take whichever one you want to answer. Jesus tells us there is not cause for fear and that the greatest treasure is God’s great pleasure to give to us. Jesus tells us that not to worry and fret the time away. Where our treasures are, that’s where our hearts are, also. We can invest in anxiety and busyness and worry or we can take a lesson from Mary and the lilies of the field.
The good news is that we have time! That’s what Advent is for, you know. But our culture has a hard time with time. We want to fill it, use it, steal it, prolong it, make the most of it, cheat it, and beat it. We have a hard time just being with it. We have a hard time waiting and here we are in a season of waiting.
Maybe if we borrow a word from the Buddhists we can understand it better. The Buddhists speak of being “mindful.” It’s the very opposite for multi-tasking or zoning out. Being mindful means to be present to your situation, to pay attention to what’s happening around you and to how you respond to all of that on the inside. Being mindful means to be here, now. That’s the call of Advent. It’s active waiting, not a waste of time. It’s wakefulness, not hyper-activity. It’s being alert, rather than numb. In Advent we are called to be mindful, attentive, ready, watchful – not trapped by what’s fleeting and closest to hand. This kind of mindfulness, attentiveness, takes prayer and time.
We have time! This time of gestation is made for us and, like it or not, we are made for it. We need it and, thank God, God’s seen fit to meet us not just in the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us – but also in the time when we prepare for that meeting. God has a purpose for this time of gestation, this time of slow developing. This is not the time to run about frantically, no matter how many papers and tests and people on your shopping list you have. Everything in its own time.
Sink into Advent, into the quietness and solitude, and open yourself up to God. Be alert, watchful, mindful. Be ready for God to show up in unexpected ways and to stop what you’re doing when it happens. Know that God wants to give birth to something in you this season and that all you have to do is make room for it.
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis