Scripture: Luke 21:25-36
This week we begin the season of Advent, a time of anticipation for deliverance and salvation. All of our readings today warn disciples of the Lord to prepare themselves for both tribulation and rescue. We start Advent by remembering that we are a pilgrim people, not destined to be of this world but to be in it for a time in preparation for our eventual destination.
It’s impossible to think of this outside the context of the holiday season, of course. Advent is the reason for the season — the preparation of the arrival of the Messiah, who will lead us as pilgrims to that salvation. This is the promise in our first reading from Jeremiah. “I will raise up for David a just shoot,” says the prophet in Jeremiah 33:14-16, but it is always a promise tied to crisis and suffering. At the time of this writing, Israel was indeed a pilgrim people; the northern kingdom had fallen to Assyria more than a century earlier, and Judah was just beginning its exile into the Babylonian captivity. Within a decade or so of these prophecies, Judah would fall entirely into the hands of the Babylonians and the first temple would be destroyed. When Jeremiah promised that “in those days, Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure,” it would have spoken to the fright and despair in the immediate lives of the Judeans.
Similarly, the Christmas story has similar weight and context. The Israelites have been conquered again and again by this time, with the Romans supplanting the Greek rule we see in Maccabees and the Persians before that. Their puppet Herod rules with brutal force, and the control of temple worship has been passed to those who serve Herod. The second temple will fall within a few decades, and with it the remnant of Jewish control of Jerusalem. It is in this time that the Messiah comes, not as a temporal ruler to fight Herod and the Romans with armies, but as a parallel to Moses to lead His people — and all people — out of the slavery to sin in which we have fallen.
So why do we make merry at this time, if all this is freighted with such conflict and oppression? Well, one reason is that we are glad for the chance to welcome the Messiah, of course. Culturally, the Advent season places another emphasis on gathering with family and friends. And let’s face it — sometimes the holidays themselves can be models of stress, crisis, and doubt.
However, there is a fine line to tread between cultural celebrations that enhance our awareness of Advent as a season of hope for a pilgrim people, and losing ourselves in cultural celebrations of materialism. Jesus Himself warns of this in today’s Gospel from Luke, when His followers want to know what signs will signify His return. After describing the perplexing signs tribulations that will take the world by surprise at the end of the age, He emphasizes to the disciples, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.”
Why not just say, “Hey, set your calendars for this date, and until then, hang loose”? Jesus wants His disciples — including us — to remember that we are a pilgrim people, on a journey without knowing its end but sure of our destination. As such, we must prepare each day for trials, tribulations, and signs while remembering who we are as children of God and disciples of Christ. “Be vigilant at all times,” Jesus says, and pray for strength to remain on the right path. Paul emphasizes the same in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians, in which he encourages the church there to add to their efforts to “conduct yourselves to please God.”
Above all, we are not to lose hope and trust. The Lord saw the Israelites through the Assyrian conquest and the Babylonian captivity, and then again through the Greek and Roman occupations. Our delivery is at hand in Christ, and Advent is our season to remember that and follow Jesus’ lead into true freedom as children of God. We celebrate this Advent with family and friends, but what we celebrate is our salvation.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.
“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”