As we begin the Advent Season, we are immediately drawn into its principle theme of preparation and readiness for the coming of the Lord. The first coming of the Lord has already been fulfilled at Bethlehem. And while we should prepare spiritually for the coming Christmas Feast, these first weeks of Advent bid us to focus even more on the Second Coming of the Lord in Glory.
Thus, as the curtains draw back on the opening scenes of Advent we are given warning from the Lord that he will come on the clouds with great power and glory and we must be prepared. Beware! He says, 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.
The Gospel is taken from the Mt Olivet discourse, and as we saw two weeks ago, the historical context in which the Lord was speaking was not the end of the world, not the destruction of the cosmos, but was the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. It was however, for those ancient Jews, the end of the world as they knew it. And for us as well, the destruction of Ancient Jerusalem is also a paradigm (a symbol) of the end of the world, which, for us, will definitively end, either by our death and going to stand before the Lord, or by his coming to us, in the Second Coming.
Whatever the personal context will be for us, the message is the same: Be ready!
With that in mind we do well to study this Gospel and heed its message, set forth in two stages.
I. DOUBLE VISION - The Gospel opens with a description of tribulations that are about to come on the Land. Bu in that description there is a twofold reaction that is described. Note the First the tribulation that is described and first of two reactions that is intertwined with it:
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.
And thus we see all the political powers weak and in dismay, and fixed points in this world such as the sun, moon and stars, the sea and the land, shaken. And this will cause many to be frightened, in shock, bewilderment and dismay. And thus is described the first reaction of one group of human being.
But note that not all human beings do react this way. There is a second reaction that is prescribed and described:
But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.
Yes, a very different reaction, one of expectant joy and of serene confidence. And so we see here a kind of “double-vision.”
- Some cry out with fear and say “He is wrathful!” Others with faith say “He is Wonderful!”
- To some he is frightening, to others fabulous.
- To some, these events are awful, to others Awe-inspiring.
- Some shout “Horror on every side!” others sing “Hallelujah to the King of Kings!
Thus, there is the dread of the defeated and the delight of the delivered. Of those who experience dread other Scriptures say
- Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. (Rev 1:7)
- Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)
And of those who experience delight other Scriptures say:
- He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)
- Come, O Lord! (1 Cor 16:22)
- Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book. (Rev 22:7)
- He who is coming will come and will not delay. My righteous will live by faith….we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (Hebrews 10:37,39)
- In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Rom 8:37)
- Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. (Malachi 4:1-2)
Yes, a kind of double vision, a double and very different experience of the same reality. The difference of course as we shall see is sin and grace, and with which “army” we have allied ourselves.
Consider as an image, the Civil War. As with any war, the issues were complex which led to arms be taken up. But it is simply not possible to extract from the mix the egregious injustice and sin of slavery. And, as the Northern troops swept (often ruthlessly) through the South there were some who saw only destruction and conquest. But there were others who saw something very different. An old spiritual from the time said:
Oh the slave folk say “Ho! Ho!
And the master says, “Oh No!”
And it must be now that the kingdom’s coming
In the year of Jubilo!
Yes, a double vision. For some, the definitive end to power and the “South” they knew. To others, vindication and freedom.
But in order for us to celebrate on that day when the Lord shall come, there are prerequisites that must be met. And that leads us to the next stage of this Gospel.
II. DIRECTIVES - The Lord goes on to instruct us in how to be ready for the Great and Terrible day of the Lord:
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.
And herein the Lord gives us five basic directives of things to avoid, and practices to adopt in order that we be ready and able to greet him in all his Glory. It may be helpful to alter the order in which the Lord lists them since he announces the effect (drowsiness) and then the causes. This is typical of ancient practice. But for we moderns, it is more common to speak of causes and describe effects. Hence we proceed with a slightly different order:
1. DEBAUCHERY - In our text the Lord warns of the problem of “carousing.” But the Greek word here is κραιπάλῃ (kraipale), meaning most literally, the giddiness and headache caused by drinking wine to excess. More generally it means the excessive indulgence of all our passions, or living life to excess. Other translators render this word “dissipation” referring to the general squandering and loss of resources that results from excessive indulgence.
We of course live in times that are skilled in (over)supplying our every need. There is lots of potential for excess. At the market there is not merely bread, but fifty different types of bread. Our oversupply and overindulgence is literally reflected in our bodies as obesity and its consequent diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease plagues us.
But it is not just food that is excessive, it is everything. We are excessively busy in the non-essentials of life and there are innumerable schemes to occupy our minds. Our minds are overstimulated so that we cannot hear that “still, small voice.” Most people have a very short attention span due to over-stimulation. All day long the noise of radio or mp3 player, the TV, DVD, CD’s, PC’s iPads, cell phones, all constantly seizing our attention. It jams our minds and break that union with Christ, even with our self. And then there the 24 hour news channels generating noise an hype about even ordinary events: “BREAKING NEWS!” Our e-mail is flooded with junk mail and every kind of alert and promotional, offering free products, services and false hopes. There are endless money schemes, Powerball, the numbers, sweepstakes. An oh the sales, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, post and pre holiday sales. Excess everywhere: news, money schemes, sales, deals. It is like the carnival hucksters: “step right up!” But it is worse since we cannot get away.
We spend, spend, spend then borrow, borrow, borrow. We need double incomes and to work 6 or 7 days a week, 10- 12 hours a day, so we can afford our lifestyles. Having “the goods” we are never there to enjoy them, and we sacrifice family on the altar of pleasure. We have an excess of everything except children, for they harm our ability to consume by denting our income.
Even our recreation is excessive. Our weekends and vacations often leave us exhausted, disquieted, and unprepared for the coming week. A simple quiet weekend, reflecting on nature and God’s wonders, or spending quiet time at home with family? No way, its off to sporting events of our over scheduled (but fewer) children. The weekends meant for rest feature more shopping, and disquieting events like loud bars and often enervating events like football games and drinking rituals related to same.
Yes, its all excess. It weighs us down, wearies us, cost a lot of time and money and isn’t really all that satisfying anyway. It is dissipation. In the end we have something like that headache and hung over feeling after a night of drinking of which the Greek word kraipale speaks. But up goes the cry anyway: “More! – Yes, “One more round.” Excess, dissipation, surfeiting, carousing, more, more more! And that leads next to:
2. DIVISIONS - The Lord warns of the anxieties of daily life. Here the Greek word is μερίμναις (merimnais) meaning more literally “a part, separated from the whole;” “that which divides and fractures a person into parts.” And thus we see the human person, overwhelmed with excess, incapable of distinguishing the urgent from the important, the merely pleasurable form the productive. On account of our over-stimulation, our excess, we are pulled in many contrary directions. We are chasing butterflies. We can’t decide, our loyalties are divided and conflictual. We are endlessly distracted by a thousand contrary drives and concerns.
This is anxiety, the condition of being overwhelmed and divided by many and contrary drives, demands and priorities. Anxiety freezes and perplexes us. There is too much at stake and no central governing principle to direct our decisions. All of this overwhelms and clouds our mind and heart. We are anxious about many things and cannot determine the “one thing necessary” that will order all the details (cf Luke 10:42). This is anxiety and the Lord enumerates it as among those things that destroy our readiness to stand before him with joy. Next comes:
3. DRUNKENNESS – Here the Greek word is very straight forward: μέθῃ (methe), drunk on wine. But why do we drink? Frankly we drink to medicate our anxiety. Overwhelmed by the excess that leads to anxiety (inner division and conflict) we drink to medicate our sense of being overwhelmed. Something has to soothe us. And, instead of slowing down and seeking God, we drink. We anesthetize our mind. And it is not only alcohol that we use. We use things, people, power, sex, entertainment, diversions and distractions, all to soothe our mind, stirred up by tensions and anxieties.
This of course only deepens the central problem. For all these things only add to the very problem that has disturbed us in the first place: the kraipale that is excess and dissipation. For the solution is to get clear about our priorities, seek God and allow him to order our lives. But instead of seeking a clear mind, we do the opposite and tune out. A little wine is a gift from God, (cf Psalm 104:15) to cheer our hearts. But remember excess if the problem, and so we go beyond cheer to dull the mind.
To be sober is to have a clear mind, a mind that knows and is in touch with reality, goals and final ends. To be sober is to be alert, to be honest, to be be reasonable and to be acting in a way that bespeaks thoughtful, and deliberative movement toward a rational and worthy goal. The sober person acts consciously and purposefully toward a unifying goal, the goal that is being with God. St. Paul says, But this one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14).
But lacking one unifying thing, and torn apart within and anxious on account of the excesses we insist on keeping, we dull our minds and use alcohol as a medicine for our stress, our anxiety, our inner divisions. The Lord calls us to clarity, but we retreat into an insobriety.We are, in effect hung over by indulging the excesses of this world and then “medicating” the inner divisions it created. Our minds go dull, we tune out. And all of this, the excess which leads to
4. DROWSINESS - The Lord says, Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy - The Greek word translated as drowsy here is βαρηθῶσιν (barethosin) meaning burdened, heavy-laden, overcome, or weighted down. And thus we see that the effect that all of the above has in our lives is to weigh us down, to burden our hearts. Laden with excess, divided by contrary demands and medicating the stress with insobriety, our hearts become burdened and tired. They are no longer hearts inflamed and animated with love. They are hearts that have become weary, distracted, bored and tired of holy things and of the Lord. Instead of being watchful in prayer, the drowsy heart weighted with sin, excess, division, and insobriety, sleeps on. It no longer keeps watch for the Lord whom it is called to love.
Yes the world, and our sinful preoccupations with it, weighs our hearts down. It captures our love and attention and we become drowsy toward spiritual things.
In the Garden the Lord asked the Apostles to pray. But they had spent their energy that night at table arguing with Jesus and debating among themselves about who was greatest. And divided within, they wanted Jesus, but they also wanted the world and its fame and power. Struck by the conflict and tension that Jesus’ words about suffering and dying brought, they were divided and anxious. And so they medicated it all, and tuned out. They likely had more than a few drinks of wine that night. Weighed down and exhausted by worldly preoccupations and priorities, their burdened hearts were too drowsy to pray. Drowsy, they slept. (But Satan did not sleep that night).
Consider the words of Jesus to the Church at Ephesus: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Rev 2:5-6) Jesus also warns: Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Mat 24:12). Yes, the sinful indulgence of the excess of sin, divides and stresses us. Since it is too much we tune out, and dull our mind, and thus our hearts grow cold, burdened, and heavy with sin. Thus heavy and weary, our hearts go to sleep and we lose our first love. As thus Jesus described the pattern: 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. This is the cycle.
What to do about this awful cycle? And thus comes the answer:
5. DUE DILIGENCE – The Lord says, 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.“
The Lord does not describe this terrible cycle of Debauchery (excess), Division (anxiety), Drunkenness (self-medication), and Drowsiness (heavy hearts) merely to define the problem. Having diagnosed our condition he prescribes the remedy of prayerful vigilance.
To be vigilantly prayerful is to be in living, conscious contact with God. It is to have our hearts and minds focused on the one thing necessary (cf Lk 10:42), and having this focus, to have our life ordered. With this order properly established our excesses regarding this world fall away, and the many anxieties and divisions associated with it depart. That having gone, we no longer need to medicate and soothe our anxious minds. This lightens our heart and its heaviness goes away. No it is free to love and desire with well ordered love.
Having set our sights on God, through vigilant prayer, everything else in our life becomes ordered. And when Christ comes, he will not come to disrupt our world, but to confirm what we are already used to, namely, that Jesus Christ is the center and meaning of my life.
Through prayerful vigilance we can stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand. Why? We are used to seeing him and experiencing his authority. He thus comes not to destroy and usurp our disordered lives, but to confirm and fulfill what has always been true for us, the Jesus is the center of our lives.