Finding Serenity and Joy in the Midst of Conflict and Sorrow. A Mediatation on Gaudete Sunday

Given recent circumstances and events, having Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday is a bit inconvenient this year. And yet the Liturgical calendar transcends time and current contexts and summons us beyond the merely present to the eternal realities of God.

Nevertheless I must say that I changed my approach to this Sunday based on the current violence and murder in Connecticut. St. Paul’s second reading has moved to the forefront ahead of the Gospel and I would like to focus attention here. For St. Paul does not just say “rejoice,” he says how.

We tend in modern times to link our notions of happiness and inner well-being to external circumstances and happenstance. And thus happiness will be found when the things of this world are arranged in the way and quantity we like. If we just get enough money and creature comforts, we will be happy and have a better sense of mental well being.

And yet, it remains true that many can endure difficult external circumstances and yet remain inwardly content, happy and optimistic. Further, many who have much are still not content and are beset with great mental anguish, anxiety and unhappiness. Ultimately happiness is not about happenstance or circumstances, it is an inside job.

St. Paul says,

For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Phil 4:11-12)

Interesting, Paul wrote theses words, and the words of today’s Second reading from Jail. So its not a bunch of slogans.

In today’s second reading he tells us the “secret” to this contentedness, to joy and mental well-being whatever the circumstances. He gives a kind of five point plan, that, if we work it, will set the stage for a deeper, inner peace, a sense of mental well-being and contentedness not easily affected by external circumstances. Let’s review what St. Paul has to say as a kind of five-point plan. (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for the alliterated list, though the substance is my own reflection).

Here is the text of St. Paul’s five point plan for better mental health. And then we look to each point.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:4-9)

Note that the final verse is not in today’s liturgical proclamation, but it seems well to include it in these reflections, so I do.

Step I. Rejoice in the Presence of the Lord – The text says, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

Of supreme importance in the Christian life is to request, receive and cultivate the gift of the presence of the Lord. We are too easily turned inward and forgetful of God’s presence. To become more consciously and stably aware of God’s presence is to be filled with joy and peace.

As an aside, note that the text mentions joy, (χαίρω – Chairoo) but it also mentions moderateness. The Greek word here is ἐπιεικὲς (epieikes) which means to be gentle, mild, forbearing, fair, reasonable, or moderate. Epieíkeia relaxes unnecessary strictness in favor of gentleness whenever possible. Such an attitude is common when one is joyful and unafraid. By contrast, an unbending and unyielding attitude often bespeaks fear.

There are of course times to insist on precision and to not easily give way. But often there is room for some leeway and the assumption of good will. A serene mind and spirit which are the gift of the presence of God can often allow for some leeway and presume good will. There is an increasing ability to allow things to unfold rather than to control and manipulate conversations and outcomes and to win on every point.

But the central point is, as we become more aware of God’s presence and thus serene and less conflicted within, we no longer need to shout or win in every moment and on every point. We insist on what is true, but are able to express ourselves more moderately and serenely. We are able to stay in the conversation and are content to sow seeds rather than insist on reaping every harvest of victory.

Cultivating a joyful sense of the presence of God and the serenity and moderateness that are its fruits are a first step toward and sure sign of greater mental health and contentment.

Step II. Rely on the Power of the Lord – The text says – Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition…present your requests to God.

There are very few things as destructive to our mental health as worry. Worry is like sand in a machine. It not only hinders the working of the machine, it damages it. But simply being told not to worry isn’t very helpful. In this case St. Paul is not simply saying “Don’t worry.”

Paul has already laid a groundwork for the diminishment of worry in telling us to cultivate a sense of the presence of God. Some years ago when I was a little boy, my Father left for the Vietnam war. For the year he was away, I spent many anxious nights worrying about a lot of things. But when my Father returned my fears went away. Daddy was home, everything is alright.

And for all of us, to the degree that we really experience that God is near, so many of our fear just go away. My own experience is that as my awareness of God’s presence has grown, my anxieties have significantly diminished.

Paul also says, that the power of God is only a prayer away. Here too, I and many can testify that God has a way of working things out. He may not always come when you want him, or handle things exactly as you want, but when I look back over my life, and I think things over, I can truly say that God has made a way for me. And whatever my struggles and disappointments, none of them has ever destroyed me. If anything, they strengthened me.

Whatever it is, take it to the Lord in prayer. And ponder deeply how he has delivered you in the past, made a way out of no way, and drew straight with crooked lines.

Let the Holy Spirit anoint your memory to make you aware of God’s saving power in your life and recall how God has delivered you. These memories give us serenity when we consider how prayer is both effective and an every present source of power.

Antidote – So much worry, which is a kind of mental illness just goes away to the degree that we experience God is both present and that his power is only one prayer away.

And here is the second step to greater mental health, knowing by experience that God can and that God will make a way.

Step III. Remember the Provision of the Lord – The text says, with thanksgiving,

Thanksgiving is a way of disciplining the mind to count our blessings. Why is this important? Because too easily we become negative. Every day ten trillion things go right, and about a half a dozen things go wrong. But what do we tend to focus on? You bet, the half a dozen things that go wrong. This is a form of mental illness that feeds our anxiety and comes from our fallen nature.

But gratitude disciplines our mind to count our blessings. As we do this, we begin to become men and women of hope, and of confidence. Why? Because what you feed grows. If you feed the negative it will grow. If you feed the positive it will grow. And the fact is, God richly blesses us everyday if we will but open our eyes to see it.

Step three is disciplining our fallen minds to see the wider reality of our rich blessings. This heals and gives us us great peace and serene minds.

Step IV. Rest in the Peace of the Lord And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

As we begin to undertake these steps our mental outlook and health improves. Gradually, serenity becomes a deeper and more stable reality for us. The text here says that this serenity will not only be present, it will “guard” or as some translations say “keep” our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. In other words as this serenity grows it screens out the negativity of this world and the demons of discouragement. Having this peace allows us to see the Lord, and seeing the Lord deepens that peace… and the cycle grows and continues!

It has been my experience that the profound anxiety and anger that beset my early years has not only gone away, but also the serenity I now increasingly enjoy makes all that anxiety unlikely to return. I am guarded and protected increasingly by the serenity God gives.

Step V. Reflect on the Plan of the Lord – Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.

Maintenance plan – And as this serenity, this sense of well being, this mental health, comes to us, St. Paul finally advises a kind of maintenance plan wherein we intentionally and actively focus our thoughts and attention on what is Godly, true, good and beautiful.

What you feed grows – While it may be true that we need to stay up with the news of the world, be careful of too steady a diet of the 24/7 news cycle. They focus on the bad news, on what is controversial and adversarial. If it bleeds it leads. Too much of that and you’re unsettled before you know it. Limit your portions of this and focus on the greater, better and lasting things of God. Ponder his plan, his truth, his glory, his priorities.

And old song says, More about Jesus would I know, more of his saving mercy show, More of his saving fulness see, more of his love who died for me.

Yes, more about Jesus, less of this world. How can we expect to keep our mental health and serenity on a steady dose of insanity, stinking thinking, wrongful priorities, endless adversity, darkness, chaos and foolishness?

Do you want peace? Reflect on the plan of the Lord for you.

So then, here are some steps to better mental health. It all begins with the practice of the presence of the Lord, calling on his power and being grateful for his providence, savoring his peace which inevitably comes and turning our attention more to the things of God and less to the things of this world.

Here’s to good mental health for us all! In times like these we need to balance our sorrow with the capacity to rejoice in God’s ability to draw good even fro the worst of circumstances.

Principles for Preparation – A Reflection on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent

But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appeareth? And this is the cry that goes up from the final pages of the Old Testament (Mal 3:2). And the Lord himself gives the answer:

See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom! (Mal 4:5-6)

And thus with these words the Old Testament ends.

And so the New Testament opens in the desert but near the banks of the River Jordan with John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says, “He is the Elijah who was to come.” (Mt 11:14). Yes, in John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah figure who was to come to prepare the hearts of the people for the great coming of the Messiah.

And all this leads us to today’s Gospel, with John the Baptist summoning the faithful to repentance so that when the Messiah arrived, they would be ready. And for those of us who would be ready, we too need to go in the wilderness and hear the message of John the Baptist: Prepare the Way of the Lord! And though only the Lord can finally get us ready, we for our part must be able to say to the Lord, I’m ready as I can be.

Let us look at this gospel in three stages, going in the wilderness with John as our Teacher:

I. Context – The context of this Gospel is meticulously set forth by Luke: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.

OK, so what’s going on here, why all the specifics? It almost seems as if we are reading an Ancient Middle Eastern Phone book, or some list of “Who’s Who in the Eastern Mediterranean!” Yes, notice:

A. The Prestige – You might say there is a parade of the prestigious, a roll call of royalty, a list of leaders! We have an emperor – (i.e. the Federal Government), a local governor – (i.e. the State Governor), Three Tetrarchs – (state and local officials), two religious (and secular) leaders…you name it, all the “somebodies” are on the list. But it was not to any of the these glitterati that the Word of God came.

B. The Person – It was to John, the simple man in the dessert that the word went forth. Who? He was not on anyone’s list! John the who? And where do say he lives? Not in the palace or even in Jerusalem? Hmmm…. And yet recall:

1 Cor 1:27-29 But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

Luke 10:21 At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.

He hath lifted up the lowly, and the rich he has sent away empty. Yet to this simple man the Word of God came, and many went out to hear this unlettered man speak the Word of God in Wisdom.

C. The Place – Where is the word of God proclaimed and where is John the baptist found and where will Jesus appear? In a palace? In the Ivy League Town of Jerusalem? No indeed, not in a palace, not in some air-conditioned controlled environment, not in a place of power, but in a place of vulnerability, where one experiences one’s limitations. In the desert neediness reaches out and grabs you. Yes, it is in a hot desert where the prophet was found. (Judean Desert upper right in photo)

It is in this hostile climate that we go to hear the call and feel its power. Do you understand the context? The context is not be overlooked. The context is not found in the halls of power, it is found in the desert where thirst and hunger hit rich and poor alike. It is hear that the Word of God is found and heard.

And this leads us to part two:

II. Call. The text says, John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert.

Here we have a basic Biblical call, “Repent and believe in the good news!” John said this but so did Jesus in his opening call: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:14 -15)

There has to be a balance in preaching: Repent, and believe the good news! Modern thinking and practice has strayed from this kerygmatic balance REPENT! and BELIEVE the GOOD NEWS! Today many only want to hear or proclaim “Good News.” But the good news only makes sense if we understand the bad news and that we are in need of a divine physician. “Repent” sets the premise for the “Good news.”

Now as we have seen before, Metanoia (repent) means more than moral conversion. It means, more literally to have your thinking changed (meta = change, noia = thought) , to have your mind renewed, to think in a new way. Thus the basic message is to have our mind converted from worldly self satisfaction and self righteousness, and to be convicted of our need for forgiveness and our need for a savior. Yes, I am a sinner in need of a savior. I am bound for eternal death and destruction and cannot save myself. But there is Good News – the Savior is here, even at the door! And now I must arise and be ready to answer as soon as he knocks.

Our modern world, concerned more with comfort and relief, not real healing, needs to experience something of the desert where John was. There’s nothing like the desert to remind us our our frailty and neediness. In the Church today we have often stressed trying to make everyone feel comfortable. No talk of sin or controversial topics that might unsettle someone. Where’s the desert in that? John wasn’t found in some air conditioned marble palace. He was in the searing desert, with few creature comforts to be found. No padded pews here, no finely tune PA system, and no Air Conditioning, no pleasantries either. Just the call to come to a new mind, to surrender our stinking thinking, our misplaced priorities, our self-righteous, “I’m OK your OK, I’m basically a nice person” stuff and to accept that I am a frail sinner in need of a savior.

Now with the “bad news” established, the good news makes sense and really is good news, the savior is near at hand, even at the door. But for all this, we have to go into the desert and listen to a humble man, no the glitterati and the intelligentsia, John, clothed in camel hair and eating wild honey and locust.

And he does proclaim good news, but only if we’re ready. So on to part three.

III. Content – OK I’ve gotta repent, but what does that mean? John says, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Notice then elements of the content:

A. READY  – The text says, Prepare the way of the Lord. This is a hectic season where we’re all getting ready for Christmas. But most of this involves social readiness (presents, parties, poinsettias). But will we be spiritually ready for Christmas? We know how to get ready for a lot of things, tax day – We’re on time for work — We know how to catch a plane — We know how to be on time for a movie or a sporting event — We spend years getting ready for careers. But why don’t we spend more time being ready for God? The one thing most certain is that we will die and stand before God. Are you ready? The text says, PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD! This world will pass away but the things of God remain. Advancing careers and promotion are not certain, but death and judgment are. Why do we get ready for worldly and uncertain things and not take spiritual things all that seriously?

B. RIGHT  – The text says, make straight his paths.…The winding roads shall be made straight! A winding road is a symbol of shifting priorities, waywardness, and a heart that is not steadfast or straight. Too often we are all over the moral map, we are inconsistent and crooked. Scripture says,

In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. (Prov 3:6)

Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil. (Prov 4:24-27)

Consider an example. If I am driving from Washington DC to New York, and I see a sign that says, “South -Richmond” I know that to follow such a path is foolish. We know how to set a direct course for worldly destinations, and how to avoid going the wrong way. But what about our course home to heaven? We might sing: I’m on my way to heaven and I’m so glad the world can’t do me no harm. But then we see the exit, “Sin City, Next Exit” And sure enough we take it. Why do we take it? And then so many are outraged to hear that they can’t go whatever way they please and still land in heaven. And then comes all the anger directed at the Church and the Bible and preacher and any one who might wish to remind us that we have to make straight the ways of the Lord. You can’t go down to get up. You can’t turn left or right and say it’s straight. Thus the text says, make straight the way of the Lord.

C. REVERENT  – The text says, Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. Now the mountain is pride. Every sin is pride since it says my way is better than God’s way, I know better than God, I am a modern man, and the Scripture is old fashioned, the Church is out of touch etc. This is the mountain of pride, and it has to go. God hates pride, He just can’t stand it. There is nothing that excludes us more from heaven than pride, thinking we know better than God.

And the valley is low self-esteem and despair. Now it may not be obvious, but a LOT of sins come from low self esteem. For example, we gossip and denigrate others because we think if they are brought low, we will feel better about our self. We also give way to peer pressure since we can only feel better about our self if we “fit in” and are approved by others, and we’ll even sin to do it. Some young ladies fornicate for the price of a beer and pizza, selling their bodies for less than a prostitute would, because they fear they won’t be loved if they do. Young men pressure young women and disrespect them because they don’t think they’ll be “a man” (or a stud) if they don’t. Many youth join gangs, even drop out and commit crime all to “belong” and be cool. Low self esteem is an ugly business that leads us to lots of sins. These valleys have to be filled in.

The solution to both pride and low self esteem is to fear the Lord, is reverence. The fear of human beings and what they will think is at the root of a lot of sin. That is why the Scriptures admonish us to fear the Lord instead. When I fear the Lord I don’t have to fear any one else. And when I reverence the Lord, my pride is dissolved. Mountains are made low and valleys leveled when we have a reverential and loving fear for the Lord.

D. REFINED – The text says, the rough ways shall be made smooth. Rough ways are filled with obstacles, stumbling blocks and pitfalls. What are some of the things that hinder our ways, are obstacles or pitfalls? Are they relationships, lifestyles, habits? What are the things that cause me to stumble? Are they habits, excesses, or unlawful pleasures? What are the things that make ME rough and difficult to live with? Am I unyielding, unforgiving, unmerciful or unkind? Am I lax, frivolous, nonspiritual, and unaccountable? What are the rough ways in me and in my path that need smoothing? What trips me up and what in me needs softening and smoothing?

E.RECOGNIZING – The text says, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The Greek word is ὁράω (horao) which while translated “see” involves an active receptivity, more in the sense “to look” than merely to have something overshadow us or cross our visual path. For the danger is that we can close our eyes. Thus we must remain active, receptive, and look for salvation and redemption, to seek it. It is a gift, but we must open our eyes and accustom ourselves to its light and to its ways.

It is very much like learning a language. Until we learn the meaning of the letters and the words and to make sense of a written language, its writings can look like gibberish. And for many today, the ways of faith are just that, gibberish. But for we who believe, having been made ready for God, making straight his paths, reverencing God and rejecting roughness, we are able to recognize our redemption. and to rejoice at its presence.

A Recipe for Readiness – A Meditation on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent.

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.”

  1. Some cry out with fear and say “He is wrathful!” Others with faith say “He is Wonderful!”
  2. To some he is frightening, to others fabulous.
  3. To some, these events are awful, to others Awe-inspiring.
  4. 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

  1. 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)
  2. 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:

  1. He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)
  2. Come, O Lord! (1 Cor 16:22)
  3. Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book. (Rev 22:7)
  4. 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)
  5. In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Rom 8:37)
  6. 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.