First Sunday in Advent (2 December 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
Jesus said: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
I was a very tall sixth-grade girl. Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising—the “Post” family is aptly named, all of us tall and straight as fence rails. As an adult, I don’t mind at all. I can see over the tops of peoples’ heads in crowds. I can put my own luggage in the overhead storage bin. I am very useful at social gatherings—my height-challenged friends can count on me to fetch the good dishes from the top shelves. But, when you’re 12 years old and taller than everyone else in the room—including the boy on whom you have a crush—it’s not a lot of fun.
Fortunately, my mother, who is of average height but uncommon wisdom, put an immediate stop to the shoulder slump I started to adopt. Watching me at a school event, slouching to look like everyone else, she told me afterward, “Be proud of your height. They all wish they were as tall as you. So, keep your shoulders back and your head high.” I did. I do. And though I doubt other girls were lying awake at night longing to be a giraffe like me, her point was sound.
To this day, when I encounter tall people who walk with rounded shoulders I want to give them my mother’s advice. But they don’t ask, so I don’t tell.
Keep your shoulders back and your head high. That advice has served me well. Physically and metaphorically.
The way we hold our bodies affects the way we view our world—and the way the world views us. Telemarketers and people who answer telephone help lines are taught to answer the phone with a smile—even though the person on the line can’t see it, that smile lightens the tone of your voice. People in treatment for addictions or illness are taught to “fake it ‘til you make it.” That is, walk and talk as though you are well and strong—your body will train your heart to do the same.
“Keep your shoulders back and your head high” is more than just good maternal or chiropractic or therapeutic advice. It is a spiritual discipline, as well.
Advent is a confusing season for us. Stores have been decorated for Christmas since the afternoon of October 31. My least favorite radio station—“Christmas Carols Radio”—has been blaring in a friend’s car for weeks. And while our sanctuary is beautifully decorated for Christmas, we will patiently, ploddingly light the Advent candles one at a time—though it is as futile a task as trying to slow Santa’s reindeer once they are airborne.
Why wait? Why not join the cultural Christmas caravan like everyone else?
Because, we are not ready for Christmas; we are not ready to receive the King. First, we have to learn how to stand.
Today’s texts are all about last things. Jeremiah promises deliverance from a dark time—a dark time will grow darker still. (Jeremiah 33.14-16) Paul writes joyfully to the congregation at Thessaloniki, reminding them that they will see one another again (1 Thessalonians 3.9-13)—though whether that reunion takes place there in Greece or in the courts of heaven is unclear. And Jesus, preternatural spoiled sport that he is, has nothing hopeful to offer his disciples.
As we discussed a few weeks ago in Mark’s take on this same conversation (Mark 13.1ff), Jesus was an astute observer of the political winds. Though speaking in the 20’s or 30’s of the 1st century CE about an event that would not take place until the year 70, he and many others recognized that Jerusalem’s cultural, military and political situation was unsustainable. He knew that eventually it would all come tumbling down—the temple, the city, their lives.
Of course, they would have ample warning. There would be signs in the sun and moon, distress among nations. The signs of the end would be as clear as the unfurling of figs leaves in the spring. I find Jesus’ warnings oddly unsatisfactory.
When haven’t the heavens been troubled? When hasn’t there been distress among nations? Has there ever been a season when at least one fig didn’t blossom? How were they to know that a particularly troubled season was the dreaded one or just another one? Jesus wasn’t saying. Still isn’t.
And to reference Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, does he have any idea how difficult it is NOT to be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the cares of the world? Aggressions micro and macro bear down on us every day, causing both our shoulders and our spirits to sag.
Jesus’ advice to his disciples then and now about impending trouble was the same as my mother’s advice to a tall, timid me. “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Ah, he was not concerned only about the upcoming assault on the temple. Jesus was also preparing them for that last great day when they would stand before the throne of God, a moment that might be modestly frightening. “Be alert at all times that you may have strength to stand before the Son of Man.”
In life and in death, his word to them was the same. Stand up.
If you’ve ever been in a dangerous situation—a war zone or a car crash or a violent altercation—you know that, in that moment, our reptilian brains take control of our bodies. That same part of the brain that makes your dog go certifiably insane at the scent of a squirrel, robs us of any attempts at control. A scream escapes our mouths. Our eyes close involuntarily. Our bodies go fetal or limp, protecting themselves from the danger.
It is possible to unlearn that prehistoric response to danger. But not easily. People who work and live in dangerous places need to be taught to maintain control, to remain alert, to stand up straight. And it ain’t easy.
Advent isn’t just a waiting room for Christmas. Advent is a training season for us. Rather than rushing headlong into the joy and promise of Christmas OR hiding from the looming trouble in our world, disciples pause. Like soldiers on the eve of battle, we hold ranks, we slow our breath, we clear our heads, we stand attentive. A jittery disciple is as useless to Jesus as is a guard dog hiding under the bed.
His word to them is also a word to us. We may not fear the end of our world, but we fear many things. Changes in our bodies, our homes, our hearts. Disappointments large and small. Rather than stand, we want to scream.
But Jesus had a mother much like mine. And he passed her advice on to his disciples and to us, “Keep your shoulders back and your head high.”