26 ‘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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 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, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 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.’
Into the jingly music of the Christmas season bursts the first gospel reading of Advent. For good or for ill, “Black Friday” shoppers know how the imperative voice and the anticipation of waiting go together, having just heard the threatening lyrics, “You better not shout! You better not cry! You better not pout, I’m telling you why! Santa Claus is coming to town.” Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ words also has the imperatives of keeping watch: “Stand up and raise your heads! Look at the fig tree! Be on your guard! Be alert!” It seems absurd to draw a parallel between the song and the gospel, since the stakes are so disproportionate between being on Santa’s ‘naughty or nice list’ and the fate of the world. But the form is uncannily similar: Keep watch; he is coming; you will be accountable.
Yet, while the imperatives of the gospel show that one must be waiting, anticipating, keeping watch, it is not exactly clear how one goes about waiting or what it means to keep watch. If there are portents in the heavens, with people fainting from fear and foreboding, one hardly has to be an informed insider to discern that something world-changing is taking place. So, the question seems to be how one watches faithfully. To that question, the text offers two responses, one negative and one positive.
The negative response in verse 34 is not to be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, so that that day does not catch one unexpectedly. That seems a curious warning for an event that is cataclysmic and as dire as verses 25-26 indicate. Who in their right mind is going to be so distracted by partying or worrying about the checkbook ledger that one misses out on the roaring seas, distress among nations, and shaking powers in the heavens? The incongruity between the apocalyptic proportions of verses 25-26 and the distractions of verse 34 indicate that the imperatives are the key. Weighty, earth-shattering, apocalyptic events are not evident to the distracted. So, the first rule of waiting is not to be distracted.
The positive response for how to keep watch is in verse 36. But one must exercise caution here. While the translations all read the preposition of being alert as, “praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man,” the preposition for praying here is not the same verb that one finds in other ‘prayer’ texts of Luke’s gospel. It is not the verb that describes Jesus praying and then teaching the disciples how to pray in chapter 11 or when Jesus prays in the garden just before his arrest in chapter 22. The verb Jesus uses here could be translated as “beg,” such as when a man delivered from demons begs Jesus to let him follow or when a desperate father begs Jesus to rescue his son from a destructive spirit. The verb deomai denotes a desperate urgency, rather than a pious discipline. “Beg for strength to escape; beg for the ability to stand,” that is the manner of waiting that this text commands.
The apocalyptic waiting of the Advent season, then, is torn between avoiding rudimentary distractions and living with desperate faithfulness in a world where God is at work. And as disparate as those two options sound, they describe perfectly the dynamics of Advent 2015. In a world where environmental destruction is heating the planet and bringing threats of drought to one corner of humanity, we are invited to “Tech the halls” with new and improved gadgets. In a world facing the worst refugee crisis of the modern era, we are invited to focus on a “war on Christmas” over red coffee cups. In a world where terror chills the heart in one moment, pumpkin spice warms the body in the next.
The challenge of this text for preachers is not to play the killjoy of a season that is filled with genuinely good tidings. But it is a call to keep the faithful alert, not distracted by lists and jingles, but called to give desperate attention to what it means that God is at work in the world, even in the most despairing of events.