November 28, 2021/1st Sunday of Advent
In 2010, just before Christmas, our son, Christopher, returned home after a seven-month tour in Afghanistan. Marines pride themselves on being “first to fight.” And that’s what Christopher did for seven months. Working from a FOB – a forward operating base – his unit engaged in combat every day. Or as Christopher described it, they went out every day looking for an enemy to engage in battle with. Seven months of being shot at each and every day.
We took our family out for dinner the night after Christopher came home. It was our favorite restaurant, one that he really loved as well. But that night, the experience was different. The noise of the voices, of silverware clattering against plates, of music playing in the background, combined to create a cacophony of sound that had Christopher on edge. Then a waiter brought out a dish of flaming kasseri – a Greek cheese that had been doused in brandy. Just as the waiter passed behind Christopher, he held the flame of his lighter to the cheese dish, sparking an arc of fire.
Later, Christopher would tell us about the hypervigilance that haunted him post-Afghanistan. Standing in line was unnerving, because that meant people would be behind him where he couldn’t keep watch on them. Attending a football game at Death Valley sent his anxiety into orbit, the crowd of frenzied fans leaving him on high alert.
Our gospel reading this morning talks about being on alert. Watching for the coming of the kingdom of God. “Be on guard,” Luke tells us. “Be alert at all times.”
I don’t think the gospel writer intended the kind of hypervigilance that Christopher experienced after serving in combat. But I suspect he did mean something a little more than our level of alertness to our morning alarm. A few months ago, I was sitting on our back porch when I heard the piercing blare of Oconee Nuclear Station’s closest siren. I had seen the towers scattered around the area, but I had never heard one until that day. We joke that we live so close to the power plants that if there’s ever a problem we won’t have to worry about it. We’ll be at home with Jesus before the siren even goes off. But the sound of that siren led to some anxious moments for me until I confirmed that it was just a test.
When Jesus tells the disciples to be on guard, to be alert at all times, he wasn’t talking about scouting for the enemy or listening for warning sirens. His point was, there won’t be any warning. His point was not to let “that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (21:34-35). There will be little signs, he tells them. You’ll know that the kingdom of God is near. But don’t let it catch you unexpectedly.
Every year when Advent begins and we enter this season of expectant waiting, we struggle with just what we’re waiting for. We await the coming infant joyously, with all the anticipation of new births throughout time. But this waiting, this kingdom waiting, is different. Not only are we unsure how to wait, we’re not really sure what we’re waiting for. We know about babies, but what is this kingdom Jesus proclaims is drawing near? We know how to prepare for babies, but what do you include in the layette to birth a kingdom?
When the fig tree sprouts leaves, you know summer is near, Jesus told them. When I saw the first wild violets and early crocus poke through the ground, I knew winter soon would be over and spring would come. But if I didn’t look for those diminutive little flowers, I could miss them entirely. No flowers, no clue, just suddenly warmer temperatures.
I think in this text, Jesus suggests the best way for us to prepare is to be aware. Live your life knowing that your redemption will be coming, you know not when or where. Just knowing will ensure you don’t miss it when the time comes. Miss it, and find that your redemption has become a trap because you’ve become obsessed with the things of this life.
Christopher’s hypervigilance wasn’t healthy. It didn’t serve him well. But a total lack of attention won’t serve us well. If we live our lives “on guard,” this world will not overwhelm us with its worry and wickedness and waste. We will not need to live in fear and foreboding. This world will be a time of preparation for the world that is to come. With the saints we will raise our heads as our redemption draws near.