Actually, no, not humbug – far from it if we could stop or slow down long enough to enjoy some of the simplicity, silence and true spirit of Advent, then this could be one of the most beautiful times of the year. Today marks the start of a new year in the Christian calendar and with it comes some advice from Jesus – advice that takes a while to sink in or put into practice if we’re already caught in the trap of great expectations that only increase our anxiety on top of feeling heartsick at the news of all the terrible suffering that stands in stark contrast to good times.
Jesus had seen it all, having lived amongst the rural poor just a stone’s throw from the pleasure palaces and special holiday resort set up to give Roman soldiers a rest from the constant fighting to enforce the fragile peace in the rebellious regions around Palestine – legions of men far from home, many perhaps suffering from the trauma of all the slaughter they had seen or inflicted, crucifying rows of people in the name of peace called Pax Romana.
Then there was the religious hypocrisy that was so noticeable at the great festivals when the Priests and Pharisees dressed in their finest – and not all just to give glory to God, but some showing off as if to say look at me. Yes, Jesus saw them strutting their stuff while poor widows gave their last pennies to the treasury that funded their lifestyle. It was a time when the huge gap between rich and poor was getting bigger by the day, so it didn’t take a prophet to figure out rebellion was coming. In fact, by the time Luke wrote his Gospel Jerusalem had been besieged, the city walls breeched, Temple reduced to rubble and the Jews forced to leave. The whole area had been on the brink of war when Jesus warned his followers of what was to come using classic apocalyptic language to paint pictures to shake some sense into people, saying, listen – there will be distress among the nations… confusion caused by the roaring of the sea and the waves… people will faint from fear and foreboding,.. and even the heavens shaken…
He could be talking about our times, or anytime the world has been in turmoil from natural disasters like great storms and tidal waves, or human crises cause by wars and their aftermaths. One response to such terrible times when folk feel helpless is to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall die! But hold it right there, we do not have to go down that road. Jesus says that it’s precisely when things look bad and bleak, look again – because there’s always hope and his help on hand, so pray – dig deep and hold on to that hope, then hold our heads high and don’t be afraid of the dark because nothing can destroy the love of God expressed in Christ’s words or negate God’s promise of saving grace or redemption. Look there – right in middle of the chaos, confusion and crises we face, see – Christ is coming to us again, not a second time but every second, because every moment is another opportunity for Christ to come into our lives and fill us with the love and peace that are not only the hallmarks of the kingdom but sure signs of hope that others can see when they look at us – followers of Christ who have faith, the kind of faith that doesn’t despair or seek endless distractions to mask it, but holds onto hope, finding a worthwhile purpose in life no matter what the circumstances, filling our days with good, holy, meaningful activities that help spread God’s goodness in the world.
Think about it – if you’ve ever suffered anxiety, pain or loss first hand, which is probably all of us one way or another, what has helped you through that cloud of confusion – what has kept you going? Whether we use religious terms to describe it or not, it usually amounts to hope, to a helping hand, to some bright thought or prospect, some kindness or activity that has taken us out of ourselves and helped us look up, look outside the shell of our pain, and probably something I’ll call prayer – the way we dig deep, (which some call positive thinking), and through which we access resources of extraordinary courage, strength and determination – an inner sense of peace amidst all the voices clamouring for our attention. All of this and more is what I believe Jesus is talking about when he says don’t fall into the trap of trying to dilute our worries with distractions, or descend into despair, but have faith, trust that Christ will come to us again and again, because faith and hope do make all the difference.
Another word for this is redemption – the saving grace that can transform how we cope and respond to all kinds of challenges.
I am not going to say to you, don’t be heartsick when you hear sad news, but don’t give up hope – pray for God’s help and do what you can to help. I won’t say, cancel all those delightful gatherings you look forward to, but invite Christ to join you as an invisible companion or guest who can point you towards the wallflowers left out in the cold, or help you detect any strains of unhappiness beneath the banter, so be genuinely caring. I’m not going to say humbug! On the contrary, but as my confessor says check your motive before making that purchase or fretting over what to get, and pray for the person before you buy – maybe they’d appreciate something small given with a big heart, or better still, just some of your precious time. At this time of year it is easy to fall into the trap of excess, including excess of anxiety – weighed down with the worries of this life as Jesus put it. He understood all that, so used cosmic pictures of chaos, not to minimize our cares and concerns (that are real), but to highlight the hope of his coming and being right with us now – not frozen in time or stained glass windows as the Holy Child of Bethlehem, or at some other time as the Son of Man whose full glory we’ve yet to see, but as our Saviour whose glory shines through whatever form our faith takes to bring peace, comfort, and healing in our lives and those we touch. So as we go about our lives in the days and year ahead, let us pray for God’s help and look up, look around, and look lively because Christ is here, there, everywhere – see?