“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” (Lk. 21:34-35).
Our Gospel reading for Advent Sunday focuses each year on Jesus’ coming in glory: on the cosmic revolution in sun, moon, and stars; on the distress of nations, and the roaring of the sea and waves; on the shaking of the very powers of heaven. Then, Jesus says, the kingdom of God draws near (Lk. 21:31); then, the Son of Man will come with power and great glory (Lk. 21:27). His coming will begin a time that is beyond time, when heaven and earth pass away, and the world is transformed.
Against this cosmic backdrop, the mighty movement of heavenly and earthly powers, our reading from St. Luke’s Gospel does not lose sight of our daily lives: “the worries of this life” (Lk. 21:34), as Jesus calls them. Revolution in sun, moon, and stars is all very well; but Jesus says that the key to it all lies in the daily temptations and anxieties of our lives. If we let these things weigh us down, we’ll be trapped, caught unexpectedly and unprepared when he comes in glory. “Be alert at all times,” Jesus tells us, and pray (Lk. 21:36).
This isn’t the only place in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is concerned with “the worries of this life” (Lk. 21:34). In the parable of the Sower, some seed falls among thorns, that grow up and choke it. Jesus explains that this seed represents those who “are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Lk. 8:14). Again, Jesus’ warning that our daily concerns and cares can grow up and overwhelm the word that God plants within us.
Or, in Luke’s story of Martha and Mary, where Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, while Martha is busy serving, Jesus says to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” (Lk. 10:41-42). Again, that one thing that Martha needs to pay attention to is Jesus himself, who must be our focus in the midst of distraction.
This focus of our attention, this refusal to be choked by the worries of this life, is a daily struggle. Here again, it’s Luke’s Gospel where Jesus calls his disciples to take up their cross “daily” (9:23) and follow him. Jesus has in view our daily lives because it is there that anxiety creeps in and temptations happen. Distraction lies daily at the door, ready to snap us up and set us off in the wrong direction. Jesus himself, in the Lord’s prayer, taught his disciples to pray not to be led into temptation. Against the backdrop of Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the Son of Man, we’re reminded of the daily need to be on guard, to be alert, and to pray.
That reference to prayer gives us a practical, daily focus for our lives. Prayer is the remedy in the midst of temptation and anxiety. Prayer is the practical implementation of God’s program for the world; it’s the way we bring our attention to the matter at hand.
After all, we’re gathered here today at the Church of the Advent for prayer; assembled on the Lord’s Day to focus on the one thing that is necessary, which is Jesus himself. We’ll ask God to give us today our daily bread; or, in another translation, the bread we need for tomorrow. We’ll pray for the kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done. We’ll celebrate the eucharist together, and remember not only all that God has done for us, but also Christ’s promise to come again in glory at the end of time.
Above all, as Jesus says in our reading today, our hearts must not be weighed down by the cares of this world. If there ever was a time in the life of the world to recognize the power of anxiety to trap us, this would be that time! But the worries and cares of this life, for all their power, are powerless in the face of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord who has triumphed over death. With Jesus’ resurrection, the trap is sprung. Anxieties about the future are undercut by the return of Christ in glory, which for us still lies ahead, and will transform this world.
The future itself is uncertain and unpredictable; what is certain is that God holds all time: past, present, and to come, in his hands. We human beings live in the meantime, between the present moment and the return of Christ in glory. “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Lk. 12:25), Jesus asks elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke. Well, the answer to that rhetorical question is no; and if that is so, Jesus asks, why are we worrying about anything else. Why indeed? Don’t let your hearts be weighed down, Jesus says. Be on your guard, be alert, and pray.