The First Sunday in Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year. The Readings follow Jesus warning from last Sunday to watch for His return at the end of time. Now we also watch for what God is going to do at Christmas. Watching is a serious religious responsibility. In ancient times only the best soldiers were trusted to be on watch for enemy attacks. The survival of the whole community depended on the diligence of the watchman. The watchman needs to stay awake, know what e is watching for and avoid distractions.
1. Rule # 1Jesus again warns us to stay awake (Mark 13.36)
The responsibility of the watchman is defined very graphically in Ezekiel 3.18. If the watchman fails to warn the people and there is an attack and the people are killed; the blood of the people is on his hands. On the other hand if he does warn them and they fail to pay attention, their blood is on their own hands. The first responsibility of the watchman is to stay awake. This is hard when nothing happens 99% of the time. It is hard for us when people have been waiting for the physical return of Jesus for over 2,000 years. On another level we also need to stay awake for the return of Jesus to us in the form of the Holy Spirit. This can and does happen every day.
2. Rule # 2 The watchman needs to know what he is watching for
Many people do not really believe in the Holy Spirit because they are not watching for a still small voice. They are watching for a dramatic visible sign – like an earthquake, and miss the vague sense that they have forgotten to do something very ordinary. I am always amazed that the Holy Spirit would help in such ordinary things – like finding lost car keys. One example of the cost of not knowing what you are watching for is in the life of Jesus. The leaders of the official church failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. They ended up expelling the early followers of Jesus from the Synagogues. They were looking for a great king like David who would restore the political and military glory of Israel. Instead God came to them as a helpless baby born into a poor family surrounded by questions of who was the father. In contrast, the people who did know what they were watching for did recognize Jesus. They were the poor, the sick and the needy. They were the ones who realized they needed help from God. They were focussed on a personal relationship with God. They had a real spiritual life – and God did not disappoint them. They were blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They experienced love, joy and peace in their lives. Some of them experienced physical or spiritual healing. Some received gifts of knowledge and wisdom. They all experienced the gift of forgiveness and freedom from guilt and shame. This was what Isaiah was crying out for – the real presence of God actively helping His people in the world. This was the difference between religious speculation and a God who really does things in history.
3. Rule 3: The watchman has to avoid distractions
We live in a time of unending distractions. Our lives are incredibly busy. Even before our eyes open in the morning we hear the sounds of traffic rumbling past and emergency vehicles racing to help someone. Our days are filled with more tasks than we can possibly complete. We have access to more information and entertainment than we can possibly absorb. It takes great discipline to get up in the morning and focus on what God is going to do today. We think we already know but we are often wrong. We tend to think we are the most enlightened generation in history. In fact we are one of the most confused and spiritually lost generations in history. We have been distracted by science into believing the universe is a neutral, level playing field that can be explained “by reason alone”. Most people have discarded the Biblical explanations of healing and spiritual evil. When bad things happen we assume it is entirely by chance or mistake. We have been distracted by the Liberal assumption that all problems can be solved by education. Many people have come to a place where they do not believe they need God. Just to add to the confusion our churches have been distracted by a long and bitter debate over the ordination of women, the acceptance of sexually confused people and the blessing of same sex marriages. We are swimming in a sea of distractions.
There are three things to do in watching for God:
1. Have a personal quiet time
The hardest part of having a spiritual life is developing the self- discipline to carve out a daily time and place where you will not be disturbed and can focus. One of the first questions we ask in spiritual direction is about the daily quiet time. If you do not have a daily personal quiet time you are probably not really watching for God and not having a real spiritual life.
2. Read the Bible yourself
Personal quiet time usually begins with Bible reading. Some people read through the Bible from beginning to end. Others read a portion from the Old Testament, a psalm and a portion from the New Testament. I usually focus on the Lectionary Readings for the week as I prepare a homily. A personal quiet time then moves on to prayer and listening or meditation. I was taught to use the acronym ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgivings and Supplications as a model. Our prayer life should not be just a shopping list of needs.
3. Continue in the fellowship of the believers
Me and Jesus is great but it easily can become me and my ideas about Jesus. We all need fellowship with a community of believers who support us and encourage us when we are in need and who challenge us when we are off base.