Jeremiah was not exactly known for being a cheery fellow. He lived during a time of great upheaval, wars, conflicts, and exile; a time that saw the first destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. And the Lord sent him to warn the people of Judah, over and over, to change their ways in order to avert all this disaster and destruction. But they would not listen. The book of Jeremiah ends with Jeremiah in Egypt, having been brought there in captivity by a group of Jews who had fled Jerusalem.
But not everything in the Book of Jeremiah is doom and gloom: on rare occasions, he did have a message of hope to give. And we hear one of those messages in our first reading today. The Lord gave this message to Jeremiah to proclaim to the people of Jerusalem after having warned them of their impending doom. In spite of all the troubles they were facing, the Lord was still giving them a reason to hope: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.” The Lord said he would fulfill his promise to restore Israel and to raise up “for David a just shoot” – a descendant of King David who would do “what is right and just” and who would finally bring peace and security to Jerusalem.
“The days are coming”, the Lord said to Jeremiah. And in our second reading, Paul writes to the Thessalonians about “the coming of our Lord Jesus”. And in our Gospel, Luke speaks about “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory.” This word – coming – points to the future. It is what this season of Advent which we begin today is all about. The word Advent comes from Latin – ad venire – meaning “coming towards.” Something – or rather, Someone is coming toward us. And while there is a warning given in our Gospel reading, there is even more than that a message of hope.
Advent of course is a season of preparation and expectation leading up to Christmas. During Advent, we should be thinking about – presents? The end of the semester? All the things we have to get done before Christmas? Our focus during Advent should be on the One who has come and who will come again. Jesus Christ of course has already come once, when he was born in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. We celebrate this first coming on Christmas. But our faith tells us, as does today’s Gospel, that Christ will come again. He will come again at the end of time, when God will in some way bring to an end the whole universe. And so while Advent is a time during which we prepare for the coming feast of Christmas, it is also a time when we ought to prepare in a particular, more intentional way for Jesus’ second coming. We might not be alive to see the end of time. But we all must prepare for that moment when we will come face to face with Jesus at the moment of our death. When Jesus comes to us, will we be ready? Will we accept him or reject him in that moment?
Our Gospel today begins with portents of doom: Jesus tells his disciples about signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars – there will be terrifying signs in nature that will signal the beginning of the end. “People will die of fright” because of these things, Jesus says. But then he adds, when you see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory, do not be afraid; stand up and hold your head up, “because your redemption is at hand.” In other words, if we are prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ, we do not have to be afraid. The calamities going on in the world around us do not have to rob us of our peace. We can be hopeful and even joyful, knowing that Jesus has come to take us with him.
But then Jesus adds a little warning: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day surprise you like a trap.” He’s warning us not to get so caught up in the things of this world that we neglect or forget about preparing for his return. And there are a lot of things that can distract us. Broadly speaking, we can be distracted by either the cares and anxieties of daily life, or by the pleasures of this life. So if you are worn down trying to keep up with everything going on in your life, you’re worried about money, or your health, or the health of a loved one, worried about your job, or any one of a million other things, there’s a message of hope here: none of the trials you are going through will last forever. They will come to an end. So do not become so preoccupied with them that you neglect your prayer life, that you say, “I can’t make it to mass this Sunday”, that you forget about God. Do what you can and entrust your cares to the Lord.
On the other hand, if you are so distracted by the many pleasures of this life that you forget about God or shove him into the background of your life, then this warning from Jesus is intended to snap you out of your complacency. Stop making excuses for your behavior and take action! Think about how your life is now – today – and how you want it to be, and how it should be. What do you need to eliminate from your life? What do you need to add to it? What is one little step you can take today? Be as concrete as possible – remember, the more concrete you are with your resolutions, the more likely you will achieve them.
Another distraction I’d like to add here is expectations, i.e. the world’s expectations, the expectations other people have for us, even the expectations we have of ourselves. These things can also get in the way of our spiritual life. I spoke recently with a woman (not from here) who had just planned a big wedding shower. She did a great job and I’m told it went very well. But she was exhausted and stressed out. She said that while on the one hand she was happy to do it, on the other hand she put so much work into it and got so stressed out because she was trying to meet people’s expectations. I think in these weeks that lead up to Christmas, a lot of what we get stressed out about is due to this notion of people’s expectations. We have images of the perfect Christmas, or there are so many parties and commitments and things to do, and we try to do it all because we’re trying to meet people’s expectations; we want them to be happy. That’s a noble thing, but it can also be harmful: we can get stressed, and then irritable, and maybe even resentful towards the very people we want to please. And we forget about God.
Perhaps you think, I’d love to prepare for the second coming of Christ, but I just don’t have the time. But if we don’t have time for God, it’s time to start re-prioritizing our lives, seeking to please God rather than trying to meet the world’s expectations.
We all know how secularized and distorted Christmas has become in our society. Charlie Brown and the Peanuts were complaining about the commercialization of Christmas fifty years ago! How much more so has it gotten since then! If you want that kind of Christmas, you can have that kind of Christmas. But it won’t bring you peace. Instead, focus more on doing God’s will each day of this Advent. Ask the Lord what his will is for you each day. In doing so, you will be preparing yourself for the day when he comes again.