Focus, People! Focus!

Luke 21:25-36     First Sunday of Advent     December 2, 2018


I love Advent!  Do you know why?  It’s because now is when we are most weird, compared with what’s going on outside the liturgical world.  Out there, more than a month ago, as soon as the Halloween displays came down, the Christmas displays went up.  Thanksgiving – Thanksgiving! – is now nothing more than a break of six or seven hours, until the stores open at 2:00 in the afternoon to get a jump on “Black Friday.”  And now, what will you and I be up to, if we allow ourselves to be caught up?  We’ll be frantically busy with intensifying activity under the pressure of  expectations (that we put on ourselves, mostly) to do all that’s necessary to create “the magic that is Christmas.”

Into this comes this morning’s reading from the gospel of Luke.  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

Could any reading be more jarring, compared with what’s going on out there?  During the season of Advent, we in the liturgical world are most counter to the culture!

Jesus is forewarning “distress” and confusion “among nations”; “people [fainting] from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”  But, remember, it is not the Jesus people who are feeling distress, fear, and foreboding.  Instead, these words are good news to those Jesus people who are hearing them: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

These are to be words of good news for you and me, as well, we who are watching for that redemption!  There is much now that is causing us to feel distress, fear, and foreboding, isn’t there?  It’s ironic that what we are most anxious about – the latest whiplash-producing tweets – are distractions from what is actually worth feeling distress about: climate change that is causing unprecedented wildfires, and hurricanes, and even monthly full-moon flooding in the streets of low-lying cities such as Norfolk, Virginia; the devastating news that 85,000 children under the age of five have died in Yemen during the civil war there that we have been contributing to through our arms sales;[1] the fact that there have been more than 300 mass shootings (of four or more victims) this year, and this year is not unusual.[2]  Shall I continue with the examples?

Just as was true with the late-first century community that produced the gospel of Luke, there is much today that is causing many to feel distress, fear, and foreboding.  There is much that distracts us from the kingdom that God is bringing into being in the world.  The gospel writer of Luke is saying to his community: “Focus, people!  Focus!”  That’s important for you and me to hear, as well, especially during these weeks when we’re tempted to put pressure on ourselves to pile even more on, to do all that’s necessary to create and to participate in “the magic that is Christmas.”

In the gospel of Luke, we read these words as from Jesus, about the coming Day of the Lord: “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, …”  I love the way Eugene Peterson translates that verse, in The Message: “But be on your guard.  Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.”  Doesn’t that translation speak directly to these coming weeks of hoopla?

Preschool parent Nina Simone led a conversation a couple of weeks ago on raising spiritual children.  She asked if we can do “Christmas without the crazy?”  She offered this historical insight that was stunning to me because it is so obvious, it is so true: it used to be, even a generation or two ago, that there was not a whole lot of feasting and celebrating during most of the year.  And so, these weeks leading up to Christmas were luxurious in their distinction from the rest of the year!  They were weeks for feasting on special foods!  Spending money and buying things – giving gifts!  Going to parties, celebrating!

Well, now, that’s what we do all the time, all year.  We overeat as much as we want to all year ‘round.  We spend money and buy the stuff we want all year ‘round.  We overschedule ourselves all year ‘round.  Now, during these next weeks, what happens when we feel the duty to add to all of that, to create “the magic that is Christmas?”  When does it cease being joyous?  When does it become an exhausting burden?

A few days ago, I was talking about this with my Spiritual Director.  She suggested that, perhaps, Advent is morst helpful as a season of fasting: a season of fasting from whatever we’re doing to meet the expectation and pressure that we put on ourselves to create “the magic that is Christmas.”

What can you fast from, during these weeks of Advent, when it’s feeling like it’s too much, that it’s not joyous, when you’re engaging in the hoopla mindlessly?  There is good news in this, this repentance; this turning away from all that produces anxiety, all that feels burdensome!  It’s an opportunity to focus.

There is good news in feeling drawn to turn towards God, in repentance!  What practices can you engage in, during these weeks of Advent, to watch and to focus on the good news of what God is bringing to be here on earth: the kingdom of God, with its love and joy, grace and forgiveness, the end of hunger and poverty of any kind, the end of suffering and death?  What practices can you engage in, during these weeks of Advent, to focus on the words and actions of Jesus the Christ, because they show us what that coming Kingdom looks like, and to allow God the Holy Spirit to form you to speak and act in the same way?  The themes of this season of Advent encourage us to look for God’s advent into our lives, and to look towards the joy that will be fulfilled when “your kingdom come, in Williamsburg and the counties of York and James City, as in heaven.”  “[S]tand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near,” are the words as from Jesus.  It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Focus, people!  Focus!”

We help each other with this in our counter-cultural congregation of Jesus people.  Among us, God the Holy Spirit is creating invitations into the good news of the Kingdom: to pause for some focusing and contemplation on Wednesday evenings during Advent; to respond in ways that will provide for the needs of struggling immigrant families in our community, for those who are hungry in our community, for those who have no permanent home; because, in the Kingdom, there will be no one who is a stranger, there will be no one who is hungry in any way.

Do you see the signs of the coming Kingdom?  Focus, people!  Focus!

That is the purpose of these weeks of Advent.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Pastor Andy Ballentine



About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine loves being a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!