Jeremiah 33:14-16 • Psalm 25:1-10 • 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 • Luke 21:25-36
As Advent begins, the lectionary cycle brings us to words of warning about difficult times ahead for all who live on the face of the whole earth (Luke 21:35). Instead of speculating, though, about what's ahead, which can quickly lead away from reality, I'm going to reflect here about the recent past: the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic, in full swing by March of 2020 and perhaps receding now, is close enough in our memory to think realistically about how the scripture might have been applied. Many other examples – such as the destruction of the temple in 70 BCE, could also be used retrospectively. This world, and all the creatures on it, have endured many stressful times.
To begin, Jesus goes on for many verses warning about the dangers ahead, before advising his followers to be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down… and that day take you unexpectedly (21:34). I've read these words during Advent for my entire life, but never with the clarity provided by covid-19. Starting at the end, the unexpectedness of the pandemic, the zero-to-ninety nature of the perceived threat, was part of its difficulty. I clearly remember the day we were all told at work to get our laptops, go home, and not come back without checking with someone. The someone of course, had no idea either, of what should happen, and was simply doing the best they could under these extreme circumstances.
Jesus warned his followers specifically to be on guard against dissipation or drunkenness or the worries of this life (v. 24). Dissipation – and I had to look this up – combines debauchery (deterioration or lowering of character through sensual indulgence) and surfeiting (desiring no more of something after consuming it to excess). As an example, a mild form of dissipation – binge-watching tv shows – was prevalent for many of us last year. Also as predicted, studies show that drunkenness (in the assorted varieties available in the 21st century) was part of the picture of how time was spent during the pandemic.
Harder to measure, though, was the third item Jesus had mentioned to be on guard against: worrying. Worrying! Who didn't worry during the pandemic? The oddest thing was how the worry itself became addictive. If one had nothing to worry about, all that was needed was to turn on one's favorite news channel – from right wing to left wing and even in that tenuous middle – and the latest place to attach one's anxiety could always be found.
What all three of these things – debauchery, dissipation, and worry – have in common is the capacity to keep a person from staying alert (21:36). Debauchery and dissipation, working to numb one's anxiety, keep one from facing reality. The worries of this life can lead to an unrealistic understanding of events, as the ruminating mind can exaggerate, minimize, or misunderstand events. In short, excessive worry can flood the brain with emotions, so that the ability to think clearly is lost.
Instead of worrying, being alert involves something different: looking at all the facts, being open to different views, seeing broader factors that might add to one's understanding and options for action, and proceeding without undue caution or speed. Whether covid-19 is behind us remains to be seen; whatever the next challenge, Advent readings apply!
Morning: Where might I choose to be less worried and more alert?
Evening: Looking back on the pandemic, what can I learn about my own response to challenge? My family's response?
Psalm 25:4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.