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Watching and Waiting 1 Thess 3.9–13 Luke 21.25–36

Introduction
I think one of the most popular sports that people participate in here in Britain is angling or fishing for pleasure. For some this may seem odd, but it involves watching and waiting. Waiting for a fish to take the bait and watching for the float to bob or the end of the rod to move. Some fishermen even attach a small bell to their rod in case they don’t notice the tell-tale movement. For some it is a spiritual pastime, almost a religion, because it involves going away to a quiet river or lake and contemplating.

Advent – a season of watching and waiting
When we use the word watch these days, most probably the first association that comes to you is TV. We commonly watch TV programmes. But in the sense we are using today, watching is more like looking out for signs and knowing how to interpret them. The science of phenology has grown recently. The word comes from the Greek for “appear” or “come into view”. Phenology is the study of annual changes in the seasons which can lead to predictions about future patterns of climate change. The mass media have made participation by thousands of ordinary citizens possible, which widens the data collected for this science.

Simple phenology has always been around and Jesus referred to it in his teaching to his disciples. You commonly watch for the fig to start sprouting, he said, and thereby know that summer is not far off.

Signs of the Times
Jesus was in the Temple, not long before his arrest, trial and crucifixion. He was teaching there, sometimes the crowds and at other times, just his inner circle of disciples. These words we read in today’s gospel were for his close followers. Some were admiring the Temple for it was, indeed, a stunning building for those days. Jesus commented that things were not what they might seem. They had just watched a poor widow put two small coins in the collecting box. Jesus pointed out that she had really given all her money – a huge sacrifice. It didn’t appear as it really was. Just so with the seemingly permanent Temple building. It wouldn’t always be there.

Jesus said to his disciples that when frightening things begin to happen around them, things were not what they might seem outwardly. When such things happen which seem to herald the end of life as their people knew it, they were to take heart. They were to hold their heads up. When people fainted with fear and foreboding, they were to stand up, raise their heads, because these were signs that their redemption was near. Something new was to come out of the dreadful times they were entering.

Fearful Signs
Two things are telescoped together in what Luke recorded of Jesus’ warnings to his disciples. In the foreground was the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. In the background was the destruction of nature. These things appeared very close together and are set next to each other in Luke’s account of Jesus’ sayings. We now know that, in fact, the Temple’s destruction occurred in AD70, and it had a profound effect on the development of Judaism and Christianity afterwards. The end of the world, or the collapse of nature was not going to happen at the same time. However, these days it seems as if the words are closer to coming true: “there will be signs in the sun; the roaring of the sea; the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Climate change nightmares are becoming a reality if the scientists are to be believed: the polar ice is melting like never before; sea levels are rising; there are floods and droughts when and where they never were before and we are all aware of the dangers of global warming. We are waking up to the reality that nature is fragile and in the laps not of the gods, but of humanity. These things may be a fulfilment of Jesus’ words, but we also know that avoiding climate change is within human power to slow down or reverse. That is why the conference in Copenhagen in mid-December is so crucial. Perhaps standing up and raising our heads in our day means taking the opportunity the crisis presents us with to do something about it. The Japanese character for “crisis” is made up of two elements: the symbols for both danger and opportunity.

Waiting
If Advent is the season of watching, it is also the season of waiting. Our culture is not very good at waiting, with its “buy now pay later” deals, and its adverts that ask us, “Why wait?” There are so many instant things from instant whip to instant access savings accounts. But there are some things that you have to wait for, and the waiting is an important part of the process. A mother knows she has to wait for 9 months for her baby to be born healthy. A prematurely born baby is a worry, although the doctors do know how to help them survive from incredibly early days.

The waiting is not an idle lying around, though. Jesus said that his followers were to avoid three particular kinds of behaviour. First, we must not be weighed down with dissipation. Next Jesus urges drunkenness to be avoided. Thirdly, his followers are not to be anxious. These three are actually connected and make sense together. Dissipation means wasting away, squandering, frittering away. We can dissipate energy, time, money or resources. In a time of climate change, we are learning how not to dissipate the precious resources of our fragile planet. We might wonder why we are urged not to indulge in drunkenness. Most of us in church are probably quite respectable and sober. But there are many in our society affected by substance abuse, or addiction. Even if we don’t have problems that way, drunkenness is a symptom of a deeper malaise: it is a sign of losing control, of trying to avoid pain. A time of crisis is both a time not to waste opportunities in dissipation, as well as a time to keep your head clear and face up to the reality of what is happening.
The pain is not to be avoided if a crisis is to be averted.

Anxiety
The third failing to be avoided is anxiety. Anxiety is linked to the other two. To be anxious means we believe we should keep what we have, and that yesterday owes us tomorrow. The poor have never entertained such a false notion! The poor have to live by faith, but the rich live by anxiety. When crisis times come upon you, Jesus says, resist the temptation to go in either of three ways. There is the temptation to fiddle with furniture whilst the ship sinks – to dissipate precious time and energy when something constructive could be done. There is the temptation to lose oneself in denying the reality of it – to be mentally drunk, if not literally so. Then there is the temptation to be overcome with anxiety – to hold on so tightly to what was, to what kept us secure, that we can never let go and let God. We are to give up false expectations and rely on him. Then we will be open enough to greet the new creation. Then we will be able to read the phenology of the times.

These things apply in the first instance to us on a personal level. But they also apply to us as nations, they apply corporately, too. As a society we fall into these three traps in times of global crisis: wasting resources; denying the reality; being paralysed by anxiety.

Conclusion
This is a challenging message for all of us. Perhaps we can usefully use this Advent time of waiting to reflect on our lives. Contemplate the ways we have wasted energy or resources. Reflect on the ways we have tried to deny reality or ignore the pain. Think of what makes us anxious and try to let go of those things we needlessly hold on to so tightly. Advent is a time for watching and waiting.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith

 

   


 
 

 


 

 


Almighty God,
as your kingdom dawns,
turn us from the darkness of sin to the
light of holiness,
that we may be ready to meet you
in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Amen


Acknowledgements