By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.
The season of Advent is a kind of two-edged sword. On the one hand we are faced with ‘people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world’; and the church and its preachers have often traded on these kinds of excerpts to call people to repentance – and millennial sects and cults have tried, and still try, to set themselves apart with the idea that ‘what is coming upon the world’ will not apply to them. On the other hand, Jesus speaks of hope not just for those who have elected themselves for God’s special regard, but for those who can lift up their hearts – and keep them lifted up.
And keeping our hearts from being weighed down might not be on the top of our normal list of the marks of the religious life; but there it is, recorded in the words of Jesus. Neither is it only about the dissipation (which is the predictable bit) – it’s about not being brought down ‘by worry’. So, when Jesus talks of fear and foreboding, he talks also of a refusal to fear, a refusal to be brought down to that level of existence where foreboding can dominate our lives.
So the message of Advent is a mixture of warning and hope – a warning about what brings us down, and the hope brought about by the refusal to give in to being brought down. It’s the kind of message that we hear, and maybe can see the sense of, but it’s a message that is not meant only to be heard – it is meant to be lived. The question is: how? The answer may have several parts to it – but I want this morning to concentrate on just two: our living as individuals, and our life as a church.
How, then, do we lift our hearts as individuals? How do we keep our hearts from being weighed down with worry? How do we keep constantly in our minds that worry leads nowhere good? ‘Has anyone,’ Jesus asks, ‘added an inch to their height, or a day to their lives, by worrying?’ Has it ever occurred to us just what an emphasis Jesus puts on the insecurity of our lives, and how important it is that that ought not to matter to us at all. Food, drink, clothes, housing – don’t worry about them, he says. Even, in his more controversial moments, Jesus’ family is seen as not worth worrying about.
So the life to which Jesus points us and calls us is the life that he lives; it is the life, somewhat paradoxically, of ‘today’: take no thought for tomorrow, there’s enough in today to keep you occupied. And it’s paradoxical because, in Advent, the day to which our attention turns is what is described as ‘the day of the Lord’. We remember what is said about that day: ‘the day in whose clear-shining light all wrong shall stand revealed, when justice shall be throned with might, and every hurt be healed’.
So there is for us as individuals a circle to be squared. We are called to live lives that are not concerned with tomorrow, that are not filled with worry – indeed that have no room for worry – and yet there is this day to be expected, to be watched for, to be anticipated, even to be prayed for. And there is contained in there somewhere the key to the Christian way of living.
So, before we try the key in the lock, let’s clear a couple of obstacles out of the way, the obstacles of which Jesus warns us. The first obstacle to this life is the idea that our best efforts can be saved for the future, that our resources are for another day. It’s an obstacle because it suggests that, rather than tomorrow looking after itself (which is what Jesus says), it’s today that can look after itself – that if we can only get through today there will be a better tomorrow. But actually that thought is to stand things on their head. There might indeed be a better tomorrow, but that means we can concentrate exclusively on today. We can live for today. And, if necessary, Jesus says, we can die for today.
We are so easily today sucked in by the idea of insurance. We are seduced by the dire warnings of those who would like us to have a well-developed feeling of insecurity and worry about the future, so that we will buy their products, and buy in to the thought that those products will make everything right ‘if the worst happens’. And the world we live in encourages those feelings of insecurity; it goes out of its way to make us think about danger – real or imagined, specific or general, informed or induced.
And Jesus asks us to ignore all that – and just live.
The second obstacle in our individual lives, which will also inform a look at our church lives, is to do with the freedom that Jesus’ way of living brings – and whether or not we are up to dealing with that freedom. Because the truth is that the more we let go of the worry, the more we learn to live with and in insecurity, the more freedom we have to live lives of adventure and risk and daring – but we find it so hard to grasp that opportunity. We become keener and keener to protect ourselves from the world, to grow thick skins and hard shells – and see danger where we never saw it before.
And Jesus asks us to ignore all that – and just live. Lift your hearts, he says; don’t let them be brought down. Don’t let them be brought down by the worry that sucks you in to a concentration on what you don’t have – whether that be influence, or power, or possessions, or health, or indeed the prospect of life. Everyone dies, he says; everyone has a life that will end – so live the life you have, live it with joy, live it with enthusiasm, live it with gusto.
And the same is true for our life together as a church. We have had, as a church (not our congregation, our church as a whole), to get used to the idea that we too might have a limited span of life. In my role with Glasgow Presbytery I have the dubious privilege of looking at situations all over the city where congregations are struggling for numbers, for commitment, for funds, and for a future. And it’s amazing how often that results in people retreating into their shell, resisting doing new things, affirming the way it all used to be, hoping it will ‘see them out’.
But the knowledge that the end may well be nigh ought to be a liberating, releasing realisation. If the end of a congregation is rolling down the road inexorably that ought to be the moment when people realise that they might as well try something new – because, after all, what do they have to lose? It’s a bit like agreeing to an experimental treatment; there is no guarantee of success, the chances may not be particularly high that a difference will be made – but, actually, why not?
And yet, and yet, so many in the church will absolutely refuse to contemplate seeing church life in a new way. ‘We’re too old to change now,’ they’ll say, ‘we prefer what we know’. And so congregations give in to the worry that brings their hearts down, rather than embracing the freedom that ought to lift those hearts.
And in that decision the key is missed. It can be missed by us as a church or as individuals. It is missed when we allow our fear of the future to get in the way of our life in the present. Live your life, Jesus says; don’t postpone it, don’t waste it, but don’t hang on to it – because, in hanging on to it, hanging on to how it has always been, you miss the life that could be yours.
So what about the Day of the Lord? What about that tomorrow of all tomorrows? What about the expectation of Advent? We speak of that day as being ‘already and not yet’. It’s an attempt to square the circle we mentioned earlier, an acknowledgement that the life of the Spirit has a future which we do not control and cannot imagine – and therefore may pray for but need not worry about. The ‘not yet’ will be a free gift, not an earned reward.
We do what it is within our power to do, what we have been given the mission to accomplish – to live the ‘already’, the life that Jesus tells us to live with all our hearts, the life into which we can throw ourselves, which we can treat as the adventure it is meant to be. Because why would we not? What do we have to lose?
The Day of the Lord, the day to which Advent points, is, for the lives we have been given, the day in which we are alive – every day that we are given to live. And we can’t do that living as it is meant to be done if we try to do it in fear or foreboding or with hearts that are weighed down. Advent celebrates not only a promise, but a gift already delivered – let’s try to do it justice.