Be Alert

By the Rev Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 21:25-36.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

In these verses from the Gospel of Luke assigned for this First Sunday of Advent, Jesus is speaking about the future coming – the future Advent – of the Son of Man, the Fulfillment of Humanity, who will come with the power of God to bring judgment and renewal to the earth. And Jesus warns that the Son of Man will come unexpectedly, and the day could catch us like a trap. So rather than being trapped, Jesus says, we should free ourselves for prayer, we should be unencumbered to stand, we should be alert.

Now the wonderful and tricky thing about Jesus’ words here regarding the unexpected advent of the Son of Man, the unexpected arrival of judgment and renewal, is that they can be understood on several different levels of meaning all at once.

One one level, of course, Jesus is talking about the end of the world, the Apocalypse, the Parousia, that unimaginable moment yet to come when God’s glory will be revealed in its fullness in everything, and everything that is not able to stand in God’s glory will be burned away, and everything that rejoices in God’s glory will be raised up and made new and made whole and made forever. On one level the warning is that the end of all things, the end of this world and the beginning of a new one, will come at a moment we do not expect, and so we must be alert for judgment and renewal at any time.

But all that end-of-the-world stuff seems kind of remote and distant and fanciful to most of us; so there is a second level of meaning to Jesus’ words as well – and on that level they can be understood to refer, not to the end of the whole world, but to the ends of our individual worlds, the ends of our individual lives, when each of us will be judged and renewed in the nearer presence of God. Jesus in the Gospel today warns us that our own deaths will come at a moment we do not expect.

And that is not an easy thing for us to hear. We contemporary Americans like to think that we are functionally immortal: we like to think that if we’re just smart enough and careful enough, and eat the right low-carb diet, and maintain the right investment strategy, and see to our own security, and take the right preemptive actions to do unto others before they do unto us – we like to think that if we’re just smart enough and careful enough then nothing bad will ever happen to us, nothing ever go wrong in our lives, and we will for all intents and purposes be safe and happy and in control forever. We in our culture today don’t like to think that our busy, challenging, rewarding lives will end in death, and there’s no way we can predict or control when that death will come.

But then something happens that reminds us of the fragility of life. The doctor calls after a routine check-up and says, “We might have found something; I want you to come in for more tests.” A truck on the highway swerves too close too quick, and suddenly there’s a multi-car pileup. Someone walks into a club or a school or a church with an agenda and with hatred and with a gun.  Something happens that reminds us of the fragility of life, and we remember with a shock how close to us death can be. And Jesus says, “Be alert, pray for strength, so that you are not caught unexpectedly, like a trap.”

We could take that in a very morbid kind of way, a way that makes us anxious and afraid of the threat of death that lurks around every corner – and more especially these days, when we are prone to see terrorists in every shadow. But Jesus doesn’t mean for us to be afraid: “Do not be terrified,” he says; “Lift up your heads,” he says; “Your redemption is drawing near,” he says. Jesus calls us to be alert not for fear’s sake, but for joy’s sake, for the joy of knowing our Redeemer near. Jesus calls us to remember that our lives are part of something larger than ourselves, that we only have our earthly lives because they are embedded in the larger life of God, and to trust that if God holds us in this life then God will open up to us larger life as well. Jesus calls us to pray and to be alert so that we may always be ready for glimpses of the larger life that surrounds us on every side.

And that leads us to yet a third level on which we can understand Jesus’ words: a level that refers not to the end of the world, nor to the end of our own lives, but to the end – and the new beginning – that comes to us in every moment, every action, every experience that we have. Every moment of our lives is the ending of one thing and the beginning of another: One moment I’m preaching, and the next moment I’m joining in the Creed. One moment you’re a parent of teenagers, with all the craziness and wonderfulness that brings, and the next moment your kids have gone off to college and the house seems suddenly too big, too quiet, too empty. One moment of solitude is interrupted by the ringing of the phone, and the next moment you’re sharing comfort and compassion and hope with a friend who is grieving.

In every moment God comes with some unexpected new possibility. In every moment God calls us to let go of the past and be open to the future. In every moment God calls us to die a little bit to what has been so that we may live a little bit more for what is yet to be. In every moment God takes into Godself what we have done with the possibilities God has given us, and in every moment God gives us new possibilities for what we can do and who we can become next. Every moment is a moment of judgment and renewal; every moment is a time when our Lord comes near to us; every moment is an advent of Christ, coming in some glory of God we could not have predicted or controlled. And what Jesus calls us to do is to wake up, to be alert enough to recognize God-in-Christ coming to us, to be alert enough to work with God-in-Christ coming unexpectedly into the world through us – us, of all people! – in order to make peace and justice and compassion and love and joy in all the judgments and renewals, in all the endings and beginnings, in all the deaths and resurrections, that make up all the moments of all our lives.

That is what this season of Advent is really all about: being alert to witness the coming of Christ, not just at the end of the world, not just at the end of our lives, but in every moment, in every ending and beginning that moves us on our unpredictable way through life.

Where will you be alert for the coming of Christ in this Advent? What fear will you cast off? What worry will you not allow to weigh you down? What prayer will you lift up? What strength will you discover? How will you stand in this moment, this moment right now, before the Son of Man? And what new life will the next moment open up before you?

Jesus said to his disciples, “Be alert, pray, stand.” Let it be our prayer today, on this First Sunday of Advent, that we may indeed be alert for the unexpected coming of Christ’s grace today, and tomorrow, and in all times and all places, and forever. Amen.


  1. Kelley Collis says:

    Great sermon, of course, and appreciate the availability of the audio feature.