"[Jesus said], '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, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.'" (Luke 21:34-35, NRSV)
In the passage above, Jesus is speaking to his disciples shortly before his death and resurrection. It feels odd to consider this passage at the beginning of Advent. It seems more appropriate to deal with Mary's visit with her cousin Elizabeth as they compare notes about their unusual pregnancies or examine Mary and Joseph's visits by an angel. But this passage fits Advent quite well, especially when considering that our world operates on a repeating cycle. Jesus was born into a world weighted down with hardships, persecution, and despair. It was still a broken world when Jesus left it after his resurrection. When he walked the earth, Jesus continually reminded his disciples that they would face ridicule, persecution, and even execution because they chose to follow him. One needs only to listen to the news to hear reminders of this cycle of despair and brokenness.
Take heart! I promise we'll get to the baby in the manger well before Christmas! We'll tell all the great stories we remember from childhood about his miraculous birth with the visiting angels, shepherds, and wise men. But Luke's cautious admonition is vital to consider first. If we want to be ready to receive Jesus again this Christmas, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by unimportant things. Jesus warns us to guard our hearts against dissipation, drunkenness, and worry. He cautioned us to beware of a lack of focus, discipline, or faith. So many in his day missed the significance of his birth because they were looking in the wrong direction. He doesn't want us to lose sight of him as he comes anew to us in this season.
To "be on guard" means to watch for his coming. The signs of his coming are as sure as the bad news that worries us, but the good news comes with less fanfare. Often the good news comes as a whisper instead of a shout. The fact that God entered human flesh as an unassuming baby is a sign of God's whispering to the world that it's time for a change. We're quiet around a sleeping baby because we don't want any noise to startle and awaken them. Still, it's also in the silence that we gaze upon the baby and marvel at its tiny features—its breathing, its subtle sounds, its miraculous presence. If we're unfocused, undisciplined, and worrying about things that don't matter, even if our bodies are silent, our hearts and minds are screaming about a thousand other things, and we miss the baby.
It's a strange passage of scripture for us to read at the beginning of Advent, but it's necessary if we want to be ready to see him when he comes to us in surprising ways. Let the surprise be a good thing.