Paying attention to God

Advent 1 2012

Luke 21:25-38

Marian Free

In the name of God who was and is and is to come. Amen.

 When I was a child I remember being fascinated by a story my mother used to tell. It related to a time when she was a young mother. Apparently,  one of her friends who had recently given birth to her first child went off to the hairdressers at her regular time. When the hairdresser asked after the baby the woman realised that she had completely forgotten that she had a baby and had left the at home! Thankfully no damage was done and she never forgot again. She simply hadn’t adjusted to being a mother and presumably the baby was asleep when she was getting ready to leave the house.

Adjusting to a new situation is not always the reason that children get forgotten or neglected. In an interview aired during the week an Australian musician spoke about her father. She reported that he was both wonderful and unconventional. He did things like wake her up in the middle of the night to take her out and he treated her very much as an adult, sharing his passions with her. Those were the good times. There were times however when her father had become so drunk the night before that he couldn’t be woken in the morning to take her to school. It wasn’t that he had forgotten that he was a father, he had let other things in his life take precedence over that responsibility.

Alcohol and drugs do have the power to take over someone’s life to the extent that all other priorities – work, relationships and even children – take second place.  It is also true that it is possible to become so absorbed in something that other things get forgotten.  For example, someone might be having such a good time at a party that they don’t notice the time passing and forget to pick up their child or their spouse at the agreed time. Someone else might be so engrossed in the task that they are doing that they run late for their next appointment or commitment.

There are a number of things that distract us from more important or more central things in our lives – work, play, mind altering substances, anxiety, fear – the list could probably go on and on and of course, the potential distractions would be different for all of us.

Today’s gospel is concerned with distractions. There are three short sayings, all of which focus on Jesus’ coming  again. These are -holding our heads high, paying attention and not allowing our focus to wander.   Jesus describes the cosmic turbulence that will be associated with the coming of the Son of Man. – even the powers of the heavens will be shaken. These events will be terrifying, but Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious – to see the events for what they are. If Jesus is coming, then instead of cowering in fear, they should stand tall, confident that their redemption is near.

There may be dramatic signs of Jesus’ return but Jesus reminds his disciples that they are not to ignore the more subtle signs that he is near – signs as simple as the fig tree putting forth its blossom.  Then Jesus narrows the scene down even further – to a personal level.  He has encouraged his followers to notice the signs in the cosmos and the signs in the world around them. Last he reminds them that they need to look to their own lives and to ensure that there is nothing in the way that they live their lives that could blind them to or to take their attention away from Jesus’ return.

All three sayings deal with the theme of paying attention. The first two with what we need to attend to and the last a warning not to be distracted from these things.

The three themes are different and yet related – different in their focus, but related in their demand that we are alert at all times  to what God has done, what God is doing and what God will do.  The three sayings remind us that Jesus is going to return at a time that will not be of our choosing and that it may or may not come with a clear warning.  For this reason, Jesus says that it is essential that his followers be ready for his coming at any time. That said, Jesus cautions that our capacity to be prepared should not be compromised by fear – which would be a failure to trust God. Our capacity should not be limited by inattentiveness – which would demonstrate that we were not fully aware of God’s presence already in the world. Our capacity to be prepared should not be flawed by distraction or getting absorbed in things that take our focus away from what is important – which would demonstrate the weakness of our relationship with God.

Jesus doesn’t issue these warnings to keep us on our toes, or to have us live in a state of perpetual anxiety about the coming of the end.  Jesus will return as judge. However, to spend all our time and energy worrying and preparing for that day would in fact, be in direct contradiction of Jesus’ intention here. Being ready for Jesus’ return does relate to the future, but our readiness for that return is a task for the present.

It is in the present that we will see the signs of God moving and working among us. It is in the present that we need to hone our ability to recognise God. It is in the present that we need to be careful that we do not allow ourselves to be distracted by things which ultimately take our attention away from the reality of God in our lives. If we pay too much attention to what might or might not happen in the future, if we worry too much about how we will stand up in the judgement, if we become absorbed with trying to work out how to achieve a good outcome, then ironically we will be doing the very things what Jesus is warning against.  That is, instead of looking forward to God’s coming, instead of believing that we are among the redeemed and instead of focusing on Jesus we would actually be focussing on ourselves and living out of fear not joyful expectation – the very thing that Jesus is trying to discourage.

In our faith journey it is so important to find a balance – to be able to so trust in God, to pay sufficient attention to God’s presence in our lives, to be so confident in our relationship with God, that all else – our behaviour in the present and our expectations of the future simply fall into place. To do anything else leads us to rely on ourselves and our self absorption takes our attention away from what God is doing and what God plans to do.

During Advent we focus on Jesus’ coming into the world, Jesus’ presence with us now and Jesus’ coming again. As we reflect on this threefold coming of God among us, we are given the time to ask once again: Do we truly believe that we are redeemed? Do we pay attention to God in the little details of our lives? Do we allow ourselves to be distracted by things that ultimately do not matter?

The future is important, but if we allow it to dominate the present it will be the very distraction that causes us to miss the signs and be weighed down by the worries of this life that we do not raise our heads and recognise that our redemption is near.

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