1 Advent Mark 13:24-37
I saw a movie recently on TV called Now You See Me . It was about an FBI and an Interpol Agent who were given the task of tracking down a team of illusionists who pulled heists during their performances. As their performances grew in popularity so did the size of their heists and it was impossible to figure out how they were doing it. Like all good movies it had a nice twist in the end. He had been dead all along! No wait, that was another movie.
My point in bringing it up was that their powerful illusions were based upon misdirection. As you are watching the magician show you that nothing was up his sleeve, the beautiful assistant was performing the real trick or as you are looking at the beautiful assistant the magician does his thing. It’s all about misdirection.
This came to mind as I was reading our Gospel Lesson and thinking about Jesus command to “Watch” or “Keep Awake” or as other translations put it to “Keep Alert.” You will notice that this is no mild suggestion. He even gives the command by saying “Beware” and then twice He orders us to “Keep Alert.”
It occurred to me that we need to be reminded in this manner because our lives are filled with misdirection by a team of illusionists. These illustionists are called the World, the Flesh and the Devil and if we are not wise to their misdirections, then we will not be doing what we are supposed to be doing when the master of the house comes in the evening or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn.
We just witnessed the misdirection by the Flesh this last week. When a holiday is called “Thanksgiving” you would think that people would be flooding into churches to give thanks to the One who gave them their life and all that is. But what did we see? We saw people lining up in front of stores for hours and the police having to pry people apart as they fought over electronics or the latest top selling toys.
I saw a lady on the news who began camping out one week before the stores opened on Thanksgiving night and she was not alone. Other pitched their tents the next day and the line of campers grew throughout the week. And I’m not talking about camping in Miami. She was bundled up in a huge Parka like she was at the North Pole. She said they did a lot of coffee runs and mostly sat in their tents and played cards all week.
Now do the math with me. Let’s be generous and say that she was going to save $1,000 on a large screen TV. If that were paid to her as a wage for the time she was putting in, it would come to $5.90 per hour. And there is no telling how many others around the country who were equally foolish stewards of their time.
That of course is an extreme example but it highlights how easily consumerism misdirects our lives so that we are not keeping alert to the things that really matter. Jesus tells us directly how to keep alert when it comes to consumerism. He says “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6
This is not to say that it is wrong provide for your family or to have nice things or even to look for a great deal on a large screen TV. But we must not allow the tinsel of this life to redirect our attention so that we are not seeking the true riches of heaven as the first priority of our lives. Just as Jesus set His face like a flint to Jerusalem to accomplish what His Father had sent Him to do, so we need to fix our eyes on Jesus and trust Him as our Shepherd to provide and not be misdirected by the riches of this world.
We also saw last week a major misdirection by the World. From my perspective the first tragedy in Ferguson has been blown up into a greater tragedy all through misdirection. By the first tragedy I mean the death of Michael Brown. It is a shame that an 18 year old, with the rest of his life before him, had to die. But the report of the officer, which was corroborated by a half a dozen eye-witnesses, more than one autopsy and forensic evidence, showed that it was a matter of self defense on the part of the officer. The evidence proved that Michael attacked the officer while the officer was in his car. Michael made some dumb choices by robbing a store, assaulting a clerk and then trying to take a gun from a policeman and he paid for those dumb choices with his life. That should have been the end of it.
But the media and race baiters, in constant need of ratings and money, turned it into a racial issue and fanned the flames. I can’t count how many times I heard in the news that the officer was white and the victim was an unarmed black teen when the actual incident was not about race. Then the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church dragged the Church into the fray by stating that Michael’s death has the potential to be a “sacrificial offering” if it is used to heal racial divides.
Not only is it close to blasphemy to try to make Michael some kind of Christ figure but it fans the flame of racism to make everything about race. This fanning of the flames led to businesses being burned and looted, the majority of which were owned by minorities and people who had absolutely nothing to do with the shooting, much less with any kind of racial injustice. As a consequence racial tensions and injustice increase.
But people getting along does not sell newspapers and peace does not fill the pockets of those who make a living out of being outraged. And yet seeking the end of division and praying for peace among all men is to be the work of the Church. We need to keep alert.
There is a beautiful prayer in the Book of Common Prayer that points us in this direction and shows us the work to be done. I would like to pray it right now for us and for Ferguson and all of the Fergusons around our nation. Let us pray. “O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
In his book, The Divine Conspiriacy, Dallas Willard argues that the number one thing we must work on in order to walk in the kingdom of God is to address our anger and our contempt for others. I think he is right because if we are looking for the coming of Christ we might miss Him if he comes to us in a neighbor that we despise. We keep alert by keeping our baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all people. Don’t be misdirected by the lies of the World.
Another misdirection can be seen to happen inside the Church and it plays right into the hand of the Devil. That is the spiritual pride that comes from thinking that you have arrived, that you have all of the answers. A Facebook friend last week launched into a diatribe about how his church is the one true church and that all others are heretical. I find this kind of thinking heartbreaking because Jesus prayed for us to be one. We obviously don’t have to agree with one another on every point of doctrine but we cannot write off millions of other Christians just because they don’t see it our way. I tried to have a discussion with him, but as I said of the media, I only ended up fanning the flames of the fire and making things worse.
Spiritual pride comes in many forms. It is seen in the guys who have the charts about the end times and even though Jesus didn’t know the hour of His coming, they have been able to figure it out. It is seen in the guys who act like they have a direct line to heaven with the Lord talking to them 24/7. I had a spiritual director tell a guy one time. “You know if the Lord spoke to you as much as you say that He does, He would be hoarse by now.”
Spiritual pride can be seen in those who try to out-humble the humble. Years ago this kind of “spirituality” was very sheek. I would go up to someone and tell them how nicely they sang a song in church and they would say, “Oh it wasn’t me, it was the Lord.” I would walk away thinking to myself, “I could have sworn it was her voice that I heard.” That kind of false humility is almost enough to make you want to stop encouraging one another as we have been commanded to do.
Spiritual pride is a difficult thing to address. The only way to be successful in addressing spiritual pride is to address it within ourselves, to keep alert to ways that it could be working its way into our lives. That is one reason why penitential seasons, like the one we begin today, are so important. They offer us a time to do some housecleaning.
The last misdirection to which I want to call our attention is not necessarily from the World, the Flesh and the Devil and it is not even really a sin. The most challenging misdirection comes from life in general. It is the pressures of going to school or getting a job or paying a mortgage or raising a family and juggling all of the things that we have to juggle to make life work.
Over the years I have seen so many couples, who are faithful in worship, start a family and then slowly become so overwhelmed with demands that when something has to go what they sacrifice are their spiritual lives. And they are not alone. Many of us go through times when we feel like our lives are right on the edge of total chaos and if we get one more bill or have to go to one more meeting or need to make one more commitment that we are going to pop like a balloon. Life can be such a challenge that Jesus needs to remind us, even command us to stay alert.
It’s not that these other demands of life are unimportant but rather we must keep in focus that there is something of greater importance going on at the same time. We must not put off life in the kingdom of God in order to attempt to make a good life for ourselves in this world. Remember how Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” In the same vein we might ask, “What does it profit us to make a wonderful life if we do not inherit eternal life?”
The answer for the vast majority of us is not to renounce this life and join a monastery or convent. We keep alert by folding this life into the kingdom of God so that whatever we do, we do it as unto the Lord. We are not to stop living rather we are to become living sacrifices acceptable to Him. We do this, as I said in a recent sermon, by living lives of conviction not of convenience.
The illustration that Jesus uses, in calling us to keep alert, is so perfect. The Master is away and the servants are expected to be found doing their respective jobs when He returns. This illustration does not require much insight. Of course Jesus is the Master and we are His servants and when He returns He expects to find us being about His business and not camping out for a week to get a deal on a flat screen TV or whatever else the World, the Flesh and the Devil would have us misdirected and doing. Let’s take advantage of this penitential season of Advent to seek the Lord’s wisdom. Let’s ask for eyes to see where we are being misdirected and then square up our lives to be in accord with His most loving will. Let’s use the Advent to keep alert. Amen.