ALERT AND ABLE TO STAND
1st Sunday of Advent
34"Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. 35For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man."
Having been a U.S. Army "medic" during the early to mid-1970s, I was blessed in 1980 to land a summer job at the St. Louis Armed Forces Induction Center. With the nation's draft system no longer operating, every person coming through the center wanted to serve our country's military in some capacity. Sometimes I was called on to help take blood samples or assist with some other tests, but usually I was seated at a large counter at the end of the medical exam complex. My primary task there was to record the final determination concerning each applicant's qualification. I avoided telling any of the anxious military "wannabes" of their ultimate status if I could, but most pressed me to know if they had made it.
Many who learned they had passed would "whoop" for joy or dance a happy little jig. That always helped brighten my day, and I was sincerely glad for their happiness. Those who were not qualified would often sullenly hang their heads, sometimes even cry, or occasionally be so angry that I truly feared for my safety! Day-after-day I got dirty looks from some of those young women and men as if I had betrayed them, as if I was the one at fault, and as if they thought I got my kicks by ruining their futures.
Low aptitude-test scores, substance abuse discovered from fluid samples or otherwise already on file, long arrest records or serious medical problems were the usual reasons for any applicants not making it. It was never my fault, of course - solely their own or that of some medical malady perhaps previously unknown to them, but I had no pleasure in their being determined unfit. If they were unhappy, I was, too!
Some who made it became Marines, who soon came to hear the cold and fearful word "ALERT" after their initial basic (or "boot camp") and occupational training! And with that they were taken to Beirut, Lebanon, and may later have actually ended up being among those 200+ troops that were maimed or killed in their sleep by a suicide-bomber some years ago.
Although I was never personally placed in harm's way, I was placed on "Alert" on a couple of occasions during my own active-duty time in the Army, and I was therefore at serious risk of perhaps having to personally be present in the hostile circumstances of those times. So, whereas I can't identify myself with those who have actually "been there," I can tell how it felt to face the possibility...
"Alert" meant to get ready NOW to move to an intense situation! - For me, that required assembling a full soldier's backpack, issuing fully stocked medical bags to the other medics, checking out a semi-automatic rifle (M-16) and standing-by to board a plane at a moment's notice. The first time the destination was Israel in Fall of 1973, and second was for Saigon's evacuation in late April 1975. (A highschool classmate of mine, Mike Sweeney, actually WAS there as a Marine guard at the U.S. Embassy evacuation and is shown on news footage I have on videotape.)
Nobody had a chance to fire a quick note home, and phones were placed strictly "off limits." Genuine fear struck the hearts of even those who had already been to Viet Nam, for example, that the next day might already find some of us being shipped home in a box from far across the ocean and with our families never having been given any prior warning of such a possibility.
My units didn't end up going either time, thankfully, but "Alert" sure did mean to be ready! I got my baggage and equipment all set, but my heart wasn't prepared to meet my Maker in those days. (I found myself honestly wishing I had the nerve to go "AWOL" and escape.)
Jesus says in the text, "Watch..and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man." -- The following two-part outline "Watch" and "Pray" tells us that all of us who are Christian have been placed on "Alert" by the Lord of Glory, and that we can be sure we're ready and "have what it takes" at the Day of His Coming.
The Bible's Gospel Books (and especially several chapters near the end of Matthew's) indicate that in His own last earthly days Jesus taught extensively and probably for "hours at a stretch" about the last days of earth's history. It was in fact probably the day before Maundy Thursday that He spoke the words of the Luke 21 text verses to His disciples. We get a glimpse of the importance HE gave this teaching by intentionally spending some of His last hours with them dwelling on it! "Watch. Keep alert!", He says.
1. ...Cares of This Life Weigh You Down
The text tells us why, which is the very real possibility of our hearts being weighed-down with either pleasures or cares of this life. In a parable He once told, Jesus explicitly warned that some people's spiritual lives will not mature. They initially receive the "seed" of God's Word, but "cares of this life" choke it out of their hearts!
That's why Pastors have such concern for people's regular worship attendance and keeping themselves availed of "Word and Sacrament." Not giving due time and attention places our faith at a very direct risk! Walking with the Lord can begin to "take a back-seat" to other concerns, and Blood-bought souls can then be lulled into a false sense of security. - No longer alarmed by sin or confessing it, one's hold on salvation itself can slip away almost unnoticed, - and the often flimsy excuse that "You don't have to go to church to be Christian" won't be acceptable to the Lord Himself from those who have really left HIM! - Let's be very careful to take note and understand here that Jesus has indicated in the text that faith can be lost, and many other Bible texts consistently show that it can and does happen as well. (Saint Paul's first epistle to young Timothy gives several examples, even naming some people -- 1 Timothy 1:19-20, 4:1, 5:8 and 6:10, or see also Galatians 1:6, 3:3 and 5:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:12.)
2. ...You Be Caught by Surprise
In the parable of the five foolish maidens Jesus warned about being caught by surprise at our final day. There's a time-limit for getting and keeping the "oil of faith" in our "lamps"! - KEEP ALERT, WATCH, - lest being weighed-down, the Day of Judgment sneak up and suddenly tie you up like a "Snare," the text says.
So many are the warnings and parables directly from the lips of Jesus Himself, that we can't miss how intent HE is on this most vital point! Don't be caught unawares, as by a thief breaking in at night. Don't be found sleeping or goofing-off, like a servant tired of waiting for his Master's return.
"Watch...ALWAYS," the text says. -- Just as I felt at the Military Induction Center, God isn't happy at the prospect that some will be found unfit. He says He has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked" (e.g., Ezekiel 18:23&32, but rather Luke 15:7&10 and 2 Peter 3:9) and He "desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4) -- but the fact remains that some will finally be unfit!
Don't be among them! Keep an alert and penitent heart! Christ's warning to "Always Watch" is His own gracious plea and invitation to me and you to repent and ever-believe the Gospel. Listen to this paraphrase of the very first of Luther's famous 95 theses(!):--> "When Jesus said 'Repent' (in Matthew 4:17) He called for the entire life of every Christian believer to be one of (continual) penitence." Watch at ALL times, in other words! (The Latin "Vulgate" Bible of Saint Jerome and any English Bible-versions directly based on it are actually in error by giving some people the impression that Christ's command to "Repent" in Matthew 4:17 means to do acts of "penance" to try to make up for one's own sin, because only the Blood of Christ alone atones for our sin and guilt.)
Next, the Lord's additional charge to "PRAY" is His putting out a handle for us to keep hanging on. "Prayer" can be defined as whatever you want so sincerely that your heart literally BEGS God for it.
A. ...TO ESCAPE
"..Pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass," Jesus urges...
1. What Things?
Escape what things?--> The same Chapter in Luke says "signs" and "days of vengeance that all things which are written may be fulfilled," giving a list of great calamities that will range all over the earth and into the heavens as well, wars and all kinds of natural and supernatural disasters. Yet the promise to those who "endure" is that "not (even) a hair of your head shall be lost."
2. It's Possible!
Escape is possible(!), and we can pray for the strength and endurance. Jesus taught it in the Lord's Prayer: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." - It's the prayer of faith for MORE faith, to be KEPT by the Lord, to ABIDE in Word and Sacrament and to be found steadfast IN such faith at His coming. That's the key to escaping the dreadful "vengeance" that's sure to come!
B. ...AND TO STAND
More than that, though, we also want to be certain that we will stand before our returning Lord...
1. All Will Bow and Mourn!
The truth of the matter, actually, is that at first sight of Him at the Final Judgment all will mourn and bow before Jesus, recognizing that He IS the King and Lord of Glory. Scripture predicts, "All the families of the earth will mourn." "Every eye will see Him, everyone who pierced Him; and all families of the earth will wail on account of Him." (Revelation 1:7) -- The very One who in great humiliation was put to death at Calvary's Cross will be mourned by us all, as we see with our own eyes that He IS the One who atoned for the world's sin. Now He's raised back to life and reigns in exalted glory so that ALL will bow in His presence who is above all. "..Every knee shall bow in Heaven and on earth and under the earth -(Angels, people and demons alike)- and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord..."! (Philippians 2:10)
2. Who Will Rise and Stand?
Some, though, will get back UP! Even at the beginning of all the calamities Jesus invites His believing followers to "lift up your heads," because it's our "Redemption" drawing near! (Luke 21:28)
Those who trust in the absolute grace of Christ's atoning death and resurrection and whose lives by the power of His Holy Spirit enduringly reflect such trust in HIM will be enabled to stand justified and pure before Him. You and I won't by any means be able to do that on our own, and self-justification won't "cut it," - but GOD is able to make you stand through faith in Christ, Saint Paul wrote. (e.g., Romans 14:4)
Our Lord Himself grieves more than you or I over those who, by refusal to repent or believe, will be caught by surprise and found unfit for the Kingdom. He wants us ALL there, and to that end He begs that we each WATCH, and KEEP ALERT and READY! And PRAY, too! Pray for the enduring faith to escape the calamities of the very end time, and pray to have and keep the faith in Christ's Blood-bought gift of redemption so that YOU WILL STAND FIT before the Lord of Glory!