In the Gospel reading for this first Sunday of Advent, Jesus said, “Be watchful! Be alert!” (Mark 13:33) Those verses in the New American Bible are translated as, “Be Constantly on the watch! Stay Awake!”
Jesus made this statement after outlining the events that would precede His return at the end of time. The obvious lesson here is that we are to live our lives in a constant state of readiness, in anticipation of His imminent return. But in addition to being prepared for His imminent return, there is a profoundly important message for us in these two short verses. And that message lies in understanding what it means to be alert, watchful and awake. In fact, all of the scriptures address that very issue. This state of readiness is an important element of our faith. All three of our readings for this First Sunday of Advent mention the concept.
The Prophet Isaiah is a great example. The first reading this Sunday is taken from the book of the Prophet Isaiah. The book has 66 Chapters in it. It is one of the longest books in the Bible. Isaiah himself was born in the eighth century B.C. He was born a citizen of the city of Jerusalem, born to a family of rank and culture. He was well educated, which means that, with his family, he most certainly had studied the Torah and absorbed the message of the covenant, which guided him in forming a religious and moral conscience.
When Isaiah was a young man, King Uzziah died and his son Jotham became King. It was at this time that Isaiah received and accepted his commission from God to be His prophet among His people. Overnight Isaiah had gone from being a conscientious young man, to being a prophet for God. Isaiah became one of the greatest prophets that ever lived. Isaiah stood as a prophetic witness and a spokesman for God for over 50 years. His commission as a prophet spanned the reign of three kings.
During his many years as a prophet for God, Isaiah fearlessly and boldly spoke to the people of Judah and to its leaders. But like all prophets, Isaiah met with stubborn resistance. The powerful would not listen to him because he not only confronted their sins of injustice; he was also relentless in reminding them of their covenant with God.
During that time in history, Judah faced many military and political dangers from neighboring countries. Relentlessly, Isaiah met with the three kings, who ruled during his lifetime, and placed this message before them: stop making covenants with the kings of the earth, and start making the one covenant that will save us, a spiritual covenant with God.
During the reign of King Ahaz, two neighboring kingdoms planned to capture Jerusalem. King Ahaz asked Assyria for help, and he called upon Isaiah to prophesy. When Isaiah heard that King Ahaz was forming this dangerous alliance with Assyria, he asked him not to do this. He reminded King Ahaz that God would protect him and the nation, if he would simply trust in God and not in other kingdoms. He told King Ahaz that God was willing to give him a sign, to prove His loyalty to His people. Isaiah said, “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God.” Any sign at all. No request can be too great. “Let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky.” (Isaiah 7:11) And the King said “No! I will not ask!” (Isaiah 7:12) Then Isaiah said that God will give him a sign anyway. Isaiah said, “Listen O house of David. The young virgin will be with child and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:13-14) Ahaz paid no attention, and sent a message to the King of Assyria anyway. The message said, “I am your servant and your son.” (2 Kings 16:7) And he sent him a gift of silver and gold, which he took from the temple of the Lord and the palace treasuries.
Isaiah began to see that no ruler in his lifetime would really bring justice and holiness to his people. The prophet realized that the advent of a Savior was in the future. He began to have visions and dreams of what the Savior would be like. Isaiah wrote the most gorgeous poetic descriptions of what the Messiah would be like, and what He would do. These prophetic descriptions read almost like a Christmas Gospel. They are so accurate in their description of Jesus that Isaiah is sometimes referred to as the fifth evangelist. Nowhere else in the Old Testament is there a more beautiful prophetic description of our Savior. This is why Isaiah is the prophet of our Advent. And this is why the Church uses his writings so frequently during the season of Advent.
In the first reading for this first Sunday of Advent, Isaiah expresses the thoughts of the people as imagining that God is so displeased with their history of sin that the sky has become a barrier between heaven and earth. And so Isaiah pleads on behalf of the people, asking God to “rend” the heavens and come down to them.
God will later reveal to mankind that there never was a barrier. In fact, God is and always has been standing nearby, waiting for His children to return. Isaiah ends our first reading by expressing his hope that the people have finally arrived at an understanding of their true purpose in life. Isaiah refers to God as their Father and he expresses his hope that the faithful are finally ready. Like clay in the hands of the potter, they are ready to be shaped into whatever God wants them to be.
In the second reading for this first Sunday of Advent, Paul reminds his readers that God has enriched us all, in every way, to keep us firm in our faith and ready, not only ready to welcome His Son, our Lord Jesus, when he returns in glory, but also to live in fellowship with Him. To live in fellowship with Jesus is to share all of our experiences, activities and interests with Him.
Jesus speaks of the same theme in this Sunday’s Gospel. In speaking to his disciples, He said, “What I say to you I say to all: Watch!” Be ready! You do not know the day or the hour that the Lord is returning. Don’t let him come and catch you sleeping. Stay alert! Be ready!
Remember what Jesus said in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came that you might have life, and have it to the full.” To live life to the full is to find joy in every precious moment we’ve been given, truly alert, watchful and awake to the experiences of life.
It is possible to go through life as if in a coma, sleeping through the days and nights, oblivious to the experiences and depths of life. Abraham Lincoln once said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” There is much wisdom in that statement. A truly alive person is a person who has learned to be alert in the moment, truly present with the people and events around them, and aware of their own thoughts and motives within. Jesus’ statement, “I came that you might have life, and have it to the full” should be a wake-up call.
When Jesus said, “Be watchful – Stay awake”, He was not suggesting that sleep is wicked. Obviously, adequate sleep is essential to our health; but just as our body becomes unhealthy if it is deprived of sleep, so too does our soul become unhealthy if it is deprived of alertness. Deprivation of sleep is not only unhealthy for our bodies, it dulls our mental senses. I think we have all experienced one of those days in which we had been deprived of sleep. Mentally, you feel like someone gave you an anesthetic.
C. S. Lewis once said, “If the devil cannot make us bad, he will settle for making us busy.” Busyness and anxiety, the stresses of daily life, can cause us to miss out on the real depth and joy of life. They are like an anesthesia to our soul, because they rob us of the joy of living in fellowship with our Lord.
The antidote for this poisonous effect on our soul is not retirement, or a day off. In our readings for this first Sunday of Advent, Isaiah, Paul and Jesus all advise us to develop a consciousness of alertness.
Each of us has only been given so many days on this earth. What a shame if we waste this precious gift of time by allowing busyness, anxiety and stress to rob us of the joy of the moment. This is not a call to laziness, but rather a wake-up call to live our life with a passion and awareness for the moment.
I don’t think this concept comes naturally. It takes practice to be truly attentive, to listen, to be conscious of the world of beauty that is around us at every moment of every day, to do more than just get through the day, but to truly plug into life. Granted, there are times in life where we all experience failures, problems, pains and disappointments; but we need to live those moments too, for this also is a part of life.
This is the readiness that the Scriptures call us too. This is the active waiting that Jesus prescribed in the Gospel. Isaiah stands as a model for us; for not only was he conscious of, and sensitive to, the world around him. He was very conscious of, and he listened to, the voice of wisdom that called from within.
This is why Isaiah truly is the prophet of our Advent; and this is why the Church uses his writings so frequently during the season of Advent. And even though Isaiah was a great and powerful prophet, he was a man, a human being, just like you and I.
Each of us has that same power, that same ability. May each of us learn to hear the call, and live the call, given to us by Jesus in the Gospels, to be truly alive, enjoying every moment that we’ve been given, and always remain alert, watchful and awake, living in fellowship with our Lord Jesus, sharing all of our experiences, activities and interests with Him, eager and ready to welcome His return.