November 28, 2021 1St Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
A Tale of Two Options
First time visitors to USA are impressed by the vast selection of items on the shelves of our grocery stores. There are at least a hundred different brands of toothpaste, each one presenting several different specialties of cleaning ability – anti-cavity, whitening, better breath, and healthier gums! They all come at different costs, flavors, and colors.
Did you know that between 1970 and 1998, the number of different types of breakfast cereals in the U.S. more than doubled, from about 160 to around 340? Wait there is more! As of 2012, there were roughly 4,945 different types. And they come in rather strange flavors. I have never tried Cotton Candy Crunch or Jolly Rancher cereals. And truth be told, I don’t think I ever will.
America is the land of plenty and every day we are presented with a multitude of choices! But all these choices are stressing some people out.
Social scientist Barry Schwartz says that an abundance of choices and information make us falsely believe that the stakes are higher than they really are. We are presented with so much information, the overload of options and data leads us to believe that our decision has greater significance than it really does.
Thomas Saltsman, from the University of Buffalo says that “we believe that whatever we choose is kind of a reflection of who we are.” He continues: “If I make a poor choice and I only have two or three options, it’s very easy for me to blame the lack of options. When we’re given so many options and we still feel like we didn’t pick something that’s good, that feels like it’s a direct reflection of us.”
People can essentially be divided into two categories when it comes to making choices. There are the “maximizers” who strive to pick the best possible option every time, no matter how minor or important the decision.
The“satisficers”, on the other hand, are much more likely to make snap decisions because they’re just trying to find something that’s good enough.
“Maximizers” tend to regret their decisions more in the long run, but “satisficers” are not less anxious about making choices.
Choice overload can paralyze people into avoiding making decisions. There is something else that makes it hard for people to make decisions or the right decisions: Chaos, or as it is also defined, disorder. Some people are convinced that our times, our world, our situation is even more chaotic, uncertain, and predictable than before.
With so many choices available, and in a world that is always a bit chaotic, what decisions will we make as people of faith?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It is an important day for it is the first day of the new church year. So happy new church year to you. Advent is about waiting, about expecting the arrival of the Christ Child. But it is also a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord of All.
Needless to say, waiting is never easy and preparing is hard work. And while waiting life goes on, chaos is real and we are paralyzed with too many choices to make every day.
So, as we are waiting this Advent we will once again have to make many decisions. And these decisions will go beyond the choices of which toothpaste or cereal to buy, or what movie to watch on Netflix, or to find the best gift for loved ones for Christmas.
We have to decide what our priorities in life are, how we use our time, what we believe or don’t believe. Decisions about who we aspire to be. Decisions about how to respond to and treat other people. Decisions about our values and how we respond to challenges, crises, and hard times that may cross our path. Decisions about how to serve God and how to be faithful.
How will we respond? What decisions will we make? What option will be ours?
Jesus in Luke 21 presents to his disciples a world that is pretty chaotic and difficult to interpret: signs in the heavenly bodies, distress and confusion among nations. He mentions the typical description of chaos in the ancient world: a roaring sea and waves. These uncertainties, confusion, and chaos lead to people fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming. The powers of heaven will be shaken. Against these cosmic powers stand the power and glory of the Son of Man.
The unspoken question is: How will the faithful respond in the midst of confusion, chaos, and distress? They seem to have a couple of options: They could let their hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness. They could be overwhelmed by the worries of this life, and be caught unprepared (21:34-35). They could be swept away with fear and foreboding of an uncertain and challenging future. These are options that are very easily chosen. You see, those who choose this option, as one commentator pointed out “are so absorbed in this life that they don’t have time for anything else”. They are so focused on the here and now that they are blinded for the gifts of the future.
We all know fear is a destructive force. People who act out of fear will justify any behavior. People of faith who are imprisoned by fear will justify behavior that is clearly not in line with the Gospel. Fear, chaos and being absorbed by many options of the here and now blind them for making wise and lasting decisions in God’s kingdom.
Luke’s Gospel provides us with other options: We are called to be alert at all times. Being alert means to be conscious. “Jesus is thus saying that our consciousness will be lifted to Christ consciousness, which is really the entire purpose of our human existence. We are to embrace the consciousness of our true Christian identity, and make that new consciousness the basis for all our human choices”.
There will without any doubt be conflict, chaos, and dramas in the world, around us, and even within us. We can stay alert and be prepared. The temptations and dualistic expressions of human consciousness will actually seem to grow stronger. That makes it all the more important that we stay focused on our spiritual truth and spiritual identity. We must have the strength and focus to stand before the Son of Man and allow the kingdom to come into expression through us.’’
One could say that in the midst of conflict, chaos, and so many options to choose from, we have to stay focus and ask one simple question: How does my decision, my choice align with what Christ wants for God’s Kingdom?
We stay focus in prayer, for prayer anchors us, it gives strength, and it enables us to turn our eyes and hearts towards God. And be doing so, we find a new perspective and a new focus on what really matters in God’s Kingdom.
The Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 shows us again the importance of prayer. We should be cautioned to view prayer as simply a list of requests. Prayer is much more: It is an orientation towards God, it is an openness for God’s Spirit to work within us, to transform our views into God’s views. Prayer is to approach God with the expectation of God’s renewing work in me. It is a holy action – for God is at work to put everything in its proper place – and most of us don’t spend nearly enough time praying. The Apostle Paul writes; “Night and day we pray most earnestly.” It is clear that he understands prayer as something that envelopes our entire life. It shapes and forms our view of the world, of others, and ourselves.
In the midst of a chaotic and confusing world where there are too many options available, we have to stay alert, that is to have a Christ consciousness, we have to pray, that is to approach the Holy One with openness for God to work within us, and to allow God to shape our view on the world. These will enable us to weigh the many options, and will reveal to us what options are aligned with God’s Kingdom, which ones build up, and which ones are selfish and destructive.
And if we are still uncertain which options align with God’s will, the Apostle Paul gives us a guideline that will always withstand the test of time and context: “May the Lord increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”
William Hendriksen interprets this sentence to mean: “…they express one idea, namely that the Thessalonian believers may not merely increase in that most eminent virtue, namely love – as the outward evidence of their living faith – but may actually abound in such a manner that this ocean of love, being full, reaches to the top edge of its borders round about, and even overflows, so that it reaches not only fellow Christians but even outsiders, toward all.”
This view debunks the view that Christian love is exclusive or limited. Love for like-minded people, for people who have a lot in common is important. However, it seems to me that the gold – standard test for a divine love is whether one has love for all. Even for those with whom you disagree and who are different.
Love of all is ultimately the guideline that will determine whether the choices I make are aligned with God’s kingdom, whether they will withstand the test of time, and whether they will turn out to be on the right side of God’s history.
This of course is not new. Jesus himself lived in a world where there were many options, or laws. He also lived in a dangerous, highly politicized, and confusing world. He knew that religious zealots, and political junkies, and those who are greedy, and immoral people will present their own selfish choices as good and responsible ones. He focused on what really matters, he blocked out all the noise, and he kept his focus on what God wants. One day, presented with many options, in the midst of chaos he was asked a question. Here is his answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and mind. The second is like it: You shall love you neighbor as yourself.”
This what God wants for citizens of God’s Kingdom: Clear, concise, and very difficult to do. That is why some think they can love God without loving their neighbor, and they are creative in their arguments why it is ok that they love God but do not care about their neighbor.
So, if we are confused about what is right and what is wrong, if we are overwhelmed by the many choices we have to make every day, if we are fearful about the direction the world is moving in, or worried about the state of the country, or if we simply we feel we don’t know anymore, the first Sunday of advent gives a few guidelines on how we ought to live, wait, and prepare during this holy season: Be alert, that is let your consciousness be lifted to Christ consciousness, pray, be open for God’s Spirit to work within you, and allow God to transform your views into God’s views. And if you are still uncertain, let love be your guiding principle. Love of God, and love of your neighbor. And remember that the love of Christ flows so strong that it overflows to all, and not some. Amen.