As my daughter, stepson, dear friend, and I embarked on the first legs of our trip these past two weeks, in Atlanta, our Boeing 777 had been successfully loaded with nearly 400 passengers prepared for the 8,439-mile trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. It is complicated, frustrating, and time consuming to get 396 passengers of every imaginable description on board, carry-ons stowed in the overhead compartments, seat belts fastened, and everyone settled in for the 14½ hour flight. It was late evening; we were already tired and ready for bedtime, hoping at least for some decent catnaps as we cruised all night high above the Atlantic.
But, we had indeed accomplished the boarding and were prepared to back away from the gate when my pastoral senses detected the veiled urgency in the flight attendant’s voice and footsteps as she approached her coworkers from the back of the plane. “Did you hear that?” she said, with calm but obvious concern. Uh oh. I remember thinking this was going to be potentially good sermon material.
Silence reigned; moments passed; an ominous air of uncertainty began to prevail. Finally, the loud speaker brought word from the captain: a massive luggage carrier, backing away from the plane had collided with one of the engines of our enormous plane, leaving it extensively damaged. Finding another plane was only a remote possibility. Our fate was undetermined.
We deplaned, muscling our heavy baggage and returning to the gate where we first heard the inkling – something about crew timing out if we didn’t get in the air by 10:00 p.m. Surprisingly though, bringing a glimmer of hope, another plane was located and brought to the gate; we were told the hour-long servicing and fueling process had begun, and we were instructed to reload as quickly as possible. But again, hope faded; seated and prepared for take off the second time, the diminished presence of crewmembers became noticeable. Ten o’clock had come and gone; the announcement about which we had been warned came over the microphone: our crew had timed out; it would be illegal for them to make the flight. We were to deplane once again and cue up to receive alternate flight arrangements and/or overnight accommodations.
Now, we recognized that this was an unexpected crisis, and we sympathized with the unfortunate baggage handler team whose negligence had created this mess. But, we were a bit incensed by the airline’s seeming lack of crisis preparedness. Surely, this was not the first ever last minute crisis occurring mere hours before the required crew change. It must have been immediately obvious that this plane wasn’t going to fly. What caused such delay in finding a backup plane and calling in a back up crew? We’re talking 400 passengers, most of us with baggage for multiple weeks. Herding us and our baggage on and off two planes with obviously little chance of making the flight seemed monumentally inefficient. How long did it take to determine that the obvious and only resolution would be to re-accommodate 400 unhappy travelers cued up and waiting for assistance into the wee hours of the morning?
The experience, of course, is simple in comparison to the urgent message of necessary preparedness in anticipation of crises as described in our Gospel lesson. But, comparing the two situations, we see that we can learn from our very earthly experiences such as these to gain insight into the reality of what seems for us very ominous, even frightening warnings of the consequences of being unprepared for the second coming of Christ and/or the end times – predictions of doom and gloom. Jesus implores us to be ready in anticipation of the unexpected hour of the return of the Son of Man. Jesus provides our resources for rising above the crisis.
Do we ring our hands, lash out at one another, and melt down in panic; or do we remain calm and focused on the resourcefulness that our faith in Jesus Christ provides? – Finding Christ in one another and all creation, worshipping regularly together, studying the scriptures, praying endlessly, focusing on our relationships within the Body of Christ. These are the resources our Christian faithfulness provides.
Did we ring our hands and throw a tantrum and browbeat the flight crew of our doomed flight to Johannesburg? No, my dear friend and I remained patient while the youngsters got on their phones to make alternate plans. As anxiety grew for many of our fellow flight companions mired in uncertainty, the four of us were in a dead trot toward the Air France gate for our successfully rebooked flight through Paris. Hours later we found ourselves on a delightful late afternoon taxi tour of the City of Lights all decked out for Christmas. Our driver quite skillfully planned our arrival at the Eiffel Tower just at the top of the hour when the lights covering the entire tower sparkle for a full five minutes. Afterwards, we returned to the airport in time to attempt again the overnight flight to Johannesburg, arriving finally a half day later than expected – a full 48 hours after leaving home on Monday morning, but with a great story to share!
Jesus never promises that our earthly life will be an unhindered primrose path. In fact, he warns us time and again that our Christian discipleship will be filled with uncertain detours and pitfalls and threatening crises. But, Jesus provides us with the resources to work through the crises that threaten; he admonishes us to take up these resources and be prepared and open to the unexpected inbreaking of God into our daily lives. And, above all, Jesus admonishes us to remain unafraid.
The Season of Advent that begins today is a joyful time of preparation – getting our house in order for the coming of the Christ child – joyful expectation of the celebration and opportunity to experience anew the glorious Christmas story that we have loved since earliest childhood. Today’s Gospel lesson alerts us that we are also to anticipate and prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which he has promised at an unexpected hour.
The words of our Gospel lesson, words from the mouth of Jesus, may seem ominous and confusing and even quite distressing. We are reminded that God’s judgment is real, but God’s judgment is meant to restore our relationship with God; God’s judgment is not intended as retribution. And, we are reminded of our responsibility to one another in seeing that all are prepared to meet Christ when he comes again. If, when Christ comes, our neighbor in the field is left behind, we who know the good story of the saving grace of Jesus Christ have neglected the fullness of our Christian mission.
Sharing our Christian relationship with one another, worshipping together regularly, praying endlessly, studying the scriptures that contain all things necessary for our salvation – all these are the necessary ingredients of our preparation for the promised second coming of Christ; all these are the necessary elements of our Blessed Advent; all these are the essentials that allow us to kneel amongst the sweet smelling hay of the cattle stall and embrace the monumental glorious reality of God Incarnate – the Word made flesh – God coming to earth in the human person of Jesus Christ to live and die as one of us.
What could possibly stand in the way of your resourceful preparation in anticipation of these glorious promised events? Jesus’ words are not ominous to those who are prepared, and we are all gifted with the resources to be prepared. These are words of inspiration for the journey – a journey far-surpassing even an unanticipated sparkling evening in Paris.
Therefore, you must be ready, for the Son of Man – Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, our Savior and Redeemer – is coming at an unexpected hour. Believers rejoice! From today’s words from the prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”