Luke seems to be the first Christian author to conclude that everyone in his community would die a natural death before Jesus triumphantly returned in the Parousia. Yet that belief doesn’t stop him from writing about that event.

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon and stars," Jesus says. "After that, people will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with great power and glory. When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your ransom is near at hand" (Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36).

One of the most difficult things good leaders accomplish is keeping the spirits of their people high and centered when everyone is convinced they’ll never personally experience the good things for which they’re working.

David’s shoot

Jeremiah had that task during the Babylonian invasion of his country (Jer 33: 14-16). The prophet was convinced this disaster was happening because of the incompetence of the Jewish leaders. None had emulated the personality and dedication of David, their ancestor on the throne. Yet, instead of trashing leadership as such, Jeremiah encourages his people to raise their heads.

"The days are coming," says Yahweh, "when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah. In those days, in that time, I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land."

Those words have an even deeper impact when we remember that Jeremiah delivered them from prison; he was put there by the very leaders he faulted for not carrying out David’s dream for his people. Some of Scripture’s most hopeful words come from Scripture’s most desperate moments.

Paul certainly wasn’t as desperate as Jeremiah when he penned I Thessalonians. But Jesus’ delayed Parousia prompted him to write this earliest Christian document (I Thes 3: 12-4:2). An event people thought to be just around the corner when they accepted the faith now seemed to be somewhere in the distant future as they lived that faith.

That’s why Paul emphasizes proper behavior in this part of his letter. "May the Lord increase you," he writes, "and make you overflow with love for one another and for all, even as our love does for you. May He strengthen your hearts, making them blameless and holy before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His holy ones."

What they do while they’re waiting is just as important as the event for which they’re waiting.

On guard

That’s why Luke, writing about the same anticipated event 25 years after Paul, has Jesus give the same advice: "Be on guard lest your spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares. Pray constantly for the strength to escape whatever is in prospect, and to stand secure before the Son of Man."

In the last 1,400 years of Christian history, we’ve so zeroed in on the feast of Christmas and the preparations that accompany it that we’ve twisted our Advent readings into a configuration their authors would never have recognized.

Jesus’ actual birth played an insignificant role in early Christian theology. His dying and rising was the centerpiece of it. These writers weren’t preparing their readers for Christmas. They were helping maintain their spirits while they waited for Jesus to accomplish things in their lives that would give them a share in His risen life.

There’s a reason everyone experiences a "letdown" after the holidays. Instead of concentrating, as Christians, on the dying and rising of Jesus, we spend time preparing for a superficial celebration that comes once a year and disappoints us once a year.

Because our sacred authors believed followers of God were "in it" for the long run, they encouraged us to spend our time and effort on something that will last forever, even if we won’t experience that forever until we join Jesus in His risen life.

(11/27/03)