Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple. (NRSV).
There is danger in giving warning.
Of course, anticipation has its benefits. It can inspire preparation and bring a perspective difficult, if not impossible, to find elsewhere.
But warning can also have drawbacks. It can produce enough certainty to create anticipation while still leaving enough uncertainty for fear to take hold. It can paralise or mobilise.
But here Jesus feels the need to warn of the possibility of his words being forgotten.
Jesus knows this about his hearers. Our passage, hot on the heals of his apocalyptic prophecy of Jerusalem’s sacking and the fig tree parable, seeks a people ‘on guard’.
It would seem that ‘dissipation’, ‘drunkenness’, and ‘the worries of this life’ can add up to a heavy and distracted heart. Even after hearing Jesus’ warning, and its inherent implication that God knows and sees what is to come, the day-to-day can so easily take over. Jesus’ audience can potentially become so distracted that the day he graphically foretold just may arrive ‘unexpectedly’ and ‘like a trap’.
Odd isn’t it. We can be forewarned and unmoved; informed and unprepared; knowledgable and unaware. We can know of the trap and then find ourselves caught raging in frustration against its bars.
You see, Jesus’ prophecy is not selective. It looks to an event that will not discriminate. Jerusalem’s downfall will engulf the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the faithful and the unfaithful. As Jesus suggested in the parable of the two builders, the storms of life come to both the wise and foolish. We are not a people apart from the events of earth. We are, with all its dangers, involved.
And as such we are called to be a vigilant and alert community who prayerfully seek God’s strength in all circumstances. Jesus hopes here for a people who will be faithful even through conflict and defeat; a people who can stand to the very end.
It is a big ask that may make our final verses look somewhat pedestrian. In comparison with Jesus’ grand apocalyptic vision they tell simply of the place our travellers sleep and the teaching opportunities Jesus embraced.
But maybe there is more here. In the darkness of night Jesus makes himself scarce; in the light of day he openly teaches inside the temple. He sleeps unhoused in a public garden while inspiring crowds to gather eagerly around his message.
Perhaps Jesus words and actions are more dangerous than we initially realise. If Jesus is understood by his hearers as unveiling the dark future of the stones that surround, he may already be making powerful enemies. Better to sleep rough than remain too long inside temporary walls.
But through all this danger his words still inspire. Each morning the ‘people’ gather expectantly. They still want to listen. In those whose motives are unclouded the kingdom’s seed finds fertile soil.
Encouragingly even in this compromised cathedral there are some who rise early in recognition of the treasure of ‘God among us’.