Today’s reading from Luke sounds apocalyptic: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” What is an apocalyptic text doing in Advent? I thought we were talking about the first coming of Christ, not the second. But here we’re talking about “The Son of Humanity” coming in a cloud, checking up on everyone. If this were Santa, we could say he’s checking to see who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. But this is the risen Christ, coming to see who is standing tall in the midst of chaos.
We’ve got our own chaos or foreboding signs in modern times: climate change, falling life expectancy, homelessness issues, gun violence, and on and on.
It’s enough to make you want to run into your house, bolt the door, and crawl into bed with the covers up over your head. Make like an ostrich and stick your head in the sand.
That’s what Jesus tells us to do, right? Ignore it all? Wish it away? Continue to enjoy our own blessings while others are being burned or flooded out of their towns or are starving in a nationwide famine, as in Yemen?
Of course that’s not what Jesus says. He says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Stand up and raise your heads. That sounds very un-ostrich-like.
What would it take to do that—to stand up and raise our heads in the face of all these awful things unfolding around us and around the world?
For one thing, we would have to be a people who do not live in fear. Even in the face of fearful and foreboding signs, when others begin to act out of their fear, we would need to know how to deal with our fear and not let it dictate our actions. People living in fear shut themselves off from those who are different without bothering to get to know them. A government run by fear becomes oppressive and dictatorial. So to choose to stand up and raise our heads, to not live in fear when others do, would be countercultural.
But we can’t just not live some way. We would have to choose to live in some more positive mind frame. We would have to live in hope. Not to deny all the bad and fearful things happening, but to stare them in the face and say, “Nevertheless.”
And we would have to practice living this way all the time in order to be prepared for that “‘Son of Humanity coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” Be alert and awake, prepared. This notion reminds me of the quote, “Jesus is coming—look busy.” Except we can’t just look busy; we have to actually be engaged in building the realm of God.
The world into which Jesus was born had plenty of fearful signs and situations. Jewish peasants were scraping by, being taxed off their land to fund Herod’s opulent lifestyle and the Roman occupation. There was no middle class—you either lived in great poverty (99%) or great wealth. A tense arrangement with Rome involved the Temple authorities in Jerusalem having to partner up with the Roman occupiers, trying not to rock the boat. When Jesus tells stories about day laborers, these were people forced into day labor after losing their land and the ability to feed their families themselves. These are people pushed to the edge of what is survivable.
And the message is, Yes, these are fearful times. Stand up anyway. Raise your head. Live in hope. Take action to build the realm of God.
Jesus says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” Don’t assume you have forever. Christ is coming—look busy. Or get busy. And don’t get swept up in the worries of this life, including all those foreboding things. Focus on living in hope and love. And then you will not only notice that the realm of God is drawing near—you will know it because you will be building it.
This week some of us attended a potluck and presentation here featuring the Rev. Loren McGrail, who has been a Global Ministries missioner in Palestine for the past five years. She worked with the YWCA, interviewed women, bore witness to the tension between Palestinians and Israelis and tried to understand all perspectives in very intentional ways. She couldn’t resolve their issues. But she could bear witness to them. And turn their weapons into art. She has a cross made out of bullets and other ammunition. She stood up and raised her head in that setting. She saw violence and oppression. She bore witness. She dared to love the people she met on both sides of the wall. She used her privilege—as a white person, as an American, as a pastor—to help and serve others.
So how exactly can we learn to practice hope? Kate Davies teaches how to practice hope in six steps:
[Kate Davies, Intrinsic Hope: Living Courageously in Troubled Times, New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada, 2018, Part II: “Habits of Hope.”]
Look at your hand. Think about all the veins running through it, bringing nutrients to your fingertips. Think about the nerves, bringing feeling and commands to move. Our clothes have tags on them: made in China, made in Mexico, made in India. If our bodies had tags, they would say, “Made by God.” Your body is a miracle. You are a miracle, a child of God. Practice being present to your body through your senses. What can you see? Taste? Smell? Touch? Hear? Let go of your plans and worries for a few minutes and just be present.
Think of five or more things in your life right now for which you are grateful. Maybe even write them down.
Get specific. Find a partner and discuss:
Accept: I have an addiction problem. Or this job or relationship isn’t working and needs to end. Or my daughter wants to marry this guy who is absolutely not my choice for her. [Side bar: When my mother announced to her family that she was going to marry my father, my mother’s mother did not accept the situation. Her response was to start setting my mom up on dates with other men. Needless to say, my dad and his mother-in-law got off to a rocky start.]
Here’s a picture of acceptance: I have a friend who has a lovely little boy, about five years old. He recently told his parents that he’s not so sure he’s really a boy, and maybe he needs to explore more about being a girl. He has begun to wear colors more typically associated with little girls, such as pinks and purples. And frilly things. The other day his mother posted photos of him wearing all kinds of colors and patterns and a pretty fabulous hat. And she was just proud of him, just loving him exactly as he is. That’s acceptance.
Here’s another picture of acceptance: Overlake Christian Church has done a turnabout in recent years and is now what we would call “open and affirming” of lesbians and gays. The article on the front page of the Seattle Times made it sound as if this was something new in a church. Clearly that reporter hasn’t been hanging out in the UCC. We may need to send her a note. But the good news is that acceptance of LGBT folks in church is on the rise.
As soon as you accept something, you put yourself in a position to take action. Okay, so climate change is real: now what? What can I do? And in some cases, as with climate change, the challenge may seem particularly daunting, because no one of us can solve climate change alone. We will never check it off the to-do list in our lifetimes. But we live in hope. An ancient Jewish text says, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21). Stop worrying about the outcomes. Just begin. Leave the outcome to God.
David Orr writes, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” Optimism is passive. You don’t have to do anything; you just have a sense that things will work out for the best. But living in hope means taking action, figuring out what you can do in the face of a challenge and then doing it. Maybe you start with small steps, but do something.
Don’t give up. This is a spiritual practice, a discipline. Stand up in hope, raise your head high. Stand for what you believe in, not for what the authorities tell you to think or to fear. Live in hope. That will confound them.
Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote:
“We do what prisoners do
And what the jobless do.
We cultivate hope.” [Mahmoud Darwish, “Under Siege”]
At a time of year when we may feel like hibernating, and in signs of the times that are indeed fearful and foreboding, we will stand up and raise our heads in hope. We will be alert and awake to the times, not hiding from them. Only then can we be ready to encounter the Christ in our midst. I close with the poem by Antonio Machado that is printed on the sidebar in your bulletins this morning. He reminds us that in our reading we hear that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but [Jesus’] words will not pass away.” All the things that worry us now cannot outlast our God, who is present with us, giving us hope and courage, helping us to stand up and raise our heads.
I love Jesus, who said to us:
heaven and earth will pass away.
When heaven and earth have passed away,
my word will still remain.
What was your word, Jesus?
Love? Forgiveness? Affection?
All your words were
one word: Wakeup.
[Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly]