It’s survey time! Here are three Christmas messages; read all three and then pick which one is your favorite:
O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
Away in a manger, no crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay
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.
Heaven and earth will pass away…and that day will catch you like a trap.
One? Two? Anyone vote for three?
Honestly, anyone wonder why on earth this Scripture passage is the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent? I know I have!
Here we are on the first week, with the decorations and the trees and the greenery and the candles, and our Bible passage sounds like something from a Walking Dead episode!
The Two-Way got to wrestle with this passage a little this week, and tried to figure out what it was all about. At first, some wondered if it was simply about the second coming, with Jesus coming in on the clouds in glorious return. But then we struggled a little with the fact that Jesus said that “this generation” would encounter all of this so, unless we missed it, maybe Jesus is talking about something else. What if, someone asked, this is about more than only the second coming? What if Jesus is talking about the doom and gloom that every generation struggles with? They wondered if the language about the fig tree symbolizes the cyclical nature of pain and chaos in our own lives.
And, you shouldn’t be surprised to know that they were right on! Scholars argue back and forth about whether Jesus is talking about the second coming or about events more relevant to Jesus and eventually Luke’s time. And a lot of them have come to the conclusion that the right answer might be both. Like the scholars in the Two-Way, they suggest that there are actually several cycles happening all at once:
Imagine a timeline of the eternity of God. In our timeline there are these moments:
• The birth of Christ, and the painful helplessness that the people felt beforehand. Hundreds of years since the last prophet, they wondered if God was ever going to talk to them again. They were under the thumb of the Romans and felt powerless and helpless.
• Then we have the life and ministry of Christ, and the words that he spoke in today’s passage. Words that convey the helplessness of that time. Look again at the images – natural disasters, wars and destruction. Images of helplessness and powerlessness. This is the time in which Jesus ministered and spoke these words
• Then Luke’s Gospel – about 40-50 years later. The predictions of Jesus have come to fruition – the Temple has been destroyed by the Romans, and the helplessness that they felt when Jesus was alive was even more desperate. The oppression of Rome extended to the Christians, and they were persecuted violently. Again, helplessness and powerlessness were at the heart.
• Then, fast forward to the second coming. Jesus tells us we don’t know when it will come, but that it will come. So we put it on the timeline.
• And so, every generation in between has wondered, “is it now? Is it us?” Each one has read these words – including our own here and now – and out of their own lens of helplessness and powerlessness, they have wondered if this is the time. Now will be the moment where Christ will return.
And so, trained scholars pouring over the texts, and the scholars sitting in the back Sunday school room of a Baptist church, have examined the brokenness of their own time and place and wondered, “is it now? Is this the generation of which Christ spoke? Is he coming soon?”
The same is true of ours. The other night, we began to name the helplessness and powerlessness in our own lives:
• Political helplessness – including the dysfunction in Washington, and the ways that we exacerbate it with our own political posts on social media or political rigidity in person.
• Natural helplessness – fires in California, hurricanes on the coast, earthquakes in Alaska and in Central America. I think that climate change is one of the most profound examples of helplessness. We see these changes, we know about them, but we ask “what can one person do? How can I make a difference?” We feel helpless.
• Financial helplessness– the richest getting richer, often by unethical means, and many of the rest of us left to wonder if we can make it to the next paycheck
• Relational helplessness– broken relationships, friendships that end before we want them to, divorce and death of loved ones
• Personal helplessness– struggles with mental health…depression or anxiety or both, and it is so hard to know how to fight it, how to stabilize
In each of these cases, we feel helpless and powerless and alone. As have those of every generation…
So how do we respond to this helplessness? Jesus answers this question in his words to his disciples. First, he tells them “don’t do this.” One of the most basic responses to helplessness is despair, and Jesus suggests three ways that we despair in v 34:
1. Dissipation. In the original Greek, the connotation was excess consumption to the point of expulsion. Psychologists point out how dissipation is anything that we do to excess, in order to deal with our helplessness. Overeating. Over-shopping. Overspending. Overmedicating. Binge watching TV or movies. Binge surfing on our phones. Overconsumption. Dissipation. Why do we do this? To distract from the helplessness, the powerlessness we feel. “I feel horrible, but Black Friday shopping makes me feel great…at least for a little while.”
2. Drunkenness. Most of us know what this is. But look at what is often behind the yearning for drunkenness. An attempt to numb. If I don’t feel anything, then I cannot feel helpless. Maybe it’s with alcohol. Maybe it’s with drugs. Whatever it takes to keep me from feeling the pain of my life. From feeling the powerlessness of my life.
3. Worry. Again, psychologically, this is a way to try to control the uncontrollable. There are things outside of my control, which I cannot do anything about. But I can still stew over them. Dwell on them. Fret over them. Worry is one of the big signs of despair. When we are helpless, we think that we are doing something constructive when we worry. When in reality we are just giving ourselves more health problems with no good outcomes. Jesus puts worry on par with drunkenness and overconsumption or dissipation. None of them really accomplish anything.
So if Jesus tells us not to despair, what do we do instead? Finally, we get to the word of the day: redemption! Look at what Jesus says in vs. 28: “your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus whispers in our ears, “maybe you are powerless, but I am not. Maybe you feel helpless, but I am here to help. Maybe you feel unredeemable, but I am here for the redemption of the world, and there is nothing in this world or beyond it that will keep me from redeeming it.”
Wendell Berry is an author and poet, and I love his definition of redemption: I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.
That’s it in a nutshell! Redemption is the ongoing – and ultimate – action of God’s love to bring wholeness and reconciliation and atonement. For Luke, there is something much more global about redemption. It is power of Christ to overcome our helplessness. When our heads are spinning because of the chaos around us – political, natural, financial, relational, personal chaos – and we feel like there is nothing we can do to hang on, here comes the message of Christ: your redemption is coming. Your redemption is drawing near. Redemption from the pain or the lost-ness or the loneliness or the abandonment or the ambiguity. Not distraction or numbness or worry…that is not true redemption. Redemption is the reminder that you are not alone in the struggle. Redemption is the hope that there is a Promised One coming. Redemption is the clarity that this struggle is not unto death, or at least not unto eternal death. Redemption is the strength that your waiting is not in vain. Redemption is the promise that there is a reason for hope. Redemption is the ongoing – and ultimate – action of God’s love to bring wholeness to the world!
So, we don’t despair…what do we do? If redemption is God’s work, what is our work? Jesus tells us, “don’t do that, but do this instead.”
1. Pray. Jesus tells the disciples that we keep praying. Prayer for Luke was putting ourselves in an attitude of preparation, of willingness to receive. Like a baseball catcher, squatting down to receive a 100-mile-per-hour fastball, we put ourselves in position to receive the power and redemption of God…through prayer.
2. Be ready. Don’t distract or numb. Keep alert and keep your eyes open to what God is doing. Trust that God is alive and well in this world. Luke wrote believing that God was still at work in the world and that even in the midst of a tumultuous world, that we could see God in action, if we stay alert and keep our eyes peeled for God’s work of redemption. God’s ultimate redemption is coming, but the ways of God’s redemption are ongoing and constant. Which brings us back to our timeline, which explains why this is the reading for the first Sunday in Advent. Remember that Advent means waiting. Hoping. Anticipating the redemption of God. So, the “people who in darkness walked” waited…and have seen a great light. Christmas is about the promise of that light coming. But, wait, there’s more. The reason why we read this passage during the weeks leading up to Christmas is because we, too, are waiting. We, still, are waiting. Scholars sometimes talk about a Second Advent. A second waiting for the redemption that only God can and will bring. At each of these places, there is the same yearning, the same helplessness, the same waiting for redemption. Waiting in hope for the re-construction of the world into the Kingdom of God. Waiting because we know that we aren’t there yet. Until the end, when we wait no more. And because we know the end, we have the strength and the power to wait. And in the meanwhile…
3. Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. We don’t cower. We don’t hide. We don’t put our fingers in our ears and wait for heaven. We don’t fall prey to powerlessness, because we know who holds the power!
The people of Le Chambon sur Lignon knew this well. This small village in the middle of France was founded by Protestants escaping religious persecution in the 1600’s. They knew the pain and helplessness of oppression, the powerlessness of being under the thumb of an oppressive regime. For generations, they taught one another stories and songs of redemption in the midst of chaos. They were a people of Christ. A people redeemed by God’s love. Generation after generation, these were the stories that they told one another about themselves.
Then came the horror of World War II. France was occupied, and the Nazi’s reign of terror was unlike any oppression that they had seen before. But they knew who they were, and they knew what redemption was. So when the Nazis came for the Jews in their midst, they protected them. They hid them. They moved them to safer places. They stood up and raised their heads, in the middle of the chaos. It didn’t make the chaos and the evil go away, but the ways of Christ told them that every person is a child of God, and they took those ways seriously. Over the course of the war, this tiny village in the middle of the woods protected and supported thousands of Jews. Even when it meant death for some of the leaders, they stood up and raised their heads…a people of redemption.
When the Nazi soldiers would come, the townspeople would move quickly to hide the Jews in the woods around the town. And when they left, they would return into the woods, and sing a certain song. This song was the signal that all was safe, and they could come home. It was a symbol of redemption.
Today, may we sing to one another songs of redemption, remind each other to stand up for the story of God’s love, and wait together in hope and prayer for the God of power and strength.