Monday, December 03, 2018

What To Do When the World Turns Upside Down

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on the 1st Sunday of Advent:  Luke 21:25-36

          “The Doctor is IN,” says the sign over Lucy’s booth in the comic strip Peanuts.  Ever forlorn and confused Charlie Brown confesses to her, “Sometimes I think I don’t know anything about life.”  He pleads with her, “Tell me a great truth!”

          Lucy asks a question first, “Do you ever wake up at night and want a drink of water?”  “Sure,” comes the reply from Charlie.  Her voice dripping with “wisdom,” Lucy pronounces, “When you’re getting a drink of water in the dark, always rinse out the glass because there might be a bug in it!”

          Charlie reflects, “Great truths are even more simple than I thought they were.”[1]

          Perhaps it would be best if we came at this apocalyptic text from Luke with Lucy’s simplicity. 

          This First Sunday of Advent is one of the most difficult Sundays for Christians in our tradition.  We are not comfortable with these texts about the second coming and the day of judgment.  They remind us too much of hellfire preaching and street corner signs of doom.

          Sort of like Lucy’s curbside psychiatrist’s office, we don’t expect much good news.  Charlie comes to her despondent, as he so often is.  He does not understand life.  The pieces don’t come together for him.  Lucy’s message to him is mocking; that’s part of her role in the cartoon.  But she’s on to something, and so is Charlie.  “Maybe Great Truths are more simple than I imagined.”

          So is there some simple great truth for us in this end-times rhetoric?

          Jesus says some scary stuff:

There will be signs in the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused at the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding at what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

          If you listen closely to those words, you can almost hear a description of the coming ecological crisis, but I think Jesus is talking more broadly than that.  He is saying

You will experience the world being turned upside down and inside out, so you do not know which end is up.  What is perfectly normal will not seem normal to you.  You will be anxious and afraid.  Your faith will be shaken to its core.

          Does that sound more familiar?  We live on the edge of being out of control.  We live in moments when the pieces of our lives lay at our feet and there does not seem to be any way to put them back together.  Sometimes this happens to us as individuals, sometimes as families, sometimes as communities, even nations.  These are times that are truly confusing or frightening.

          So what is Jesus' advice when these upside down times are upon us?

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

          Stand up and lift up your heads.  A simple, great truth.  To understand it more clearly it is important to see what he does not say. He does not say:

·       Fall on your knees and hang your head in shame.
·       Run for the hills in order to save your life.
·       Be afraid, be very afraid.

          No, he says, "Stand up and raise your heads."  Why? "Because your redemption is drawing near." Again, it is important what he does not say. He does not say:

·       Your judgment is drawing near.
·       The wrath of God is coming upon you.
·       You are going to get what you deserve.

          No. He says, "Your redemption is drawing near."  Redemption.  What does he mean by that?  "Redemption" is one of the words used in the Bible to describe what God fundamentally wants for us and what Jesus' life, death, and resurrection does for us.  There are many words you could insert there:  salvation, rescue, healing, liberation, etc.  The point is that the time of confusion and fear is also the time of redemption, of healing, of liberation.

          Christian people learn that when trial or crisis comes, we should look not for signs of ending, but rather for signs of new life because they will surely come.  That does not mean that anger at what has happened, or grief, or any other human emotion is not appropriate for Christians. It is too say that those feelings are never the last word.

          I know what it is like to be in the middle of a mess I am sure I cannot get myself out of.  Some kind of defeat or betrayal or wrong choices that seem to spell the end of my life as I know it.  There are days when I cannot follow Jesus’ direction to stand up and raise my head.

          But Jesus does not put it all on me when I am so deeply troubled, nor does he put it all on any one of you.  He says, “Stand up and raise your heads.”  The “your” in Greek is plural.  During these times when it feels like the world is coming unglued and there’s no way out—this is the time when we need each other.  When I cannot stand up and raise my head, I need you to do it for me.

          So what is Charlie Brown’s simple, great truth here?

          When the world is falling apart and you feel like you are falling apart with it, you need not fear the judgment of God, rather, you need to embrace the mercy of God, and we never have to do this alone.  Because the greatest simple Truth is that we are always, always in this together.

          All of this is summed up in a subsequent strip of Peanuts.  Charlie Brown discovers this in a subsequent strip.  The first frame is entirely black with just the outline of Lucy, stumbling in the dark.  Perhaps she has stubbed her toe on the bed.  “Curse it all!” she cries.  Next frame, still black, “Blast the blackness . . . Oh, curse, curse, curse.”  Finally in the last frame stands Charlie Brown.  In the midst of the dark, he stands in the glow of a candle.[2]  When all Lucy could do was curse the darkness—and haven’t we all been there?—Charlie Brown knows to light a candle, the kind of thing we are called to do for one another so that we can all get through life when it turns upside down.

[1] Quoted in Sam Portaro, Daysprings: Meditations for the Weekdays of Advent, Lent, and Easter (Boston: Cowley, 2001), p. 3.
[2] Ibid., p. 5.

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