1Thess. 3:9-13: Luke 21: 25-36
UCBR “Lift Up Your Heads” ADVENT 1
When my children were in their middle school years, they devoured the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Do you remember Calvin and Hobbes? Calvin was a precocious six year old named after, who else? our dearly beloved 16th century John Calvin, father Presbyterianism. Hobbes was a imaginary stuffed tiger, named after Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century political philosopher. Can you imagine what a real dialogue between these two esteemed men would be like? Anyway, in an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip – this conversation takes place. In the first frame Calvin tells Hobbes: “live for the moment is my motto!You never know how long you got.”
In the second frame Calvin explains: “You could step into the road tomorrow and WHAM, you get hit by a cement truck! Then you’d be sorry you put off your pleasures. That’s what I say – live for the moment!”
An then Calvin asks Hobbes: “What’s your motto?” Hobbes replies: “My motto is – Look down the road.”
In today’s lesson, Jesus is talking about the cultivating the practice of looking down the road. Being alert – to all that is happening around us. Raise your heads. Look! Jesus is here.
A few weeks ago, if you recall, we examined an apocalyptic passage from Mark’s gospel. Today we hear Luke’s version of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse. It seems strange that here we are, in the first week of Advent, at the beginning of our church year – and we’re discussing the end of the days. Apocalyptic literature is en vogue these days, we see articles, books, youtube channels devoted unearthing the meaning of Jesus’ words.
Apocalypse means to “reveal” or “uncover.”
It describes – often in symbolism or code – the second coming of Jesus, the triumph of Good over evil and the enemies of God, and the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic writings contain depictions of natural catastrophes, war, demons and angels and other larger-than-life creatures. It’s a lucrative field that for decades, if not centuries, has spawned best-selling books, movies, the creation of luxury underground bunkers, popular games about the “zombie” apocalypse.
If you act fast, you can still get this best seller from amazon “Apocalypse How: How To Turn the End Times into the Best of Times.”
Every day and age has read the signs of the times and thought themselves to be in the end days. Apocalyptic thinking thrives in times of suffering and oppression. And there’s been a lot of suffering and oppression throughout human history. Oddly enough – at the root of the Apocalypse is not doom and gloom, but finding hope. Hope in a God who delivers us when everything else fails.
Remember what Paul wrote to the Church at Thessalonica about their loss of faith in the delay of the Parousia, the belief that Jesus would return any minute and swept them off their feet. In their time of persecution and hardship he tells them “we want to restore what is lacking in your faith.” So the apocalyptic images we hear about today are about finding hope – in a suffering, alienating world.
To nurture hope – our advent task for the week – Jesus says, raise your head!! Or as Hobbes puts it, “ Look down the road.” See the signs of difficulty around you as a call to hope, a call to action and service. Hope is a confident expectation of something not yet accomplished. Hope orients us toward the future while grounding us in the present. It motivates us to positive action. Aristotle described hope as a “waking dream – a dream with all the power to help us imagine the not yet, and ask, why not?” Hope see the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible. Hope doesn’t give up.
Long before the enlightenment, long before we in the West knew of Eastern teaching about mindfulness and awaking, we had Jesus’ words: “Stand and raise your head, be on guard, stay awake and stay alert.” Awake. Alert. Head held high. Our hearts can catch a glimpse of God’s view, the bigger picture of the kingdom of God. Where hope lives and love and justice reign.
Hope is not only a collective virtue we develop together. Each of us is called to practice hope. I want to tell you how I found hope. How I found my way out of my own personal apocalypse – through the process of my father’s dying from Alzheimer’s Disease.
You see dad and I were close when I was a child. But as I grew up, alcoholism, unemployment and homelessness got in the way of our relationship. My inability to forgive got in the way of our relationship. Family dynamics got in the way of my ability to let go of the past and have hope for a new future.
Sadly, this is a tale that repeats itself in millions of families in a variety of formats. In my case, thirty years when swiftly by. Somehow, I always thought we’d talk things over, but we never did. Alzheimer’s made sure of that. We were separated by 500 miles, 30 years of unspoken conversation, all that unfinished business. So at the beginning of Advent about 25 years ago, hope found a way.
It began with a dream. What else? It was a lucid dream – of dad calling out my name, over and over. It was so powerful that I call my stepmother the next morning in Ohio. She reported back that the nurses in the assisted living facility had commented that my dad had restless night and had in fact, called out something that sounded like my name.
After that came more dreams. Apocalyptic feeling dreams, scary dreams, all involving my dad. Dreams I wanted to forget. Filled with monsters and animals and dad suffering. I prayed to understand, God said, keep praying, your father is working through unfinished business on a spiritual level. Meanwhile, he was lying unconscious, uncommunicative, on a hospice bed.
My final challenge came at the end. My brother called. Dad had a day or so to go. I needed to come home now. That’s when my monsters emerged. Why should I make such an effort, a financial sacrifice, when he had forsaken us as children? Raise your head, the Holy Spirit, said. Look up. Do not worry. You will regret it forever if you do not go.Raise your head, hope, and I will make all work out right.”
And off I went. As the plane lifted above the clouds, I began to feel as if the burden of those decades finally fall off. They continued to lift as I spent the remaining eight hours of his life with him. Somehow without talking, it was all complete. All I had to do was raise my head, be alert to the signs, look beyond myself and hope. God was faithful. He forged a reconciliation between a unconscious dying man and his stubborn daughter. That’s hope.
What do we make of this? God’s redemptive hand can reach beyond our understanding and experience of tie and space? Often we are trapped in a personal apocalypse. A doom and gloom that never seems to lift. We lose a vison for the future. Relationships seem beyond repair. All seems finished. Like in Calvin’s fantasy we get hit by cement trucks – WHAM! there goes our health. There goes our faith WHAM!! there goes our dreams. WHAM!! There goes our precious relationships. WHAM!! there goes our hope.
So here we are with Luke, in the apocalypse unfolding everyday. Where suffering goes on too long and change takes forever. What is important to remember as we begin Advent – is hope is center. It’s what we really long for. And God is in charge. God Does actively intervene in our world, sending dreams, keeping us alert, giving us advice. God wants us to actively love this world into a new heavens and a new earth. To Raise our heads. Jesus says, I’ll show you how it’s done.
So Advent is our time to practice hope. Remember Jesus asks us in Luke to be careful that we are not weighed down with dissipation – overspending – drunkenness? Drunk by alcohol or dunk on pride or self-righteousness or anger? Or weighted down by the worries of life—health, employment, the economy- what kind of world we are leaving the next generation? Don’t be weighed down by the negative – be lifted up, Jesus says by hope.
Be lifted up by this adapted message of poet May Angelou:*
In the sweet shadow of Thanksgiving I am giving forgiveness to everyone I thought had ill-treated me. I want to enter the Christmas month with a clean slate. I want to think that everyone I know can enter the last month of this year free of any ill will between us. Let us all go into December 2015 free giving and expecting the good thing.
*adapted from her 2012 message
So Let us raise our heads! Let every small act and grand act of kindness and love enkindle the flame of hope – to light our way into the night, a way out of our darkness and find our way to the Christ Child, who waits for us, bearing Hope born new. Amen.