“Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”
(Luke 21: 28b)
This past Friday morning I sat at my computer staring at the blank page and the blinking cursor. I’d done my research, my reading, gathered my list of possible illustrations and put my random thoughts down on paper and now I had to write the sermon. But as I sat, ready to dive in, cup of steaming coffee in front of me, I had a hard time concentrating on the task at hand. It was jumping back and forth, to the past and the future; from Thanksgiving dinner to Christmas plans I needed to make, from my last sermon to my next sermon in January; from wondering if anything I wrote would have meaning for you who will hear it to wishing I was done so I could go out and “play.” Caught between past and the future the present slipped by as I traveled back and forth between regret for eating too much yesterday and worry over Sunday worship that was two days away.
We all live in these moments suspended between past and future. The Advent Season suspends us as well between what has been and what will come. The scriptures for this season of waiting take us back and forth between remembering and anticipation. Between remembering the birth of Christ and anticipating his coming again. They reminisce through the stories of Jesus’ birth. But they also look forward through the texts from Luke to the time when Christ will come again to judge and renew the earth and their promise of delivery for Israel.
“Both Jeremiah and Jesus, separated by six centuries, stood on the streets of Jerusalem and announced its destruction,” writes Leonard Beechy in The Christian Century. Listen again to Jesus’ words: “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,” (Luke 21: 25) “The outlandish language of apocalypse – all of that cosmic upheaval, all those heavenly signs may be just right for conveying Jesus’ central message to folks like us.” Beechy concludes, “We are as likely as any people have ever been to be ‘weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.’ Add modernity and secularity to the mix and we are prime candidates for having our closed numb worlds shaken, “
The Apocalypse and Christ’s coming again isn’t something we mention often here at KUC even though it is often referred to in the bible. It may not be a concept we think or worry about but Christ’s eventual return has certainly captured the imagination of millions of Christians who wait for the rapture and Armageddon and for the final and peaceful reign of Christ. In the 1970’s a book called The Late Great Planet Earth, written by Hal Lindsay and Carole Carlson caught the imagination of many non-mainline Christians. It was, in fact, the best selling nonfiction book of the 70’s and it sold 28 millions copies by 1978. Like many previous books, The Late Great Planet Earth looked to the future, and using what he saw as predictions in the Bible, Lindsay postulated an Antichrist ruling over a ten-member or ten-nation European confederacy. Lindsay believed that what was then the six-member European Economic Community (later the 27-member European Union) could be a forerunner of this confederacy, which he considered to be a revival of the Roman Empire. He also foretold a Russian invasion of Israel, as well as an increase in the frequency of famines, wars and earthquakes, as key events leading up to the end of the world.
Predicting the end of the world using Biblical texts did not start or stop with Lindsay. These days, we hardly need ancient religious prophecy to feel as if the world is doomed. We’re already living in a society in which the bottom (or so we fear) is falling out. Hollywood seems to be cashing in on this fear and it is paying off. Two blockbusters this season, 2012 and The Road are drawing huge audiences. In both these movies global cataclysm thrusts the world into chaos and the audience sits on the edge of their seats to see if the human race will prevail against the odds. What are we to make of these movies we seem to love that entertain our fears and raise our anxieties?
Certainly, when you get down to the bottom of it, fear of “the end” is at the top of the list for most of us if we are truthful. Barbara Brotman wrote in a 2006 article in the Chicago Tribune that the fear of death is so widespread that it has become the subject of an academic discipline that has produced a great deal of literature about the subject over the last few years. The researches have identified four various types of fear: fear of pain, fear of the unknown, fear of non-existence and fear of eternal punishment.”
Roman Catholic Bishop Newman wrote in his journal at the end of his life: Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that I shall never have a beginning.
In the midst of our regrets for our half-lived lives and our fear of the future, Jesus wakes us to live in the present moment. In Matt. 24:35-36 Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall not pass away. “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” He also said, “Stand up!” “Raise your heads!” “Look!” “Be alert!” Don’t throw away your days with worry and wonder about the future or about the death that faces each and everyone, Jesus says to us. Have confidence that God’s love and justice will prevail….eventually…. and live in the present as a gift to be lovingly cherished. By living in the present we put ourselves into the flow of life where we experience the kingdom of God here and now where heaven weaves itself throughout our lives.
In Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life author Phillip Simmons writes about his life with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Simmons was stricken with the disease at 35. He lived 9 more years and wrote a book about his experience of “learning to live richly in the face of loss – work that [he calls] ‘learning to fall.’” Though “ALS was like having his life “emptied out one teaspoon at a time,” he also wrote that, “a fuller consciousness of my own mortality has been my best guide to being more alive.”
Let me read to you, at some length what Simmons wrote about his learning to fall. “More and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline. More boldly, I would say that our very presentness is our salvation; the present moment, entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life.
“Now, when I say this, you could accuse me of being a mystic. And I am, but of a very ordinary kind. I don’t doubt that some people throughout history and some living today, have heard voices and seen visions. But my mysticism does not involve access to other realms, only the deeper experience of this one. Mine is the mysticism of everyday life, of the heaped laundry and the bruised toe, of overcooked broccoli and leaves spangled with dew, of sunrise and sorrow, laughter and linguine, music and mold. This everyday mysticism requires no special powers, only imagination, a doting and practiced attention to the ordinary, a willingness to be surprised by grace.
Dwelling in the moment, on our breath, on the works of our hands immediately before us, we’re drawn into life’s luminousness, into the mystery at the heart of ordinary things. Dwelling in the present, at least at first, involves forgetting past and future, stopping the mind’s whirlwind of memory and expectation, giving ourselves a blessed hour’s calm as we meditate, bake bread, walk through the forest, or play games with a child. But with further practice we may find past and future returning to our awareness, only now without bringing anxiety or distraction along with them. Instead, we become aware of living in eternity, knowing that this moment has found its proper place in the stream of all time. When we feel this way, the present moment enlarges, draws past and future into it, until we are dwelling not just in the moment but within the whole of life.”
When we live consciously within the flow of life, what Simmons calls the stream of all time, we are aware of God’s presence most strongly and that awareness – whether intellectual or emotional – frees us from fear. Jesus knew this. He told his disciples “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?”
Simmons makes it clear in his book that living with faith not fear takes work. We all know how hard it is. I have sat at the computer, trying not to worry about how this will all turn out and trying to relish the opportunity a sermon gives me to explore my relationship with God and the words of scripture; to play with words and ideas and be open to wherever the spirit leads me. It has taken discipline and work.
Gratefully we are not alone in our work to live with faith not fear. Throughout the ages people have struggled with the challenge, found the joy and freedom of living in the moment and have written about it. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva at the beginning of the 17th century encourages us with these words:
Do not look with fear
on the changes of this life;
rather look to them with
full faith that, as they arise
God, whose you are, will
deliver you out of them.
Do not anticipate what will
The same everlasting God who
cares for you today
will take care of you
tomorrow and everyday.
Be at peace, the, and put aside
all anxious thoughts
At the close of his book Simmons writes: “We all have within us [a] capacity for wonder, this ability to break the bonds of ordinary awareness and sense that though our lives are fleeting and transitory, we are part of something larger, eternal, unchanging.” In this present moment, this now, God is here. Enjoy. Have faith. Amen.