By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
Wait a minute! Christmas is coming. What about Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, All is bright?” Instead we hear “…nations will be in anguish…the roaring and tossing of the sea…People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world…the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” Ho, ho, ho! Where is Santa when we need him? So why in the world would the church choose a Gospel lesson such as this to begin Advent and our preparation for the coming of the Christ child?
Good reason. The sad truth that all of us who are old enough knows is we do not live in a “Santa Claus” world. Turn on the news or pick up the paper. This week we were treated to the headline saying, “Violence forces Bethlehem to cancel Christmas plans.”(1) The AP dispatch reads,
Bethlehem’s city fathers have called off ambitious plans for Christmas 2000, saying a time of Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no time for merrymaking. The town of Jesus’ birth will be dark and deserted this Christmas – without festive street lights, craft fairs and choirs in Manger Square. In the past two months seven Palestinians from the Bethlehem area have been killed in rock-throwing clashes and gun battles with Israeli soldiers…
Indeed, “peace on earth and mercy mild…” Ho, ho, ho. What a world! Children’s visions of sugar plums are washed away with the hot tears of grown-up disappointment and despair. Disease and death are constant companions. The fear and foreboding of which Jesus spoke greet us at every turn. Somehow we need to be reminded that this misery is not the end of the story.
For me that reminder is right in the middle of this text. Jesus has said that terrible things are in store – we can understand his imagery to be apocalyptic, end-of-the-world poetry or we can understand it to mean the awful stuff that each of us confronts in the course of our lives (and that is the way I choose to interpret it this morning – I do not worry about the end of the world; I worry about the here-and-now). Then, in a few words that jump out at me as if they were printed in flashing neon: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” YES! The disappointment, the despair, the disease, even the death do not have the final word.
Some years ago, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks did a wonderfully popular series of comedy sketches called the “2000-Year-Old Man” which prompted several hilarious albums. The premise has Reiner interviewing the age-2000 Brooks and inquiring concerning life way back when. At one point, Reiner asks the old man, “Did you always believe in God?”
Brooks replies, “No. We had a guy in our village named Phil, and for a time we worshiped him.”
Reiner wonders, “You worshiped a guy named Phil? Why?”
“Because he was big, and mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!”
The interviewer asks, “Did you have prayers?”
Brooks answers, “Yes, would you like to hear one? O Phil, please don’t be mean, and hurt us, or break us in two with your bare hands.”
Reiner: “So when did you start worshiping God?”
And then this wonderful answer: “Well, one day a big thunderstorm came up, and a lightning bolt hit Phil. We gathered around and saw that he was dead. Then we said to one another, “There’s somthin’ bigger than Phil!”(2)
Amen and amen! We live in anxious times, as did the people who lived when Christ walked this earth. The good news in our Gospel today is that, despite the fact that these ARE anxious times, so anxious sometimes that it looks like the end of the world, Jesus says we can stand and lift our heads UP!…there is somethin’ bigger than Phil, and war and disease and disaster… our redemption is near.
Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl is a Bishop in the Lutheran Church. A couple of years ago, in a sermon broadcast on the Protestant Hour,(3) she recounted an event from Spencer, South Dakota, a community that had recently been devastated by a tornado. Among the many losses, including six victims, was St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. The day after the tornado she walked through the remaining rubble of that community with the pastor of St. Matthew’s and the congregation’s president and several others. It was an unbelievable sight – a grain elevator twisted and fallen, a water tower toppled, vehicles and other heavy items strewn around like toys, whole buildings gone from their foundations. She said,
One of our purposes was to walk to the church site. Even those who knew the lay of the town well had to get their bearings when all the trees and buildings and landmarks are gone. We made our way, stopping often to greet and comfort parishioners of St. Matthew’s who were so heartened to see their pastor, hear his voice, receive his gentle care.
When we were near the site of the church, looking for signs of where it had been, maybe a half block away someone called out “THERE’S THE STATUE, THERE’S JESUS!” Sure enough, there it was – the traditional white statue of Jesus that stands at the altar of many small churches with arms outstretched and loving demeanor. There it, or He was, a beacon to what had been the site of a 100-year-old congregation’s place of worship. The white paint on the statue was nearly gone, and someone later said that his arms were broken, but I didn’t notice, it was just so remarkable, so moving and so fitting to look up from the chaos around us and see Jesus, arms outstretched, welcoming, and loving his people. We initially thought he had somehow stood through it all, the wind, the hail, the rain, the total destruction of the building all around him, somehow he had stayed upright. We learned, however, another story. Two young girls, helping clean up for a family member in a nearby home, had taken time to come over to where the church had been and set aside a few items of church property they found scattered in the area. They saw the statue lying in the rubble, and figured everyone in Spencer needed to see that Jesus was still there, so they stood him up for all to see.
I am reminded of Advent’s call to look up, to see that Christ is still here, to raise our heads with hope and anticipation, knowing that he is coming again. Luke reminds us to live our lives trusting that he keeps his promises, that Jesus is with us in the chaos of our daily lives, in the ordinariness and in the tragedy that daily life affords.
Advent calls out to us with hope. As we come to the Lord’s Table, remember HEADS UP!!! “Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And that is good news indeed.
1. Warren Times Observer, 11/30/2000, C-1
2. Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks: 2000 And Thirteen, Produced by Joe Smith, Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks, Recorded August 25, 1973 at the Burbank Studios, Burbank, CA, Issued as Warner Bros. #2741, 1973
3. November 29, 1998
Copyright 2000 David E. Leininger. Used by permission.