Welcome to Advent, season of hope and anticipation. Season of awaiting the promise of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the promise of His Second Coming at the end of time. Today's Gospel from Luke lifts up that theme of the second coming to help us focus on our lives today with that new insight about our promised future with Christ, when he comes again.
Hear again these verses from Luke 21: "Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. You know that the Kingdom of God is near. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with the worries of this life." (Vs. 28, 31, 34)
"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with the worries of this life."
My sixth grade teacher impressed upon me the importance of looking up when I walked. "Don't watch your feet," she'd say to us "or they're going to start depending on your eyes to do the walking." Her encouragement to stop watching our feet and start looking at the world around us made a real impression on me. I grew up in North Dakota, and though I'm sure to some folks that would mean I had nothing to look at if I did look up, but that's not at all how it seemed to me. When I looked up, walking home from school, I could see home and the walk went faster and my heart was lighter. When the wind blew and it was cold, I learned to hold my head up and face the challenge, a good lesson for later life. When I looked up, my feet managed just fine to carry me toward my goal, they seemed to follow my eyes. I think what my teacher taught us was to keep sight of the bigger picture, what I learned to call Mission later on, to keep focusing on purpose, and the future, and everything else will come along.
The Advent season cautions us in a similar way, I believe, not to become absorbed in the daily worries of life. Not to let the daily worries weigh our heads, our eyes and focus, down to watching our feet. But rather, Advent calls us to keep our eyes focused on the Big picture -- on the big promise of Christ to come again. To look to and through the Cross of Christ to his second coming. Advent calls us to be on guard that our hearts not be weighed down with the worries of this life lest we become so absorbed with watching our feet that we lose sight of where they are taking us -- to the Kingdom of God.
Luke talks about the coming Kingdom when he says, "Now when these things begin to take place stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near -- the Kingdom of God is drawing near."
I heard a story about a South Dakota rancher which reminded me that many of us know how near the Kingdom really is, we just don't talk about it in that way. The story goes that following the disastrous winter of 1997 with its many blizzards and ice storms, and its record losses of cattle, an older rancher welcomed several helping professionals to his ranch. They had come to visit with him on behalf of his church, and to assess the extent of his losses from these disasters. He led them out to a hill in the pasture near his ranch, and told them they were standing on the grave of his herd of cattle. All but a small number had been frozen to death in an early April storm. The visitors were stunned by the enormity of his loss, and by his matter-of-fact manner in relating it to them. They questioned and probed a bit for some sense of his feelings about all of this, until he responded... as many South Dakotans did in the face of such disasters: "Well, it could have been worse." The visitors were more sure than ever that this man must be deep in denial to have such an attitude about losing his life's work in one weekend storm. They questioned and probed a bit more. How could it have possibly been worse? Having been pushed to explain himself, and probably having sized up the visitors as city folks, he finally responded by pointing down to the hill or grave they were standing on and said, "I could have been down there."
The story speaks volumes to me about rural people and their daily understanding of the nearness of the Kingdom of God. In my experience, they know exactly how close they are, how close we all are to our redemption, as Luke terms it. They live close to nature, close to the cycle of life, close to the seasons, close to God and it seems to have given many a keen perception about how near the Kingdom always is. A heartbeat away.
Advent calls us to be aware of that fragility of our lives, and of our world, as well a it calls us to be waiting with joy for the end of this life, for the coming of Christ to carry us home with him. It's a dynamic tension to hold in Christian life; a love and spirit of enthusiasm for all that God has given us to do and to be in this life as well as a hope and joyful anticipation of Christ coming again at the end of time, which could be any time. The Kingdom of God is drawing near. Luke reminds us to watch for it; to hope for it; to recognize the foretastes of it that we see.
Having reminded us to be watchful, and hopeful, and having reminded us to keep our hearts from being weighed down by the troubles of the world, Luke also exhorts us about how to respond to all these things when he says, "Now when these things begin to take place stand up and raise your heads...." Sounds so celebratory and easy, doesn't it? There are times in life when standing up and raising our heads, as Luke asks, is terribly difficult to do.
Another South Dakota story: Earlier this year the community of Spencer was devastated by a tornado. Among the many losses, including six victims, was an ELCA church building which was home to St. Matthew's Lutheran Church. The day after the tornado I walked through the remaining rubble of that community with the pastor of St. Matthew's and the congregational 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 just gone from their foundations.
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 bearing 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 congregation's place of worship. The white paint on the statue was nearly gone, and someone later said that is 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'm 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's 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. "Stand up, raise your heads! Your redemption, the Kingdom of God is very near." Amen