November 29, 2015
In the new TV show, “The Grinder,” Rob Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, an actor who made a name for himself playing a lawyer who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Dean moves home to live with his brother, Stewart, who is an ACTUAL lawyer. The show is a humorous commentary on the struggles and tensions between Dean’s idealistic view of law and life based on his experience as an actor and Stewart’s more skeptical perspective grounded in his actual experience.
One of the characteristics about Dean that drives Stewart crazy is his tendency to ask “but what if” questions. So, for example, Stewart says that based on the evidence a case is impossible to win, and Dean says, “but what if it isn’t impossible?” Or Stewart says they have no legal ground to stand on and Dean says, “but what if we do?”
In the show, Dean seems to be living in this alternate reality based on his life as an actor that gives him an ability to see things differently. He’s not always right, but often it is these ridiculous “what if” questions that help the characters see their situation in new ways, and sometimes even leads to new insights and discoveries.
In our gospel text today, Jesus continues his teaching about what we often call “the end times.” On the weekend after Thanksgiving, as the “holiday cheer” picks up and it’s no longer possible to get away from songs about reindeer and presents, it seems strange to be reading a text about “distress among nations.” But what if it’s not? What if there’s something in these verses that gives us a new perspective that leads to new insights and discoveries?
In the narrative flow of Luke, these verses become ‘the beginning of the end’ of Jesus’ life and ministry. From here Jesus is arrested, put on trial and crucified. So it’s like Jesus gathers his disciples for one last pep talk to prepare them for what’s coming. “Things are going to get worse before they get better, guys,” he says—not to scare or discourage them, but to strengthen and encourage them to lean into the message he’s been trying to teach them all along…that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus tells them what to look for so that the chaos of what they see around them doesn’t discourage them.
We do this. When we are about to go into an experience or environment that is unstable or challenging, we run through the potential risks and remind ourselves of the truths and practices that can sustain us through whatever’s about to happen. On an airplane, before taking off we hear the safety message that tells us what to do in the event of loss of air pressure or in the event of a water landing. Before going into surgery we run through the potential risks and side effects, and we are given instructions about behaviors or practices that can enhance our recovery. Even before getting routine shots, a nurse will say, “you’re going to feel a slight prick.”
So we’re familiar with the value of being told what’s about to happen—even if it’s uncomfortable. I mean, wouldn’t you prefer the airplane pilot tell you to get back to your seats and fasten your seat belt for the turbulence ahead rather than suddenly experience it without warning?
When I took the youth to Detroit last summer we made a list of everything that could go wrong or be frustrating: we might have to wait in long lines, we might not love the live music or the speakers, and we might not get our first choice of a service project. Running through the possibilities and coming up with ways we would respond helped us position our attitude so that when those things happened—and many of them did—we weren’t totally surprised or thrown off by them.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, where the church year starts over and we once again begin telling the story of God’s activity in the world and in our lives. And we begin this narrative with a glance at the end–a profound cosmic experience of loss that we are told are signs that the Kingdom, the reign of Christ, is near.
Why do we start here? Why do we kick off the new year with ‘end of the world’ kind of language?
First of all, I think starting here reminds us that as people of faith, we see time differently. Rather than measuring time linearly—one thing happens, and then another—we experience time cyclically…patterns of events repeating themselves. So we look at what’s happening today through the lens of what has happened in the past and what we believe will happen in the future. As a result, we can hold current struggles and suffering with open hands, knowing that now is not forever and that death often leads to life. In this text we read about the fig tree, whose leaves fall off during one season but then grow back during another season. Because we see time differently, we anticipate and wait for the future differently. In the midst of wars we hope will end, disease we hope will be healed, anxiety we hope will be eased or any other suffering we hope will go away, Advent reminds us that Christ will come again, the world will be made new, and God’s promises will be fulfilled. In linear time, we usually have to look back on where we’ve been to see any good in hard times. In liturgical time, we’re constantly folding the future back over the present, reminding ourselves that we already know the end of the story. This allows us to live now with the benefit of hindsight.
Secondly, I think beginning at the end affects the way we experience the ‘in between.’ Lutheran theologian David Lose says that we live between the 2 great poles of God’s intervention in the world—God becoming flesh in Christ and God’s ultimate triumph over death. We experience life suspended between these truths—one, that in Christ God took on flesh and lived among humanity for the sake of salvation and redemption, and two, that God ultimately has power over death. And these two truths tell us what has happened and what will happen again—Jesus was born and will come again, God did raise Jesus from the dead and will one day release all of creation from the power of death. Reminding ourselves again and again that God has taken on flesh and lives among us and that God has already ultimately defeated death encourages us—in those times when God feels far off and death seems to have won—to “lift up our heads, because our redemption is near” (v. 28). David Lose says it like this:
“This in-between time, though fraught with tension, is nevertheless also characterized by hope as both the beginning and end of the story of the Church—and therefore our story—has been secured by Christ. We are therefore free to struggle, to wait, to work, to witness—indeed to live and die—with hope because we know the end of the story.”
The prophet Jeremiah, in our first reading today, reminds us that, even in the midst of exile, “the days are coming when God WILL fulfill the promise God made.” In this in-between time, we see wars and famine and chaos. But if we start with the end of the story, with the promise of redemption and the reminder that God will fulfill God’s promises, we can live in and through this in-between time with hope.
Finally, Advent—this season of anticipating what we believe has happened and will happen again—invites us into a life of faithful discipleship. In academics we know that it’s easier to get a good grade on a test if you’ve done the regular work of reading and studying along the way. In sports and fitness we know that it’s more likely that you’ll perform well or reach your fitness goals if you’ve done the regular work of practicing, exercising, and managing your nutrition and health along the way. In child development we know that a child will have good conflict resolution and self-regulation skills when they leave home if parents have regularly and consistently offered attention, affirmation, healthy boundaries and secure affection along the way. But so many times in our faith lives we get lazy about our lifestyle of discipleship—prayer, reading scripture, serving those around us, worship, and fellowship. Then, when we experience something we’re not prepared for, we quickly spin into discouragement and hopelessness. We look at the world around us and we hear news reports about terrorism, racial conflict and political chaos, and we get caught up in fear, judgement, anxiety and discouragement. Because we haven’t gotten used to seeing God’s activity in our daily lives when things are going well, we have a hard time seeing God’s activity when things are tough.
“Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down,” Jesus says. “Be alert at all times.” “When you see these things taking place, you know that the Kingdom of God is near.” Knowing that the day will come when we experience loss, or that the day will come when we will be hurt, or that the day will come when political tension divides us, we are invited deeper into a discipline of discipleship that strengthens our ability to love instead of hate, to step towards the stranger instead of alienating them, and to identify where God IS at work instead of thinking God has abandoned us. When we regularly reflect on God’s love for us and do the stuff of loving those around us, we won’t as easily get caught up in hate and prejudice. When we regularly reflect on the life and teachings of Jesus and do the stuff of welcoming the stranger, caring for the widows and orphans, and seeing the face of Christ in those who are different than us, we won’t as easily get caught up in the frenzy of fear and selfishness. When we regularly reflect on the testimony of the saints and do the regular stuff of prayer, worship, fellowship and spiritual centering, it’s not as hard to see God’s presence in our lives in the midst of struggles
The liturgical calendar is an invitation to cycle back to the beginning of our faith narrative, knowing that even though we will once again experience the darkness of Lent and Good Friday, we will also once again experience the joy and new life of Christmas and Easter. Advent is an invitation to live faithfully in the space between the in-breaking of God through Christ and the promise that death has been—and will again be—defeated. And Jesus’ pep talk to his disciples about the signs of things to come that may be tense and uncomfortable is an invitation to keep our eyes open for the very real work of God in our daily lives—faithfully accomplishing God’s promise of redemption.
During this season of Advent, the 4 Advent candles on the Advent wreath will remind us of the 4 prophetic names used to describe the coming Messiah in Isaiah 9: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. So this week we begin with ‘Wonderful Counselor.’ One of the roles of a counselor—either a therapist or a lawyer like The Grinder—is to ask questions to get at a deeper reality, to uncover the full story, to bring up the real truth. So this Advent, as we wait for a future we can’t quite see in the midst of events and experiences that feel pretty overwhelming and beyond our control, let’s listen deeply to the Wonderful Counselor. When the world says God has abandoned us and that the only truth is every man for himself, the Wonderful Counselor says, “what if it’s not?” When the world says that the path to safety is isolation from those who are different than us, the Wonderful Counselor says, “what if it’s not?” When the world says that a regular rhythm and practice of worship, fellowship, prayer, reflection and service is a waste of time, the Wonderful Counselor says, “what if it’s not?”
The good news we are anticipating and proclaiming this season—that God has taken on flesh and lives and dwells among us—seems pretty preposterous. But…what if it’s not?