Stand Up, Raise Your Heads!
Sermon date 11/29/2015
The halls are decked, the stores are hawking their wares, radios are playing holiday music. In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas. Christmas – the season that begins, in our society, right after the Halloween decorations are put away. No longer do we wait until Thanksgiving has passed. The holiday season seems to get longer and longer each year – holding out promises – the promise of store profits that will exceed those of previous years and put the store in the black, the promise of wishes granted, of desires fulfilled, the promise that modern ills will be displaced by precious memories and traditions.
And here we are – not celebrating Christmas, not getting into the spirit of things by hearing tantalizing stories that promise the Christ child. No. We begin Advent with Jesus himself speaking of difficult days. “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. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now, when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
There is no nostalgia here. There is no looking back.
We might think, as well, that Jesus is speaking of some far off, distant eventuality. It is one of those passages that gives rise to talk about the second coming.
But, what if we begin to hear these words and think about the world in which we live now. How many times have you heard – or even said – “I don’t know what the world’s coming to!” or “The world is such a mess!” There is distress. People live in and with great, crippling fear. We see the signs all around us. Homes are fortresses. People are armed against neighbors and strangers. Nations draw careful boundaries and threaten each other with missiles. Wars and conflicts break out in new places. Families struggle with the more private wars – death, illness, disease, addictions – all the realities of human life that have the power to cripple us with fear, to weigh us down.
“Now, when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near,” Jesus said.
The season of Advent invites us to consider what it means that God has drawn and is drawing near to the world in which we live. Reclaiming Christmas means something more powerful than a trip down memory lane, or a perfect present under the tree. Reclaiming Christmas means something more than putting the baby in a manger back in the center of our observations and celebrations. Advent invites us to remember God’s presence as an ongoing, present, dependable, grace-filled reality.
It seems to me that so much of the holiday frenzy all around us is designed as an escape from the real world, from its pain and suffering. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that those who have lost loved ones find it particularly difficult to participate. The trappings of our cultural observances ask them to deny their pain, their loss, their sufferings.
“Stand up, raise your heads, your redemptions is drawing near!”
How do we stand? How do we raise our heads? The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint” has a wonderful story from her work as a student chaplain in a hospital.
“I had forgotten I was wearing a pager until it starting buzzing…It was the ER. ‘I was paged?’ I said to the security guard at the ER desk….She pointed to a door that said NO ADMITTANCE and then looked at me like was an idiot. Apparently my name badge allowed me to go through doors like that.
I finally found a nurse who would make eye contact with me. I said I was paged, but that I wasn’t sure what for. ‘Trauma one,’ she said.
Inside the trauma room, a nurse was cutting the clothes off a motionless man in his fifties on a table; tubes were coming out of his mouth and arms. Doctors started doing things to him not meant for my eyes and sorely misrepresented on TV shows. Another nurse was hooking things up to him while a doctor put on gloves and motioned for paddles, which he then placed into the motionless man’s freshly cracked-open chest.
A nurse stepped back to where I was standing, and I leaned over to her. ‘Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?’
She looked at my badge and said, ‘Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.’
For the rest of those two-and-a-half months I often found myself in the ER trauma room watching life going in and out of the patients on the table-the doctors and nurses violently attempting to resuscitate them. And in that messy chaos, my job was to just stand there and be aware of God’s presence in the room. Kind of a weird job description, but there it was, and in those moments, I felt strangely qualified. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone who just had shoulder surgery, but I couldn’t help but feel God’s presence in the trauma room.”
She went on to talk about sensing God in other places – in the midst of other messy human experiences. “In this little white pit of pain,” she wrote, “I was the chaplain.” She was charged with sensing God’s presence. God was not absent. God was there.
There is no easy optimism in her words – just as there is no easy optimism in our world. But Jesus’ words are a reminder that God creates and recreates from the chaos. God is in the midst of the messiness in our world – not absent.
Bolz-Weber ends her chapter saying: “There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus—Emmanuel – which means “God with us.” We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.
“O come, o come, Emmanuel” is one of the songs of the season. It is truly an Advent song. There is no mention of a baby in a manger. The Emmanuel of which we sing is not of the baby born so long ago, but of God-with-us, the promised presence which is constant and sure. But we tend to sing “O come, o come, Emmanuel” forgetting that God is already, always in our midst, in the world: redeeming, transforming, and healing – creating and re-creating in the midst of the world we live in. We do not need to call for God’s presence. We need to be aware – aware like the chaplain in the emergency room. We need to stand up, raise our heads and know that God is with us – God is always with us! God will always be with us. Rejoice. Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to us. Our redemption has drawn near!