Sermon – December 2, 2018 – First Sunday of Advent


Lift Up Your Heads

My dad has been a lot on my mind these past days after that article you may have seen in the paper, where I was interviewed for the “Those Who Served” feature. In that conversation, I mentioned that one of the reasons I served was out of respect for my dad, a WW2 veteran, and I was reminded of a reflection we shared some years ago that I would like to revisit as we take up these challenging words from the gospel this morning.

For a variety of reasons, my dad and I didn’t do much together when I was a kid.  But one thing we did do was go fishing.  He would gather up me and whatever other kids were interested and seek out a fishing hole that he thought might be worthy of his time.  We would drive to our destination,  throw our poles in the water and start to fish.  I was then even more so than now an exposed nerve with legs.  So I would throw out my bobber, let it sit for about one minute, reel it in, throw it back, reel it in, change the worm, throw it out again.  Finally, I would just have to move, so I would run along the bank, or skip rocks or climb a tree.   But dad would just sit there quietly and fish.  He could sit there for hours in his fishing chair, occasionally reaching down to turn the crank reel one turn, just checking.  Then he would sit back, arms crossed with his perpetual pipe in his mouth. Usually the fish didn’t bite.  And I just couldn’t believe he could just sit there.  So, I asked him one day, “how can you do this?  What’s in this for you?”   And he answered me, as was his wont, with one simple syllable.  “Hope,” he said.  Hope?!   I had no idea what that meant back then, so I went back to skipping rocks.  But I think now I may have an inkling of what he was talking about.   And it may have had very little to do with fish.   My dad’s way of hoping was expectant waiting.

Jesus is speaking today to those who wait, those of us who are waiting in our time for a sign, pondering anxiously what it may mean that Jesus might keep his promise to return. And as we wait, we hear the stark and frightful images that Luke shares with us this today.   Images of nature in turmoil and the impossible reeling around us. We have to read through these words carefully.   Jesus says people will be afraid and fearful in difficult times, but you, lift your heads for your redemption is near.  Look up. Come out of that posture of fear and uncertainty and see all that God has done and is doing.  Lift your heads.   There is the hope that is expressed in these words, and it is a firm and compelling hope for the followers of Jesus.

Now, Jesus asks us to live lives directed toward him.  Jesus asks us to prepare.  Jesus asks us to discipline ourselves.  Jesus asks us to live our lives in the awareness that our call in the consummation of all things is to look up and receive the fulfillment of his promise.  In the midst of all that he is reassuring and suggesting, “do not be afraid.”   To live in that reassurance, to know that reassurance requires us to believe, to direct ourselves toward the God we worship, to live a life of recognition that we stand each moment under the promise and call of God.

My nephew attended Kenyon College in Ohio and I was directed to their commencement speaker’s words to the graduating class of 2005.  I would like to share a little of that with you.

This speaker was American writer David Foster Wallace. He is talking to the students how it is one lives a meaningful life in the world.  He says this:
“in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship  . . . . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things”, he goes on,  “if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. . . . . . Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

I think Foster is on to something here, that this numbness, this self-centeredness, this fear-based, isolated view of the world is evidence of the captivity that gods of money and self have on people.  That’s why Jesus says be alert, be aware, be faithful so that these other gods that want to claim our centers and our loyalty cannot entrap us and deceive us, sapping our hope and meaning, blurring our vision, compromising our call and turning us toward fear and despair.  Inside of all of these clouds and this travail of nature we hear today is God’s word to us,” do not fear.  Lift up your heads,” you who are disciplined and faithful need not lead fearful, isolated, petty lives.  You will not be held captive to these things that raise their voice in the midst of danger and darkness.  That’s where those other gods will abandon you, and prove their fleeting and shallow nature.  That’s where these others gods will take you.   God wants to attend to us in the midst of these storms knowing that we are going to be afraid and compromised and shaken.  But his presence is the promise of these words, and that is the struggle of the cross.  Jesus went to these worst of things, and took them upon himself, so that as they come upon us we can have the divine reassurance that in the midst of them in our time we might know that God knows, that we may lift up our heads because God’s eternal promise of redemption is near now, and in the days to come.  We need not fear, brothers and sisters, our waiting is waiting in hope, our anticipation is for the fulfillment of God’s promise.  Let the mountains shake, for when the cry of God comes to us through them, we may lift up our heads in hope.

From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, my dad had too much war and it stretched the fabric of his spirit and robbed him of his resiliency, but not his hope.    Though he never told me those stories, I imagine that he lived for a time when the moon was turning to blood and the earth shook and he was filled with terror.  But I know now that in hope and faith in the healing power of God, he went to his last moments looking up, assured that his redemption was near. That was the hope my father sought and found.   There’s the good news this morning, folks. Trouble and trial will come; fear may surround you.  Don’t be afraid.  Look up. The one who has made these promises is near, and there is no other like him.  Lift up your heads.  The one who has given him for us is close.  Lift up your heads.   Your redemption is at hand.

Thanks be to God.