While it began in stores months ago, we are now well into the general countdown to Christmas–to joy and peace. We are in a time of weeknight parties and lavish home decorations. A time of eggnog, and evergreens. A time to revel in over-purchasing and overeating. And most importantly, a time we are to BE HAPPY as we await the birth of a sweet little baby. Judging by today’s readings, God seems to have a different, a less mandatorily sweet, self-indulgent, approach to the run up to Christmas. Because as is always the case with God, there is no easy, pretty, or short way to get to the manger. No star bathing us in warmth and light on the journey. In fact, just the opposite. In this season of Advent things literally get darker before the light shines. Advent is a period of prolonged waiting in the dark. And those of us who observe it are doing something like not rushing into the party and grabbing a glass of champagne, but instead walking through a graveyard at night. There is a lot of darkness and waiting on the way, and a lot of telling the truth about scary things that often, usually, happen before any birth, but especially the birth of true peace and joy. As always we have a choice–we can skip the dark broodiness of Advent and head straight to Christmas cheer. And that will keep us happy and content for a while. But it won’t last because somewhere deep down we know that in order for a new world to begin an old world has to end. We know that you can’t get well until you acknowledge you are sick. Can’t put your life together again until you stop pretending it is all in one piece. Can’t find your new beginning until you say clearly that you are at the end of your rope.
This all feels very true for us as individuals, but as our readings indicated this morning, may also be true for the world. Jesus, nearly at the end of his own human life, tells the religious folks who are standing around admiring the stones of the Temple and fretting over its future, “you don’t get it, do you? Things are going to get bad, really bad. All of this is going to be gone. And it’s not going to go out quietly but with a bang with churning seas and chaos among people, nations, and in nature. “ But, he says, but–don’t be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not give into fear because it is more destructive than any of these things. Yes, it looks like the world is ending but hold your head high because your redemption is drawing near.
A cursory glance through history, starting with God’s promise to Abraham and up through the present, indicates that people regularly think things are so bad that the world is going to end at any moment. Many of the prophets thought so, Jesus certainly seemed to think so as did St. Paul. And for the audience to whom Luke was writing in about 80CE, it seemed a likely proposition. Peter and Paul had been executed. Nero had done his thing turning Christians into human torches for his elaborate garden parties. Jerusalem had become a battlefield and was destroyed by Titus in 70 CE. The Temple was gone. About a million people were dead and about 100,000 taken captive. Masada fell 3 years later and Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. Jesus words about people fainting with fear and foreboding anticipating an end to the world was their reality. And we have ours. The world seems extraordinarily unstable and in a downward spiral. Global climate change is wreaking havoc on the planet. We have elected officials who feed on fear and chaos, seeking to keep us divided and telling us to be afraid of any who are not white and the right kind of Christian. We are aiding and abetting the Saudis in a war in Yemen which has precipitated a massive humanitarian crisis–with haunting images of starving babies on our computer and tv screens. And we, the United States, have a policy towards immigrants and refugees that is dehumanizing, degrading, and disgusting. Children separated from their parents and housed in massive jail-camps within our borders, and our border patrol firing tear gas across the border at women and children in Mexico. Our citizens are dying in body and soul from an opioid epidemic, poverty is on the rise, and deaths from gun violence continue at about 100,000 people per year. A reporter in Philly was recently trying to make conversation with a 9 year old boy and asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. His response? “If I grow up I want to be a firefighter”. His 2 older brothers had already been shot to death so he was responding from his reality.
And when things seem to be going to hell in a handbasket we people of faith often start asking where the heck God is in all this and demanding God’s help. We are feeling faint from fear and foreboding and we want to know exactly when and how God is going to fix it so we can feel safe again. The response, at least from Jesus, is a less than satisfactory, “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption draws near.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I sense impending disaster, the last thing I am going to do is stand still and look up. I am likely to run for the exit or hide under something. Standing still and looking up is simply not on the menu of options. Yet it is precisely here, in these moments of great darkness, fear, and unknowing, that we have to make a choice about who or what, at bedrock, we trust and believe in. We can stick with our own interpretation of things, or we can go with God’s interpretation as explained by Jesus. That might mean admitting that we are not in control and that if we were, this is not how we would run things. Admitting we are not in charge and never have been. And that the power we do have is to decide what we believe and how we will act in the face of things we do not understand.
We can hide from all of the pain and chaos–we can call it fate, chance, God’s absence. Or we can call it God’s presence, as paradoxical as that might sound. We can think of the pain and chaos as labor pains instead of death throes. And we can jump in to midwife the birth, help out in the delivery room–acting as God’s birth assistants. Yes the blood and the screaming is scary, but if we run away, then we deserve what we get. Because, as I used to tell many of my patients when I was a midwife, once labor starts there is no way out except through it. Leaving the room does not make it go away. All you can do, all you can do, is trust God while the world tucks and turns its way through the darkness towards the light, and pray that what is born survives.
Those of us who fight this, those of us who want to have maps and plans and assurances are trying to get out of the birthing room. We want to know what the very last warning signal is and then we will show up for the birth–maybe–or maybe we will wait until the messy baby has been bathed and cleaned up a bit and smells a little less like blood and amniotic fluid and more like baby powder.
But Jesus will not go along with us–STAND UP he says. Raise your heads up and look. Watch the birth pains and the birth because if you are not there, if you are not in the room, nothing can be born in you. You have to be there for the birth. And, Jesus says, anyone who promises you that you can avoid labor pain is a false Messiah peddling false comfort. Christ, the Holy One of God, does not offer us avoidance but instead offers us his presence and participation. He tells us where to get the towels, and that we need hot water and something with which to cut the cord, and he urges us to fetch the supplies and roll our sleeves up. The rules do not change during labor, in frightening times, they just get clearer. Love God, love your neighbor. Be the hands, the heart, the midwife for Christ in a world suffering from wicked strong contractions. Because it may be that this time the prophets’ timing is right and God’s timeline for the world ends soon and it may be it does not. Either way our call does not change. Either way our call is to assist God in the deliverance of the world however we can. Our call is to trust God, to breathe, to gather together, bring the towels, the hot water, and something sharp to cut the cord, then to catch new life in love.