Holding your Heads High
A sermon by + Andrew Woff, 30th November 2003
Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

I wonder how many of you would wonder about my well being if I commenced this sermon by wishing you all a happy and deeply enriching New Year. But what the heck. Happy New Year South Yarra! May your life together be enriched as never before as you walk together with Jesus into this New Year.

It is of course always possible that I’ve lost the plot. It’s also possible that for once in my life I’m actually a month ahead of myself. But I suspect that the truth is much more straightforward. This first Sunday in Advent is in fact the beginning of a new liturgical year. Last Sunday, when the church celebrated the “Reign of Christ”, it was concluding its annual cycle of worship with the affirmation that the same Jesus who was born at Christmas, who lived among us, who walked the path to the cross, who was crucified, raised and who ascended, who sent the Holy Spirit, who lives within the church is also the one who will ultimately reign when the Kingdom of God is established.

And so today we go back to the beginning of the cycle, and we find ourselves with the many faithful people down through the ages, waiting for the coming of God’s salvation. It’s not quite like the new year our society celebrates on December 31. That New Year is mostly celebrated as a time of up-beat optimistic celebration: parties, holidays, fun, expressing the hope that somehow things will be good for us and for those we love this year.

Actually, the liturgical new year begins with a similar tide of hope. Advent is all about the promise of God that a time of salvation is at hand. A great gift is about to be given. And it will transform life and it will herald the coming of the Kingdom of God. If advent is about anything it is about hope. However, unlike most of our social new year celebrations, Advent has its roots firmly planted in the soil of the struggle of life. Its hope is no blind optimism. It knows the deep darkness, it knows the endless waiting, it knows the pointless suffering, it knows the horror of terror and anguish and it cries out “Come, Lord Jesus!” Come to our world and put right everything that is wrong. And Advent hears an echo from the heart of God that says, “Yes. I hear your cry. The time is at hand. The baby is at the door. I will come to save creation!”

One of my favourite pieces of writing is a little essay I discovered many years ago written by Jurgen Moltmann. It’s called “Why am I a Christian?” and I found that unlike a great deal of theology, I could actually understand it! Moltmann talks about his own unique journey of discovering faith as a German soldier in a British prisoner of war camp at the end of World War 2. He talks about utter desolation… and finding hope there. He talks about hope being the defining characteristic of Christian faith. But it’s not the sort of hope that lulls us into an easy relaxed comfort. It’s the sort of hope that leaves us with a profound restlessness as we anguish over the suffering of life and as we yearn for the coming of salvation and as we offer our lives in order to embrace and become part of God’s future.

As you have pondered our readings together this evening, you might have recognised some of these great advent themes. Jeremiah speaks of the coming days when God will fulfil the gracious promise, and what is just and right will be done and so God’s people will be saved and live in safety. The Psalm expresses a deep confidence in God. It is God and God alone who is the focus of the Psalmist’s trust and hope. Knowing of the faithful and loving ways of the LORD, the Psalmist’s prayer is to know the ways of God. My hope is in you. In writing to the church at Thessalonica, Paul’s desire to come to visit them merges into a much deeper desire that the Thessalonians be prepared for God’s coming to them. He prays for love that increases and overflows and for strengthened hearts that they may be blameless and holy in the presence of God. This is a time to be prepared.

But it’s a few phrases in the Luke reading that really capture my attention. As part of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ great teaching about the end times, he says this:

“On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken…”

Anguish, perplexity, terror… roaring and tossing sea… heavenly bodies shaken. Reads to me like it’s coming off the pages of a Hollywood script for a macabre horror movie – the sort I make it my absolute business to avoid at all costs. How do you respond when you are seriously terrified?

I’m not sure if you’ve seen the latest and most gruesome of the reality TV/candid camera type programs. It’s call “Scare Tactics”. It involves placing unsuspecting people in a contrived situation of terror and using hidden TV cameras to observe how they respond when gripped with fear. Scarcely able to believe the promos, I watched the first 5 minutes the other night - and yes, it is as bad as I thought. In the one incident I viewed, a car load of young adults was driven into an apparent attack by aliens. Two women in the back writhed in incoherent terror, while the brave male ran away and left them to it. Only one thought occupies me when sheer terror takes hold. What do I need to do to protect myself and be safe? It’s a time to hide, a time to make myself small, a time to run away – physically if I can, or psychologically withdraw if I can’t.

What is Jesus’ suggestion?
“When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

This, says Jesus, is not a time for playing safe. It’s a time for standing tall, for sticking your neck out. This is a time to seize the day. Because this time of horror and darkness is not one that comes to destroy you. Understand the signs and the seasons. For God does not come as the abuser, the oppressor, the invader. This is a time that will bring your liberation. I’d like then to bring together some of these advent themes into 3 affirmations.

Firstly, Advent is a time of deep paradox.

When I was pastor at Newport Baptist, some incredibly gifted, creative people turned advent into a season for the senses. It became a time of art and music and drama and story. One year, we entered church on the first Sunday in Advent to see a large canvas at the front of the church. It was painted darkly… mostly black and deep greys, a picture of shadows that could not be distinguished. On the second Sunday, some indistinct streaks of light promised a coming dawn. Through the third and fourth the indistinct shapes began to resolve themselves. On Christmas morning it had become a beautiful landscape and we worshipped the God who brings radiant light into dark places.

Advent is about the glory of hope. It is about the dawning of light after a long, dark, restless night. It is about the promised coming of salvation. It is a season of pregnant waiting for the coming of new life. It is about the dawning of peace and justice and reconciliation for all creation. But Advent knows we are not there yet. Advent is not a flight into fantasy. The time of advent is still deeply conscious of the suffering of the world. Advent knows about the anguish of endless waiting. Advent knows about the times when the light of hope is almost extinguished. Advent does not ask us to rationalise those times in life when it all seems pointless and God seems silent.

At Advent, we find ourselves in solidarity with the Hebrew people, especially those languishing in exile, or those who have returned to a promised land only to find that the glorious age of prosperity is not easily recovered; instead they live under the oppressive rule of others nations. At Advent, we find ourselves in solidarity with all those generations of the church that have looked to Jesus’ imminent return to bring an end to suffering, but have died still waiting. At Advent, we ask God serious questions about why it all has to take so long, why suffering must ravage the human spirit and find so little definitive answer.

And we cry out the great universal Advent Prayer – “Come, Lord Jesus”. Please come and put right all that is wrong in my life and all that is wrong with the world.

Secondly, Advent is a season that speaks to the reality of our world.
From international politics to the intimate struggles of our own lives, we know deeply this paradox between joyful expectation and abject despair. We live in world of incredible medical miracles that relieve suffering for millions while we cannot muster the political will to provide relief to millions of AIDS sufferers in Africa. We live in a world where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are catalysts in a miracle of liberation, but Israel and Palestine cannot get past a sense of distrust that has spanned millennia and has murdered millions of their daughters and sons. We dream of liberty, yet we resort to terrorism.

It’s mirrored in our own lives. We know seasons of growth, when all sorts of new possibilities open for us, when any great and noble dream seems within our grasp. We also seasons in our lives where we feel appallingly stuck, limited, powerless and there is nothing we can do to live within the freedom we crave.

Personally, I do not understand why God seems so relaxed about allowing the relentless tide of suffering and misery within creation to go on. It is not primarily a theological question. It is an intensely personal question. I know that people grow through suffering. I also know people whose lives are deeply distorted by suffering and its legacy of fear… and I find it all utterly unacceptable. Advent picks up the cry of our world. God you are our only hope. But why does it all take so long. God have mercy. Come, Lord Jesus.

Thirdly, Advent calls us to be awake.
It is very tempting for us to want to run away from the anguish of this season. Our society does it very well. We have turned it into a season of tinsel and coloured lights and gluttony and consumerism. But Jesus warns us not to let an escape into excess or conversely into a paralytic worry to distract us from the main event.

For the affirmation of God comes down through the ages. Your redemption is at hand. Keep watching for the shafts of light across the eastern sky. Even amidst the anguish of world’s Gethsemane, watch and pray. For God is more present in the God-forsaken anguish of the world than we can comprehend. Place your hope in God. Seek God’s ways and follow them. This is a season for honest wrestling with God. A season for bringing to God the great intercessions for the peace and justice and salvation of the world. As season to stand up and lift up your heads.

I’d like to finish with the words of my favourite Christmas carol. It seems to me that it picks up and expresses the kind of Advent themes we have been pondering this evening.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King”;
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lonely plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long,
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! The days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And all the world send back the song
Which now the angels sing

Come Lord Jesus. Amen