Service of Lessons and Carols
November 29, 2009
St. Luke’s Burlington
By Peter Case
This past Thursday, when Americans were getting set to celebrate their Thanksgiving and their financial markets were closed, news broke that Dubai was defaulting on $59 billion of debt. Once again, markets were seized with fear. The stock prices of British banks fell precipitously as investors wondered what exposure they had to Dubai. Would this be another blow to the stability of an all too fragile banking system? Friday morning we woke to news that Asian markets had tumbled overnight and early morning business commentators were asking whether this was just another hiccup or whether this might derail the fledgling economic recovery that we have been hoping for. There have been many times over the last year when the credit crisis, bank failures, the bankruptcy filings of companies once thought to be too big to fail and stock market crashes have caused people to wonder if the economic order as we have known it is coming to an end. It seems that we are living in troubled and uncertain times.
We are not the first ones to wonder if the world was coming to an end. Indeed the early church expected that the world would soon come to an end at the time of Christ’s return. In Mark’s gospel – the earliest of the gospels – it is clear that the author expected an imminent return of Jesus. This may have contributed to the sense of speed and urgency in that short gospel. It was the apostle Paul’s sense of the impending final salvation and judgement associated with Christ’s return that, for him, made his ethical teachings all the more urgent and relevant.
Luke’s gospel was written nearly two decades after Mark’s and already, people were having to alter their expectations of the timing of Jesus’ promised return and the consummation of history. It is likely that the destruction of the temple had already occurred and so Luke separates that event from the promised end of history in a way that Mark does not. Luke is in fact vague about timing and refuses to hint at a timetable. Instead he focuses on the mission of the church during the ‘in-between time’. This becomes even more apparent in his second book – The book of Acts.
Throughout history, there have been people or groups who claimed that the end was near. Even recently, there has been interest in the notion that the world is going to end in 2012. There are several theories about how this might happen. Some speculate that the earth will collide with an asteroid or another planet. Others point to planetary alignment or solar magnetic shifts. Still others point to the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012 as prophecy and as you might expect, the possibility is being played up in the latest Hollywood disaster movie, 2012.
If thoughts of the end of the world are not new, neither is the sense of worry and anxiety that come with those thoughts, which explains in part why the theme is such great fodder for Hollywood script writers. In a passage from the 21st chapter of Luke’s gospel which was read at 8:15 and would have been the gospel at this service if it were not for our carol service, Jesus says the following: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21: 25-26)
In Advent, we are waiting. At one level, we are waiting for the celebration of Christmas. We are waiting to sing carols like Joy to the World. We are waiting to hear the joyous news of our Lord’s birth. We are waiting for Christmas decorations, the gathering of friends and family and all the special treats associated with our festivities.
In Advent, we are also reminded that we are waiting for our Lord’s return. Like the early church, however, we have come to realize that the timing of Christ’s return is uncertain. For us too, then, there is the question of what we do with this ‘in-between time’.
It is probably fair to say that after two millennia of waiting, most Christians of the modern age spend little time thinking about the end of the world and Christ’s return. That doesn’t mean, however, that we are unfamiliar with the concept of waiting or with the uncertainty or anxiety that comes with waiting for an event that seems to be delayed. We may be waiting for an event on a national or global scale such as an economic recovery, an end to a war or coordinated international action to reduce carbon emissions. We may be waiting for an event at a personal level such as the result of a biopsy, a letter from an estranged family member or the safe return of a loved one. Whatever the case, we know the challenge of waiting. We know the stress of waiting. We know the anxiety of waiting.
It is this context that Luke’s gospel offers us some perspective. In verse 28 of chapter 21 Luke records Jesus as saying, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus distinguishes between the outcome for the masses and for those who have faith. We are reminded that we are living ‘in between’ the two great events of God’s intervention in history – Christ’s birth and human ministry and his triumphal return. We know how this story will end. We are free, therefore, to struggle, to wait, to work, to minister and witness. We are free to live and even to die with hope, because our victory has been secured by Christ.
It is certain that we cannot go through this life without ever encountering some form of crisis or anxiety. The key, however, is how we deal with it. Do we fret, wring our hands and “faint with fear”, or do we “stand up and raise [our] heads” looking to God’s promise. Indeed it is often at the points of worst crisis in our lives that we see God’s power most clearly. When because of the gravity of the situation we are forced to look for solutions more profound than self reliance, simple fixes or superficial remedies that we see God at work most clearly. We see what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do and so these hard and anxious moments become a time of great hope.
David Lose of Luther Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota writes the following:
From Moses to Martin Luther King Jr., history is full of examples of those who, because they had been to the mountaintop, had peered into the promised land, and had heard and believed the promise of a better future, found the challenges of the present not only endurable, but hopeful. We too, amid the very real setbacks, disappointments, or worries of this life, can ‘stand up and raise [our] heads’ because we have heard Jesus’ promise that our ‘redemption draws near’.
May this advent be a time when we read and hear with joy the prophecies of our Lord’s birth and draw comfort and strength from the knowledge that whatever worry or uncertainty we face in the present age, our salvation is secured through the victory of the one who was born, died and rose again for us.