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Monday, November 30, 2015

Football, Figs, and Faith

Everywhere I look lately, I see Peanuts. Peanuts characters, that is, the ones created by the late Charles Schultz. There are Peanuts on TV, in the movies, even on Facebook.
With all this focus on the Peanuts, I have a favorite Peanuts scene I’ve been thinking about. It’s the one where the hapless Charlie Brown is playing football with his friends. It’s his turn to kick the ball. He gets himself all ready, and winds up to give that pigskin his all, while his friend Lucy holds the ball in place. And then, just as Charlie Brown approaches the ball, as he rears back with his kicking foot, preparing to send that ball to the moon, what happens?
That’s right. Lucy whisks it away. And poor Charlie Brown, totally unprepared for this deception, flips and falls, flat on his back, stars in his eyes and ringing in his ears.
Today, I view that scene as an allegory for life. It is reflective of our hopes and dreams, our plans and our preparations, and our vulnerability to forces waiting to be unleashed, forces which can turn our world upside down, leaving us with stars spinning wildly before our eyes, and bells ringing in our ears.
Charlie Brown’s football incident illustrates what it might feel like when all that you are aiming for in life is suddenly whipped away, out of reach, leaving you totally stunned, breathless, and disbelieving.
We enjoy a good laugh at the plight of Charlie Brown, perhaps because we recognize – uncomfortably so, at times - that we are all subject to Charlie Brown moments. The truth is that in life, those moments come all too often.
While we might chuckle at the Peanuts gang, and shake our heads at their antics, I have to admit that there is a certain poignancy to the image of the stolen football for me today. Because I think a lot of us are feeling the emotional toll of lost opportunities, of plans and lives gone suddenly awry, of unexpected reversals in life.
Those losses and betrayals might come in the form of facing a first holiday season since the death of a loved one or the breakup of a significant relationship. Or they might take the form of illness, an unexpected diagnosis, the health struggles of your child, your parent, your spouse. Losses and struggles might be work-related. And, we are subject to demons from within and without which have the ability to whisk our feet right out from under us, leaving us a Charlie Brown kind of breathless.
If you are like me, you may have come here deeply troubled this morning, overwhelmed by the news of the past few weeks and the months before them. If you are like me, you sometimes find yourself thoroughly shaken and grieving over the tragedies in this world, the opportunities lost, the betrayal of our expectation that we are safe and secure from evil.
If you are like me, your sense of shock is reinforced when you hear about shootings, child abductions, wars and rumors of wars, a planet in danger of overheating, plane crashes and errant missiles, bombings and chemical warfare, protests and riots, all overwhelming realities of this world.
If you are like me, you experience sadness, discouragement and despair at the realization that our progress eradicating prejudice, bigotry and hatred as a society is but an illusion, and that justice is far more fragile than we ever thought it could be.
While we seek peace we live in a world where turmoil and death, violence and chaos exist. We seek justice yet are surrounded by evidence of corruption and brutality and deception.
But then, Advent comes and with it we hear the promise of the ages. We hear the promise that our redemption is not only coming, it is already among us.
At first glance, our gospel text seems like a creepy way to begin this season of Advent. Jesus speaks of signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and predicts distress among nations who will be confused by roaring seas and waves.
Jesus predicts people will be afraid – so afraid that they will faint. But, when these things take place, Jesus says, pay attention. Be alert. Because your redemption is drawing near. It is present. It is active. It is abundant in Christ himself.
As a common tree that people of Jesus’ time could relate to, Jesus turns to the fig tree. The coming of the Son of Man and your reason for hope is like this - it’s like the fig tree. Just as you know summer is coming, bringing with it the ripening of the fruit, when you see the leaves begin to sprout on fig trees, when you see these signs I just mentioned, stand up and raise your heads and know that your redemption is near.
Don’t be frivolous, Jesus continues, wasting your time so that you are caught unawares. Instead, pay attention, and while you are doing so, pray. Remain firmly connected to God. Remain fully dependent on God. Remain faithful to God.
 When we look back over the course of the Common Era, is there ever a time that doesn’t reflect the signs that Jesus describes?
History reveals a broad record of celestial events – lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, solar storms, the birth and death of stars, meteor showers, and so on. We see “historic” storms and cycles of catastrophic weather events. We see earthquakes and cyclones and tornadoes – droughts and floods, tsunamis and other devastating events. And with each one there are many who faint with fear, predict the oncoming destruction of mankind and our planet, and bemoan our future.
But as Jesus tells us that these things will be part of our worldly experience, he also tells us, that when they occur, know without question that we need not fear. Our hope, our redemption, is at hand. Because Jesus is present. Jesus is acting for the benefit of the world.
Though the sin and brokenness in the world exist, God is fully present, fully working, fully redeeming us from our sin through Jesus Christ.
David Lose explains it this way:
“…according to Luke….. we live and work, love and struggle between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh in order to triumph over death through his cross and resurrection”… “and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven. This “in-between time,” though fraught with tension, is nevertheless also characterized by hope and courage because we know that the end of this story, while not yet here, has been written by the resurrected Christ.”
Jesus reminds us that he is the Lord of history and we can trust that he will bring all things to a good end. So, what of plane crashes and war, disease and divorce, death and disaster? God has the final word. For the sake of love, in Jesus Christ God has waged God’s own war on sin and death and has won the victory.
In the meantime, in mercy for the fallen world, God sent Jesus Christ to reign in our hearts and in our world, shaping our behaviors so that they reflect the love and hope that God has for all of humankind.
Alan Boesak has written this beautiful Advent Credo uses Jesus’ own words to describe how Jesus is the one who has both come and is yet still coming, is present yet is still arriving:
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.
From Walking on Thorns, by Allan Boesak, Eerdmans, 2004.
This is the sermon from November 30, 2015, Advent I. Text: Luke 21:25-36

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