Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Your Redemption is Drawing Near” (Luke 21:25-28)
December 2, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new church year. Ironically the new church year begins as the calendar year ends, as in the northern hemisphere the daylight lessens and there a little more darkness each day. But with the grace of God, when it looks like things are coming to an end, things are just getting started.
The word Advent means “arrival.” During Advent we wear metaphorical bifocals as we anticipate celebrating anew Jesus’ first arrival at his incarnation and anticipate his next arrival, the Second Coming, when as we pray in The Book of Common Prayer Jesus will return “in glorious majesty” (395).
I am sucker for sentimental Christmas movies. My favorite movie of all time is now and will forever be the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. I recently watched a much more recent film, the British romantic comedy, Love Actually, which was made the year after the tragedy of 9/11. The opening scene caught me off guard and made me tear up. It is a montage of people greeting and embracing one another at Heathrow Airport in London—image after image of hugs and smiles and kisses, image after image of people being welcomed by their loved ones. During this sequence one of the film’s ensemble cast, Hugh Grant, narrates in a voiceover:
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there—fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge—they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.
There are many people who as Hugh Grant said, are “gloomy with the state of the world.” We live in a time of great anxiety, increasing climate change, bitter political polarization, one mass shooting after another—in a time in which we see again and again that racism, sexism, antisemitism, corruption are all alive and well. And we do not need a motivational speech or a self-help strategy or someone else to blame—we need the grace of God, we need to be reminded that indeed “love actually is all around.”
The setting of today’s gospel passage is Holy Week, as Jesus’ earthly life and ministry were coming to end, as metaphorically there was a little more darkness each day. As the darkness of Good Friday loomed ever nearer Jesus taught about his Second Coming, which will be during a dark time when it looks like things are coming to an end. Jesus warned, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the 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).
But Jesus continued with words of hope, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28). When things look the darkest, like they are coming to an end, the grace of God is just getting started. Your redemption is drawing near.
One of the recurring themes in the scriptures appointed for Advent is the theme of light coming into darkness, the light of God’s grace coming into the darkness of our lives. Many of us as children were afraid of the dark. When I was young, at night I was convinced that monsters lurked under my bed or in my closet. As we get older we may still find ourselves afraid of the dark. In his epic masterpiece, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo ominously describes why we are afraid of the dark:
Darkness is dizzying. We need light; whenever we plunge into the opposite of day we feel our hearts chilled. When the eye sees darkness, the mind sees trouble. In an eclipse, at night, in the sooty darkness, even the strongest feel anxiety. Nobody walks alone at night in the forest without trembling. Darkness and trees, two formidable depths—a chimeric reality appears in the indistinct distance…You breathe in the odors of the great black void.
You are afraid and are tempted to look behind you. The socket of night, the haggard look of everything, taciturn profiles that fade away as you advance, obscure dishevelments, angry clumps, livid pools, the gloomy reflected in the funereal, the sepulchral immensity of silence, the possible unknown beings, swaying of mysterious branches, frightful torsos of the tress, long wisps of shivering grass—you are defenseless against all of it (Signet Classics edition 386).
Hugo then adds, “This penetration of the darkness is inexpressibly sinister for a child” (386). Perhaps you can remember specific times you were afraid of the dark as a child. In some way you may be afraid of the dark right now.
And yet the grace of God often encounters us unexpectedly when we are the most afraid of the dark. At the beginning of her recently published memoir entitled In Pieces, Sally Field, the iconic multiple Oscar and Emmy winning actress, describes a powerful moment when she experienced grace as a child in the dark:
In the eighth grade…I had my first performance night in the school auditorium. For the first time I walked on a stage in front of an audience of parents and friends, there to watch, among other things, my Juliet—not the whole play, just two scenes: the potion scene and the death scene. My mother drove me home afterward, and I clearly remember sitting in that dark car beside her. I desperately wanted to know what she thought but was afraid to ask, so I just watched her drive. Sometimes the headlights of an oncoming car would light up the whole interior, making it seem even darker after it passed. But when her face was bright with light she looked at me, and as if we were hiding from someone, she whispered, “You were magical.” I whispered back, “I was?” Then everything was dark again and I could barely see her at all. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Just that.” Another flash of headlights lit up the front seat and I could see her mouth edging toward a smile, the light bleaching her beautiful face white, then slowly fading to black (2-3).
Victor Hugo was right, “Darkness is dizzying. We need light…When the eye sees darkness, the mind sees trouble.” That is when the grace of God meets us.
And that grace of God that meets us unexpectedly in the dark is often episodic, just like Sally Field recalled about that car ride in the dark with her mom. We get a brief glimpse of the beautiful grace of God that is always with us, even when and especially when we are afraid of the dark—and we are reminded “that love is actually all around.” Scripture assures us that in the same way the young Sally Field got a brief glimpse of grace in the light shining on the face of her mom in the car that night, God meets us in the dark with his beautiful grace in the face of Jesus Christ—as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “It is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Jesus, who just prior to healing a man blind from birth identified himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12) arrived in a dark world in the middle of a dark night. A few months before Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem his cousin, John the Baptist was born. And that is when John the Baptist’s father Zechariah, prophesied, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79).
A few days after Jesus proclaimed, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” things grew darker and darker all the way to Good Friday. On Good Friday what Victor Hugo identified as “Darkness and trees, two formidable depths” met as Jesus, suffered on the tree of life, the cross. And when Jesus was nailed to the cross he did not send messages of hate or revenge, but a message of love, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). On the cross “the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high” indeed broke upon the dark world.
Jesus’ unconditional love given in his death on the cross was “not particularly dignified” but it certainly was and certainly is newsworthy, good news worthy, gospel worthy—for it the definitive expression of God’s unexpected grace given to a world afraid of the dark. As Jesus was crucified scripture tells us “From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon”—or as the great seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet John Donne (1572-1631) put it in the very last sermon he ever preached, on the cross “those glorious eyes grew faint in their light: so as the Sun ashamed to survive them, departed with his light too” (The Sermons of John Donne, Volume X, 247-248).
Jesus died in the dark, followed by “the sepulchral immensity of silence.” But God was not done shining grace into a dark world, not at all, for as scripture also tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Early on Easter morning, when it was darkest just before the dawn, Jesus rose from the grave, and showed the grace of God in his beautiful face to world still afraid of the dark. When it looked like things were coming to an end, the grace of God was just getting started.
Back to Les Miserables for a moment…the reason Victor Hugo was describing in such depth the horror of being alone in the dark, especially for a child, was because at that point in the novel the little child Cossette was alone in the dark woods. She had been sent by her abusive “caretakers” to get a large pail of water in the middle of the night. But as she struggled to carry this heavy pail of water back through the dark woods, Cossette was given unexpected grace—as Hugo writes:
She was worn out and was not yet out of the forest. Reaching an old chestnut tree she knew, she made one last halt, longer than the others, to rest up well; then she gathered all her strength, took up the bucket again, and began to walk on courageously. Meanwhile the poor little despairing thing could not help crying: “Oh my God! Oh God!”
At that moment she suddenly felt that the weight of the bucket was gone. A hand, which seemed enormous to her, had just caught the handle, and was carrying it easily. She looked up…A man who had come up behind her and whom she had not heard. This man, without saying a word, had grasped the handle of the bucket she was carrying. There are instincts for all the crises of life. The child was not afraid (387).
When Cossette was alone and afraid in the dark, reaching the end of her strength she unexpectedly experienced grace from Jean Valjean, grace that was just getting started, grace that would transform her life.
The gospel is good news for a world afraid of the dark, for indeed “love actually is all around.” And Jesus’ words during Holy Week are his words to you today, “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”