“Waiting in Hope”
“Waiting in Hope”
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
November 28, 2021
We flew to and from Cincinnati this past week to spend some time with my side of the family over Thanksgiving, and at one point on our flight to Cincinnati I am holding Logan on my lap near the rear of the plane, and I take a few moments to look up and see row after row of the back of people’s heads.
And it struck me that maybe there were a few folks whose heads were looking straight forward but most heads were basically looking down. Maybe you have seen this.
Whether it’s a bus, a train, or an airplane – many of us pass the time with our heads down – looking at a phone or a tablet or maybe a book or magazine. Most of on the plane had earphones. Maybe music. Or listening to a movie they are watching. A book. A podcast.
Of course, there were some who didn’t have any of that in front of them – and most of them had their head is bent and off to the side because they just trying to find a little sleep.
And honestly, I wanted to be one of these head-looking-down people.
As many of you know, flying with children is tiring, and I would have cherished the opportunity to be watching a show or listening to music or sleeping.
But on this particular flight, I did not have that luxury, and so instead this thought hits me:
All of us are on this journey from here to there…mini-journeys (maybe a season of life or recovery or a project or a particular challenge), extended journeys (maybe school or a relationship or our vocation), and then of course the journey of life itself…we are all on ‘here-to-there’ journeys.
And as I thought about that, and I thought about this passage on which I would be preaching this question crossed my mind: how are we holding our head on these journeys? On this journey? If someone looked at our lives from the back…what would be their observation about our posture?
And here’s what I mean: In the heart of our passage Jesus looks upon his disciples and declares, “stand up and raise your heads…”
For Jesus, there is something of fundamental importance that we dare not miss on this journey…but our heads (our hearts) must be raised to see it. To receive it.
Before we name that ‘something’ let’s also be honest about the other side of this: there are ample reasons along the journey for our heads (and hearts) to avoid such an attentive posture.
Just listen to the beginning of our passage as Jesus pulls from Isaiah 33 to describe in apocalyptic language the reality that he says we will know between the time of Jesus’ first coming on this earth and his second coming:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations (“anguish” in the NIV) confused (or perplexed) by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
It’s a picture of cosmic turmoil. Of creation itself aching, crying, anguished.
And then also this Jesus says: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Just the thought of what may yet still come…the fear and foreboding…just the thought will be the cause of the kind of anxiety that has you lose your breath – and faint.
At one level Jesus’s language feels very foreign and strange…but then at another level it feels eerily familiar when we think about what it feels like for chaos and distress and perplexity to be so very real in so many facets of reality today:
- Global pandemic with yet another variant…
- Raging wildfires and rising seas levels…
- Refugees endlessly without home…
- Illnesses and injustices that just keep doing their worst…
- Political tumult…
- Economic tumult…
And honestly, who among us can continue to stare straight at all of the weighty, trying issues of our time…let alone some of the ones that hit particularly close to home?
Jesus himself seems to recognize that given the things we face in this world – the kinds of pain and distress and anxiety – given it all, there is a very real temptation to spend our days with our heads in the sand.
“Be on guard,” he says just a bit later in our passage, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…”
- Dissipation – self-indulgent activities that are entirely a distraction, a way of escaping.
- Drunkenness – it is no accident that alcohol sales have been through the roof since March of 2020 – as anxiety rises so too we are prone to find a way to numb the edge.
- Worries of life – all the little things that keep us ever busy. Even the good things…the to do list, the shopping list, the fix-it list…but even our busyness can be a form of escape. Of helping us not have to pay attention to some of the more painful or sorrowful or distressing things that otherwise weigh.
And we are hardly alone in this desire to escape, to numb, to just put our head in the sand sometimes.
In the very next chapter in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his disciples to stay awake and pray on the night of Jesus’ arrest. And what does Jesus find when he comes back to check on the disciples?
“He found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.”
Notice it does not say they fell asleep because it was late or was really dark or it had been a long day. They can’t keep their heads up because they are exhausted from sorrow. It’s all just too much.
Of course, all of this raises the question: so what? What if given what we have seen or what we have done or what is happening to us or what is happening in this world…given how heavy and hard and distressing some of it is…so what if want to put our heads in the sand some of the time or a lot of the time and just do our own thing?
Of course, as Brene Brown has observed if you numb the pain, you all numb the joy.
For indeed, the other thing that is happening right in the midst of the distressed sun and moon and stars and the raging seas and the fainting people…the other thing that is happening is this:
“they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
This is language hearkening back to the book of Daniel where an apocalyptic Messiah-figure is promised…in this case, it is a reference to Jesus himself coming in the midst of the tumult and anxiety.
It’s yet another way of naming what is, in fact, one of God’s most fundamental promises: I am with you.
- “When you pass through the waters…I will be with you.”
- “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil – for you are with me.”
- “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep….The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
In the midst of it all…there, and precisely there, Jesus comes.
This is why Jesus’ very next words are:
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The word “redemption” means the act of granting freedom or release. “Stand up and raise your heads because the freedom you long to know in your life and in this world…that freedom draws near in Jesus.”
Or put another way, “Do not turn from or numb or escape the tumult…but rather risk attending to it. Not that you might be further weighed down and broken…but actually that you might discover that your freedom is made known right in that. I am a God who shows up with the with life in precisely the space that is most painful to train our eyes upon (cross).”
Have we seen Jesus in the pain and confusion these recent days?
A few years ago a pastor colleague of mine had an opportunity to go to Jordan with a group from his church – they were visiting the massive influx of refugees that were pouring into Jordan from Syria. He shared a bit about the experience over Facebook:
“I’ve seen scars from beatings and failed executions….I’ve sat on the floors with people who cannot count how many killings they’ve seen. One man said it used to be 3 times a week, then every day, then it became every hour, that’s when he knew it was time to leave…Part of our team met a family that lived on grass for a week. These are not even the worst things we have heard, I just don’t want to write about those.”
What you get is a picture that is honestly too much for the heart to hold very long. Far easier to not think about it, fall asleep on it, numb it…and yet this pastor goes on the write this as well:
“Yet, in the midst of all this horrible pain, I have seen the glory of God shown through people that love God and thus love all of God’s children. I have been on a crowded roof with Christians from counties all over the world who have moved here to volunteer full time with the relief effort. I have been in churches that have been transformed into free medical clinics and community centers run by the members. …One Jordanian Christian woman has personally visited 900 Syrian families and visits 500 of them once a month. She brings blankets and food and toys and medicine. She arranges surgeries. She knows all of their names and ailments and needs and stories and medications.
(And then this…)
I worried before I came that seeing all of this would crush my heart or my faith in God (“I worried that keeping my head up and attentive to this darkness would just crush me.”) Not true. That just happens from a distance. Both are stronger.”
How strange a thought…of all the distressing things we know in this life, of all the ones that seem to weigh most closely for some of today…what if instead of running from them, numbing them with shopping or drinking or scrolling, escaping them, acting like they are not there, keeping too busy to look…what if instead, we risked raising our heads and peering closer?
What might we see? Who…might we see? Is it possible we would not be buried by the weight of it all but somehow freed with yet a stronger heart and stronger faith?”
Your redemption draws near…
And where, then, we wonder, might we first want to look once we risk raising our heads upon the distress? Where precisely might Jesus be in the midst of it all?
Jesus gives us some direction in the middle of our passage this morning when he tells this brief parable:
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. It’s the same with the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus points out something exceptionally ordinary to anyone in the Middle East: the fig tree. And just as they reliably sprout new leaves each spring and so signal the inevitability of summer….so too, you can look upon the most ordinary of things in the midst of all the distress and pain and unknown…and where you see shoots of new life, you can be sure the fullness of Life is quite near.”
Which is to say…look not for thunderbolts angels miraculously dancing in our midst…but amid the tumult, train your eyes upon the fig tree, the feeding trough, the very ordinary.
In my case, as I sat on this airplane staring at the back of people’s heads and looking upon their blue headrests as their heads bumped up and down with the turbulence, I then also eventually noticed what was perhaps most ordinary and obvious of all, the thing that was right in front of me: my child on my lap turning around and around and waving his hand in every direction.
To the man next to us.
To Leo and Michelle behind us.
To the folks in aisles behind us and in front of us and to the side of us.
And with each turn, each wave, each cute, little half-smile…making clear that he sees every single moment before him as an opportunity for connection. For discovery. For possibility.
It was just a 16 month old being a 16 month old on a plane…but also, head raised, I had was given by Jesus a picture of what our call is at all times: amid the inevitable and on-going turbulence…a joyful, hopeful attentiveness.
“Stand up and raise your heads for your redemption draws near.”
And if we are struggling to know where and how precisely Jesus is at work amid the turmoil and chaos and unknowns of this world and our lives, and we are not sure which ordinary aspects we might first observe the green shoots starting to emerge…I invite you to hear this poem by Steve Garnass-Holmes. It is a poem inspired by today’s Scripture from Luke 21:
You have to know how to look and where among the distress of the nations, the fear and foreboding, to see the little fig leaves, the subtle bursts of possibility, God’s faint but certain emergences, the little gracelets that abound and clue you in on what is coming upon the world. Look for the child who endures, the woman who persists, the beauty that subverts, the love that sneaks in. Watch for the free, outlandish life that is not yet done arriving. “That’s just the way it is” isn’t the way it is. Look till you see. Dance till the music can’t help but start. Don’t miss a single birdsong. You may have to silence yourself, shed earbuds, turn off the TV, and the one in your head. The mercy that does not pass away
shows itself to those who are watching.
In the gray streets, among the rows and columns, the mystery keeps happening and happening and happening.