Monday, December 06, 2010

A Sign in Times of Terror

(I wrote this sermon for the First Sunday of Advent several years ago. I speak specifically about children who witness and suffer from abuse, but this also applies to anyone who is being abused by those using their power to keep others in line through fear and intimidation. Sadly, that also includes leaders in the church who believe the authority of their office is a mandate for using strong-arm tactics to bring others "in line." That is wrong, no matter what side of any theological division one is on.)

"And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And 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, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." (Luke 21: 25-28)

Maybe it’s the sound of a door slamming, the car door perhaps, or the door coming into the house. Maybe it’s the sound of footsteps, the unmistakable sound of anger conveyed in every step. Maybe it’s the slurring of the words, or the voices becoming shrill, or the thud of a fist hitting a table. Children know how to read the signs of danger, of violence that is quickly escalating out of control. They know that when the grownups fight, you don’t want to be caught out in the open. It is better to hide--in the back of the closet, under the bed--to close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears. When things quiet down, then maybe it’ll be safe to come out in the open again.

Now this may not sound like the earthshattering signs that Jesus spoke of: the signs in the sun, moon and stars, distress among nations and the roaring of the sea. But what could be more earthshattering for a child than to hear the sounds of breaking glass, of blows being delivered again and again, of the shouts of anger mingled with the cries for help? What terror is as great as the terror of a child curled up on the floor, shaking under a blanket in the dark back corner of a closet? What betrayal is as deep as that of a child who has learned that a father or mother can be suddenly, unpredictably, filled with a rage that lashes out at everyone within striking distance? Children who live in a violent family know too much about the crucial need to “be alert at all times, praying for the strength to escape the things that will take place.” The children would tell Jesus that it isn’t safe to stand up and raise your heads when these things begin to happen; the only safe thing to do is to crawl under the bed, and stay there, and hope the angry grownups get tired and quit fighting before they find you.

Advent reminds us that all is not yet as it should be. For too many this world is a place of despair and terror. Too many find themselves caught in a descending cycle of anger and revenge. Scenes of manufactured violence fill our TV and movie screens, our gameboys and nintendos and computers. Bombings and shootings drive the ratings for news programs. At the same time as we decry the images that flood our culture, we slow down and crane our necks to see the fender bender at the side of the road. Our society prescribes anger management classes and interventions; adults who grew up in a violent household find to their own horror and despair that they are repeating the brutality that was once inflicted on them onto their own children. People who move to large cities learn never to make eye contact with strangers on the street, lest that incite someone to a violent confrontation. Thousands of public schools have metal detectors at their entrances, and armed guards patrolling the hallways. And parents everywhere worry how to protect sons and daughters from the random predator who targets the young.

The promises of Advent can’t be true just be for us grownups. They have to be true for the smallest and most defenseless among us. They have to be true for the children who are most at risk, in our world, yes, but even in our own community, within the families of people who are our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends. There are children within this building this morning who hide under the bed from the rage of parents or other family members; there are adults sitting here who once were children filled with fear. When the anger and the rage are unleashed; when the nightmare becomes real; who or what could have the power to take us from darkness and despair to light and hope? Where is that righteous branch that God promised of old, who will execute justice and righteousness so that God’s little ones will live in safety?

Jesus calls us to stand up and raise our heads, and look for our redemption that is drawing near. But sometimes people can’t do that. Children certainly can’t, not when they are the targets of adult violence. Adults who have been battered, physically and spiritually, can’t do that either; their spirit has literally been beaten into the dust. Some of us may find that we are being called to stand up for others: to be the watchman, the whistle-blower, the strong defender, the place of refuge. Teachers, law enforcement officers, social workers, health care providers, foster parents--you may be that righteous branch that God sends into the lives of those who are at risk.

But Advent calls us to a hope even greater than that. It is filled with the hope and the promise that God remembers, God sees, God cares. God has claimed every square inch of this world for his kingdom, and the Son of Man will bring justice and righteousness to all who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, not the least of whom are the children who hide from the terrors of the night. Ultimately, the one who stands up in the face of the signs of earth and heaven being shaken is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He is indeed our hope, our righteousness, our peace and our safety. He will set his children free.