How The Story Ends
Last week Pastor Roger and I finally rented The Perfect Storm. Before we finished watching it, he had to leave to go to a meeting. Knowing that he had already seen it, I almost called out to him before he walked out the door, “So, do they make it?” But something inside stopped my question. I was going to ride out that storm, win or lose, with the hearty fishermen from Gloucester.
Sometimes it’s easier to involve yourself in a story if you already know the outcome. Sometimes we are tempted to read the last few pages of a novel before we finish, because the suspense is too much, and we need to “bleed the line” of a bit of the pressurized air so that we can continue to stay hooked in to the story itself.
Knowing the ending lets us control the suspense. Of course, it’s even better if you don’t “cheat” and look, but if you figure it out on your own. I remember that I figured out “the Sixth Sense” long before anyone else I was with.
Figuring out the ending gives me a supreme sense of achievement. It’s like solving a puzzle, or working an entire crossword from the Sunday newspaper. It’s like beating a video game or working through a relationship roadblock. It is power, and I love it!
The Advent season is a time when we are reminded that as Christians, we have the answer to the puzzle. We know to what this world is coming and we have the chance to live our lives differently because we have glimpsed the ending. That’s what Advent is all about. Not simply a four-week countdown to the glory of Christmas, as a baby born in Bethlehem answers the questions a few thousand years old. It is a season to contemplate how God comes to us, both in Bethlehem and in the end times; a season to pay attention to how God is with us, the meaning of the word we just sang, “Emmanuel” (God with us). For it is the God who so loved the world that he gave up the essence of himself in human form, to come and be with us; to dwell with us; to show us how to live and to love.
For the record, that is exactly why I hope none of you have taken the Left Behind series seriously. Of course the story is a grand one. Imagine that you are the pilot of a 747 full of people, streaking across the night sky. In the midst of the darkness the discovery is made that half of the passengers have disappeared. No explosions, no open doors or hiding places...they are just gone. Clothes, shoes, jewelry, books, laptops, pillows and eyeglasses all exactly where there used to be people, but they are gone! Soon, you will captain a different crew, a band of newly saved Christians who have had their loved ones taken into the clouds. Some of the ones Left Behind.
Now I know, I’ve read them, they are great fiction. And they teach about tribulation theology in a very entertaining way. But my problem is that they use scare tactics to make believers. They use fear as a tool for evangelism. I don’t know about you, but I hope our God has proven long ago that “perfect love casts out fear,” and that it is the welcoming, embracing arms of Jesus that attracts us, not the fear of Armageddon. After all, the one thing we are sure of is death. And the second thing we should be sure of is that once we believe in the overwhelming love of God for us in Jesus, nothing (not life, death or the tribulation) will ever separate us from that love.
So of what importance is the Second Coming to us, anyway? Let’s see what Jesus has to say to those who loved him in our story from 2000 years ago. “There will be signs...” OK, we’ve seen some of those signs. But why should we not be afraid of the end? How should we act?
“Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Wow. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down...and the day catches you like a trap.” In other words, don’t get so involved in the ways of the world that you buy in to the fear that the world will feel when they see the end of the story coming and they realize how wrong they have been! It’s not because they didn’t know, it’s that they didn’t believe.
“Be alert at all times, praying, that you may have the strength to escape all these things (i.e. the world’s care) and to stand before the Son of Man.” It’s not the chaos of the end times that we are praying to escape, we are to be redeemed. It is the entrapment of the world that we pray to have the strength to escape. It is prayer that keeps us alert.
Prayer as we wait. You know Advent is a season of hope. That’s why the candles are blue, the color of hope. And Hope entails waiting. I found out this week that the Hebrew word for hope, gawah, has underlying its hopefulness the idea of twining, or twisting. And isn’t that a great picture of who we are as we await the fullness of time? We’re just like a little vine planted underground that twists and turns its way through the dark soil, sometimes toward the surface, sometimes away from bursting forth. We seek God, and desire to be in the light of his love, but we turn back when we glimpse it. We yearn for the comfort, yet we turn from God’s grace. We twist and turn and flirt with our faith just like that vine seeking the light of day. And that is exactly how we hope, by waiting/watching/praying: for illness to release or finally claim loved ones; for prodigals to return to our homes; for relationships to change for the better; for God to come and claim the final peace. We wait, we seek, we turn away, we run, we yearn, we hide, we are at once, both saint and sinner—and God loves us either way.
You know, I might not have watched the end of The Perfect Storm if I knew they were all going to die. Still, on the way to their deaths there was bravery, love, bravado, heroism, work, failure, friendship and pain. That’s the reason I watched it all the way through...simply for the story. I mean, how many of the millions of folks who went to see Titanic actually thought that this time the ship wouldn’t sink? It’s not about the ending...it’s about the story.
We know how our story ends. In Luke it is a wondrous picture of Jesus’ return in a cloud, with power and great glory. It is as natural as the signs have indicated to us all along. Our story ends for us as it in right now and as it has always been...with God with us. And if we are lucky enough to see it, we are to stand up and raise our heads, because at last, the kingdom has come and the world will be what God intended. Amen.
Pastor Susan Langhauser
Advent Lutheran Church