In the meantime . . . We’re watching re-runs.
A few years back – around this time of year – there arose a dispute in our household regarding what would be watched on the single television we owned on a given Saturday morning. This was long enough ago that the children did not have iPads with access to YouTube or our Netflix account. We were forced as a family to negotiate both space on the sofa and our cable subscription. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
On this particular Saturday, having reached my limit of bickering, I put myself in time out and headed to my favorite Retail Therapy provider. This was not a cool-headed decision necessarily, but it was ultimately in everyone’s best interest that I escape the drama. And while I drove to my favorite shopping destination, I had an epiphany: Make good on your promise. Cancel the cable. Now.
A brief phone call to DISH Network revealed that I could “pause” our subscription for up to 6 months for a minimal monthly fee. The full subscription could be reactivated at any point inside that time with no penalty. Sounded perfect. A significant step that would clearly communicate my intention to end the fighting about TV – but one that could be easily undone should I come to regret my decision. Sign me up.
I assumed this “pausing” would take place on Monday, the next business day, and that I would have time when I returned from shopping to announce my decision to my husband first and then the kids. It didn’t work out quite like that, and by the time my therapy session ended and I returned home with some purchase now forgotten, I was greeted by three frustrated males who were experiencing technical difficulties with the TV just minutes before a UGA football kickoff. I quickly assessed this was not the moment to confess my plan. “Humm… That’s strange. Wonder what’s up?” And I proceeded to hang my purchases in the closet.
It took a few hours for me to find the courage to tell my spouse what I had done – and a couple of days before I was willing to announce their new fate to my children. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth, but, in the end, we all survived and lived to tell about it. But here is the amazing part of the story as it unfolded: six months later, we had essentially embraced the new normal of no cable and no one really badgered me about un-pausing the DISH. Then, one afternoon, while grandparents were watching the boys and happened to turn on the TV, a magic thing happened: it un-paused itself. The calendar spoke tenderly to the MacMillan household proclaiming their hard service had been completed, their sin had been paid for.[i] (Thanks for those lines, Isaiah.) And when I returned home, my boys were happily perched on the sofa watching an episode of Disney drivel . . . we had all seen at least seven times before. Six months without cable and the first show we see isn’t the latest thing we had been missing – but absolutely nothing new. A re-run. $75 a month – for stuff we’ve already seen.
I have to admit that when I opened the Bible to read this week’s lectionary passages, my first thought was, “This is like watching a re-run. We just read about the end of the world in Mark’s gospel a couple of weeks ago. Now we have to do Luke’s version? It’s Advent. Can’t we move on to the story of shepherds and angels?” The news is bad enough on TV and the radio. A hearty dose of Christmas Cheer would do us all a little good right now. I need the hope of angel songs and the sweet, milky smell of baby’s breath. Anything but earthquakes and war.
It turns out these passages are re-runs. The words we read from Jeremiah are a rehash of an almost identical prophecy 10 chapters earlier – this time probably spoken a few years later by a disciple of Jeremiah to a slightly different crowd in a slightly different time. The same thing is likely true for Luke. Written about 20 years after Mark’s Gospel, Jesus hadn’t yet returned even though the Temple had been destroyed and things weren’t looking good on the political front. Luke needed to revisit these words of Jesus and help his community rethink their understanding of them. Life hadn’t played out for the Israelite exiles or the fledgling community of Jesus followers like either had expected. And as the prophet Tom Petty reminds us, “The waiting is the hardest part.” It’s the time when stress and anxiety – and all manner of bright shiny things – tempt us to veer from the course – to shift our allegiances – to question the ground of our trust – to give up on hope.
So here we are – four weeks away from Christmas. We’re digging out the dusty decorations. We’re flipping through the waxy pages of family cookbooks looking for grandma’s special cookie recipe. We’re dialing up the playlist of our favorite music of the season. We are anticipating – with either joy or dread – the family traditions of exchanging gifts, touring tacky light displays, watching Charlie Brown, Miracle on 34th St, and A Christmas Story, and getting dressed up to go see The Nutcracker. As much as we are looking forward to the Great Feast, the Silent Night, the surprise on someone’s face as he opens an unexpected gift, we are also looking back to all of those other Christmases feeling either like this one can’t possibly measure up – or, please, let this one be better than the last. There are some re-runs we would gladly re-live, and there are some we never want to see again. Whatever it is, we just desperately hope God shows up for us in a real and moving way.
I didn’t pick the passages we read today. I probably would choose something else, but I’m going to trust the wisdom of the ages – or the Revised Common Lectionary committee – and go with it – because I think there is a gift nestled in what seems to be a re-run of this theme of Christ coming in the midst of earth-shattering events even as we wait for the simple birth of a baby who grows into a Savior. Catholic scholar Joyce Zimmerman says,
“This Gospel is not really about the end of the world; it is about the completion of the kingdom. The Second Coming is not a deadline; it is an invitation and incentive to live in a certain way in the present time.”[ii]
In a similar way, Richard Rohr speaks of the reign of God as The Big Picture.[iii] Could it be that the coming of Christ – whether it is the first time, the second time, or the 102nd time – into our own specific lives – is the moment – are the moments – in which we get the big picture of what it means to be God’s beloved children, to recognize everyone else as God’s beloved children, to surrender our will, and our desire, and our trust in political or military might (or Target or Amazon.com) to the lordship of Jesus and give ourselves over to his way of grace and peace and light?
Could this be the way in which the Kingdom of God that Jesus says is at hand can sometimes feel so far away and other times be so close we can feel it on our skin?
Is this what it means to proclaim the coming of Christ now and not yet?
I think if I am honest with you, I will admit that I need frequent visitations from angels reminding me to prepare for a fresh coming of Christ into my life. I need to regularly revisit my patterns of thought, my habits of heart, so that the sharp edge of my expectation isn’t dulled. Christ may come again into my life in a quiet, almost unnoticed birth. Or he may rock my world and leave me shaking in my boots. Either way, the passages of Scripture promise me – especially in moments when I can’t catch a glimpse of him anywhere – he is coming.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says that to be ready for his coming anew, we need to stand up tall with our heads held high. The Greek is more descriptive than that – literally we are to “bend ourselves back” stretching and straining and opening ourselves to what his coming brings.
It reminds me of these postures I have learned through yoga practice. They are called “heart opening” poses. In them, our backs are bent and our chests are open, our faces turn to the sky. We are exposed and expectant, strong, and yet incredibly vulnerable before the universe. It is an unnatural position for those of us who are most frequently slumped over keyboards, martinis, or heaping plates of deep fried anxiety and fear. These poses require us to shape our bodies around tremendous trust and deep hope. It takes practice, doing it over and over again, to really feel the freedom and the redemption that come with the glorious coming of Christ.
The days are surely coming.
A righteous branch will spring up.
A fig tree will sprout tender, new leaves.
An evergreen will be laden with lights.
Whether it’s an old, old story or a new song on the radio. . .
Whether it is still and silent, or wind and fire. . .
Christ is coming.
Christ will come again.
Lift up your hearts.
Lift them up to the Lord.
[i] Isaiah 40:2 Authorized MacMillan Version.
[ii] Zimmerman, Joyce. http://liturgy.slu.edu/1AdvC112915/theword_working.html.
[iii] Rohr, Richard in the video series The Path of Descent.