It was just a small sign. It pointed toward another route through the mountains. The warning sign said that large vehicles should not continue on this road to Sequoia National Park. Our map indicated that this was the most direct route. So, as the navigator, it looked all right to me. If the California Department of Transportation sign makers had been seriously concerned about the road which lay ahead, they would have placed flashing lights and neon around this warning. We were discover, even in the absence of neon, they were serious.
In retrospect, the CDT's small sign which told us to turn back, was one of the truest roadway signs we have ever encountered. This soon-to-be gravel-covered branch in the highway would prove (over the next five hours) to be dangerous, steep, circuitous, and mostly impassable - especially for first time RV pilots, after dark, and fearful of heights. Five hours later, there was no doubt in our minds, this branch in the highway was a road which never should have been taken. If you doubt the navigator, ask the driver.
Would I have responded differently if the sign had said, "All ye who wish to live, Turn back! Beware! Be on Guard! Be Alert! We really mean it this time! Goodbye!" Perhaps....perhaps not....
At the close of his public ministry and the opening of our Advent season, Jesus, our "Branch of Righteousness and Justice" as Jeremiah calls him, cries out to his people from the Temple in Jerusalem:
The Vengeance Day is coming! "Lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (vs.28) . . . Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (vs. 33) . . . Be on guard (vs. 34) . . . Don't let drunkenness, over partying or your worries in life get you down, because if you are not on guard, this day will catch you unexpectedly and you will get trapped (vs. 34-35) . . . Be alert at all times (vs. 36) and pray that you are ready (vs. 37)."
Seems pretty clear to me, in an apocalyptic sort of way. If you were the navigator or the driver in this situation, what would you do? I pray, at least you would pay attention to everything that follows!
What does it take for you to recognize the warning signs in your life? How many parables and metaphors do you need from literature, Holy Scripture, or your own life to know when things are out of control at any branch in your highway? We tend to ignore many of the warning signs. In the film, "A Prairie Home Companion," there is a line which resembles many of us in all too many ways. Meryl Streep's character says, "We're Midwesterners. We ignore our problems and hope they go away. hoping they just go away." Speaking to Middle Easterners (and all of us), Jesus' warnings portend something coming which cannot be ignored. In fact, to ignore the things which are in the way will cause you to be trapped by them.
Too many of us have witnessed the signs of which Jesus spoke in the chaos of our lives or the lives of those around us. Children have crossed our paths whose sun, moon, and stars have been shaken and even blotted out by the instability of the adults in their lives. They have learned - painfully - that comfortable stability is an illusion. They have experienced that "father" means something dangerous and "mother" means something treacherous. You may know some of these children. You maybe are one of these children. In their universe, things are not what they appear to be.
When Jesus says, "lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near," he is crying out to us to advocate and battle on behalf of those whose heads have been bowed. To those whose eyes have been cast downward for too long, these righteous warning cries of Advent are no abstractions. For those bearing the pain and sadness of loneliness and abuse, the words of Jesus to lift your heads is a call to see the Sun of Righteousness arriving in time to save your life.
There is nothing abstract or other worldly for those battling heart disease or cancer. The promise of hope that Jesus' words will not pass away, are like the small sign pointing away from danger and toward a safe and clear pathway.
On this World AIDS Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, some of us have seen firsthand or lived firsthand the devastating effects of living and dying with HIV/AIDS. Once I received a call from the life partner of a young man who was in the final stages of AIDS. He had heard that I was "one pastor who would not judge him for being gay." He asked if I could come by and pray with his partner once before he died. I went as soon as possible.
The two men had been active in their church before they were cast out of the fellowship. They loved Jesus. They prayed to him daily. But, these former Deacons in their church were now churchless. Two men, for whom the church was the center of their universe, had experienced the blotting out of the sun, moon and stars in their lives. In the months that followed for Dan and the years that followed for Pat, I ministered to both men in life, and ultimately unto death. Each man had come to the branch in their highway and even though the church had cut them off, out of the stump grew a tiny shoot of hope. A little branch of hope grew in their lives because of redemption and the grace of Jesus which drew near to them.
We must remember that for the early church hearing these words of Jesus, there were no illusions. When Jesus stepped into the middle of the Temple to speak words of hope in the midst of a world which seems to be coming to an end, his radical proclamation was to all who had ears to hear him: YOU WILL NOT DIE IN DESPAIR. On the eve of Passover, Jesus' was headed for his death on the cross in just a few hours. But, on that day in the Temple of Jerusalem, he reminded his followers, "when the fig tree and all the trees sprout leaves, it is a sign that summer is already near." And just like that, Jesus pointed to a sprig of hope in uncertain times.
Truthfully, it is risky business to point to shaking the foundations of stability and to declare that hope is on the way. When you do so you cannot forget the ache, the pain, the fear, the memory of lost hope which surround you in that moment. And Jesus could not forget those things as he stood in the middle of Temple - knowing his death was pending. Nevertheless, his message to all who suffer was and is - "lift up your heads."
We know that when our heads are lifted up - when our eyes are watching God - we cannot die hopeless. We know that when our heads are lifted up in these days of descending December darkness, we will see Jesus. Like a single flame of hope in an uncertain world, this righteous branch of David points the way out of despair. He says, "Look at me. Do not be stumped by anyone at anytime, any longer. Stand before me. I will give you strength to escape all these things that will take place."
As we stand at this branch in the highway, pay attention to the signs of our times and of your life. You will see a young, pregnant woman making her way to Bethlehem. The redemption of the world is at hand! Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church