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Good reason. The sad truth that all of us who are old enough knows is we do not live in a "Santa Claus" world. Children's visions of sugar plums are washed away with the hot tears of grown-up disappointment and despair. Disease and death are constant companions. The Middle East seems ready to explode unless North Korea does it first. The fear and foreboding of which Jesus spoke greet us at every turn. Somehow we need to be reminded that this misery is not the end of the story.
For me that reminder is right in the middle of this text. Jesus has said that terrible things are in store - we can understand his imagery to be apocalyptic, end-of-the-world poetry or we can understand it to mean the awful stuff that each of us confronts in the course of our lives (and that is the way I choose to interpret it - I do not worry about the end of the world; I worry about the here-and-now). Then, in a few words that jump out at me as if they were printed in flashing neon: "When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." YES! The disappointment, the despair, the disease, even the death do not have the final word. GOD DOES!
Abuelo knew that. Abuelo is the Spanish word for grandpa. It is the name I used for my step-father - Fred Tinley became the grandfather to my children that my Dad never had the chance to be, so I gave him that moniker. I first got to know Abuelo when I was only a boy - he and my father had been in seminary together at Princeton. Upon graduation, Dad went into parish ministry while Abuelo answered the call to the mission field in Mexico, and Fred and Isabel served there with distinction for half a century. In the Yucatan there is even a Camp Tinley for youngsters named in Abuelo's honor. They all kept contact through the years - the congregation my father served provided financial support for the Presbyterian mission in Mexico. On their occasional furloughs, Abuelo and his family would fly up for a visit (he flew his own plane, and, as a boy, he gave me my first-ever airplane ride).
In one of those strange and delightful twists of fortune, several years ago, Abuelo and my Mom began to correspond somewhat more than they had previously. With the passing of his wife and her husband, both were lonely and both were ready for a relationship of loving support and companionship. It was a hoot watching their reversion to being teenagers in their courtship. It was a joy for me to able to officiate at their wedding (how many sons get such an honor?).
Years before, my sweet mother had told me, upon my announcement that Christie and I were getting married, "Son, that's fine...but you ought not to have children." Say WHAT??? She went on, "God was very wise in allowing us to have children when we are young; it is the only time we have enough energy to handle them. You are OLD (I was 33) and set in your ways. You would never have enough patience to deal with children." Oh, REALLY!!!
As you know, this time Mom was wrong, wrong, wrong, and, on her wedding day, it was puckish pleasure for me to say to her, "Mom, you ought not to have children, because you are old and set in your ways..." Yes, I know she was 74, but remember the story of Abraham and Sarah. She stuck her tongue out at me.
Sadly, their time together would not be as long as any of us would have hoped. Abuelo began to display signs of Alzheimer's, then came the diagnosis of Liver Cancer. Liver Cancer can be especially painful, but, fortunately for him, the end came quickly. It was just about at this time of year, as we all were getting ready for what would turn out to be a not quite as joyous Christmas as we might have liked.
How do people handle things like this? I suspect that Abuelo would advise (and after all those years in Mexico, in Spanish, no doubt), "Alzen sus cabezas, porque sus redención está cerca...Raise your heads, because your redemption is near." Eyes UP! Chin off your chest! This is NOT the end of the story. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is the heart of the gospel. There was never any question about Abuelo's faith.
In the Peanuts comic strip, Linus and Lucy are standing at the window looking out at the rain falling. Lucy says to Linus, "Boy, look at it rain...What if it floods the earth?"
Linus, the resident biblical scholar for the Peanuts, answers, "It will never do that...in the ninth chapter of Genesis, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of the promise is the rainbow."
With a smile on her face, Lucy replies, "Linus, you've taken a great load off my mind."
To which Linus responds, "Sound theology has a way of doing that."(1)
I need that reminder. Families whose sons and daughters are in Iraq and Afghanistan need that reminder. We ALL need that reminder at difficult times in our lives. But then, what better time to hear it than at the beginning of our preparations for welcoming the Christ child?
We live in anxious times, and so did the people who lived when Christ walked on this earth. The good news in our Gospel today is that, despite the fact that these ARE anxious times, so anxious sometimes that it looks like the end of the world, Jesus says that we can stand and lift our heads high...EYES UP!...for our redemption is near. And that is good news indeed.
1. Charles M. Schulz, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.