My husband’s friend Eric is an emergency medical technician (an EMT), and for the last several weeks, he has been with a Christian aid group working on the Greek island of Lesbos, the place where as many as 10,000 refugees each week are landing after crossing a treacherous five mile stretch of the Aegean Sea from Turkey.
The people on the boats, which are just rubber rafts, most with motors but some without, left home with only a backpack and maybe a cell phone. Home is Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, and even the Sudan and Somalia, which are a long way from Turkey. There are 50 to 70 people on a boat: men, women, children. Babies even. There’s no room for luggage. When the wind is up, the sea is rough, and sometimes the boats sink. Eric and his team attend to the medical needs of the refugees as they get off the boats.
The other day Eric posted a picture he called Tears from the Sun. It was a watercolor painted on wrinkled paper by a child refugee who survived the ocean crossing. At the bottom of the drawing is the blue sea, and on top of the sea is the outline of a black rubber raft, and in the raft are many circles with reddish blobs holding the circles up - people wearing those orange life vests. Some of the reddish blobs are on the bottom of the raft - they are the children who are put there so they won’t fall out.
Overhead, a big yellow sun has rows of blue tears flowing out of its eyes as it looks down on the boat taking the refugees away from home.
It is like a sign in the sun.
Eric also posted videos of the boats arriving. Some of them arrive at night, while others are drifting and someone goes out to help bring them in before they land in the wrong place.
Many of them land in the wrong place anyway, a place near a lighthouse, which of course is a treacherous place - that’s why the lighthouse is there, to warn them away - but this is where they come because they can see the light and they can see the huge pile of lifejackets on the beach, which are there because it’s too hard to take them away.
Some days, he said, they’d be watching the horizon intently and see nothing for hours and then, suddenly, a boat will appear, and then another and sometimes a whole flotilla of boats, and they get ready to get to work.
And what I notice when I watch the videos is how the people are all looking out so expectantly. They are not bent over, cowering, but straining forward, looking up. Some of them jump out of the boat before it lands, arms outstretched, saying, Thank you! Thank you! I am so happy to see you!
Some of them are crying, in fear no doubt, but also in gratitude that they made it across the sea, that their family is still together, that they have escaped the hell they came from. The way ahead for them is still very uncertain, but they have made a significant landing.
“Stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near.”
Jesus is not describing the future in this apocalyptic text. He is describing the world now. All hell is breaking loose, the signs of which are unmistakable. And people everywhere feel faint with fear and foreboding. But this doesn’t mean that the end times are here. The world is like this every year.
What Jesus is saying is that when we see so clearly the world’s brokenness, that’s when we must stand up and raise our heads, looking for redemption in the midst of it. We must be alert, keep awake, to see it amid the chaos.
My first year in seminary was the year that we invaded Iraq. And someone put up a poster outside the chapel that asked: What is God doing in Iraq?
I was completely flummoxed by this question. What on earth WAS God doing in Iraq? I was deeply conflicted and uncomfortable with the whole thing - both the situation and the question. And then a few days later, someone attached to the bottom of the poster a picture of a soldier carrying a child to safety. And I saw. That’s what God was doing in Iraq.
Asking what God is doing gives me a lens through which to see redemption, to see salvation in the midst of so much destruction and brokenness.
But all of this is scary. I don’t know what’s scarier to me - the thought of fleeing my home, crossing a rough sea in a rubber boat with only what I can carry on my back, or being the one to help desperate strangers get out of a boat not knowing what comes next.
When the world seems so scary we risk losing our way, being overcome by fear, if we cannot keep our grounding in God’s promise of redemption. And we cannot see it if we are either cowering, or looking away.
So we hold our heads up, even in the midst of our anxiety, and look out, to see arms reaching out for us and to reach our arms out, too.
This is how we begin Advent, naming this chaos and destruction, naming our anxiety and our fear. Come thou long expected Jesus and fix all this mess, we plead.
But Jesus is always coming, being born anew and always with us, giving us strength to be love in the world.
Just last week, a new baby was born - which is the kind of sign the Bible tells the shepherds to look for at Christmas. A new baby born to the family of refugees from Afghanistan, and many St. Stephen’s folks have come together to help them settle into new life here.
One doesn’t have to be a trained professional like Eric or a combat soldier to take a chance on doing God’s sometimes scary work in the world.
Thanks to you, they have carseats for both their toddler and the new baby, and beds to sleep in, and rides to the doctor. They don’t just have things, they have friends, they have a connection with people whose names and stories they are learning.
Advent is often described as a time during which we make room in our hearts for the coming of our Lord. And this is true. Advent is the fast before the feast of Christmas, and we must intentionally prepare.
But what are we preparing for? Who is Jesus bringing to reside with him in our hearts this year? And if having Jesus in our hearts means doing Jesus’ work in the world, then we must look up and look out, even though we are besieged with noise and images that make us afraid. God is at work in the disasters out there and Jesus is asking us to recognize that work so that we can join God in bringing good out of brokenness.
This is what we are making room for - room for our own capacity more and more to be love in the world, making room for God’s love to not only live in us but to work through us to bring life to the world.
To see God reaching out for us and we reaching back in return. Reaching out and making room - that is our redemption.
We ourselves need to be saved from the fear that makes us turn away from the needs of the world. We need to make room for the question: what is God doing over there, and over here, and in all the places of suffering.
And so look up, even though it seems like all hell is breaking loose. Hold your heads up, for your redemption is drawing near.