Shortly before the Second World War, the poet W.H. Auden wrote these words:
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle. (For the Time Being, Advent III)
Here was a poet’s plea for God to do something dramatic, by intervening in a world on the verge of war. It was a desperate hope that God would hold things together when everything good and decent seemed to be coming apart. “We who must die demand a miracle.”
In Luke’s gospel, chapter 21 verses 25 to 31, Jesus presents us with a vision of a world coming apart. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
This is more than a picture of the end times. It is a picture of life on the edge when our world starts to unravel. Think about it. Don’t we all know about life on the edge? Are there not moments in our lives when sun and moon and stars seem out of control? When the foundations of life are shaken? When the waters roar and the waves rush in? When our self-made securities collapse and our absolute certainties fade away? In those moments, all we can do is demand a miracle.
Look to the people in the New York metropolitan region who have struggled with Superstorm Sandy. Having grown up in New York, I know the areas that were devastated by Sandy: the Jersey Shore washed away, the fires of Breezy Point that destroyed hundreds of homes, the waters that filled the subways, the homes destroyed on Staten Island and Long Island, the businesses swallowed up on Coney Island and Battery Park, the fears, the tears, the enormity of it all.
New Yorkers are a resilient people who pick themselves up after a setback, even one as devastating as the tragedy of 9/11. But do you know the dominant feeling after the wreckage of Sandy had become evident? It was grief-a deep, pervasive grief, draining, traumatizing, debilitating.
I learned about such grief from a priest who ministered in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He told me about one couple who lost their home and then their jobs as a result of the storm. This same couple just a year before had suffered the death of their firstborn son by suicide. Every time this priest would visit the couple, their faces seemed numb, their expressions non-existent, their speech monotone-as if all the life and energy and vitality had been knocked out of them.
Yes, in the face of tragedy, we want to be resilient, to move on with our lives and renew our hope for the future, but sometimes we just can’t, because we feel as if all the life has been knocked out of us.
Years ago a parishioner came to see me unexpectedly. He sat down and told me that his wife had asked him for a divorce. They were having dinner when she suddenly said to him, “This marriage is not working. I think it needs to end.”
He was dumbfounded by the finality of what she was saying. He managed to stutter, “Why, what’s wrong? I didn’t even realize there was a problem.” And his wife said to him, “You just don’t listen to me anymore. It’s like I’m not even here. We’re no longer a couple.” Those words, spoken by the one he deeply loved, caused him excruciating pain, because he knew they were true.
Maybe you’ve never had to cope with a natural disaster or the end of a marriage or the death of a child. And yet, we’ve all been there in one way or another-those moments when the only thing left is to demand a miracle. You lose your job in your peak earning years and you wonder if you’ll ever rebound. You’ve been carrying so much debt that you now realize it’s unsustainable, but you don’t know what to do or how to get out of it. Your health begins to fail, the aches and pains intensify, and you know your days are numbered.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is not talking about the end of the world. He is talking about the end of life as we know it, when disruptions happen, disturbances come, discomfort grows stronger and everything staid and settled, strong and secure, begins to fall apart. Jesus is telling us a truth we need to hear: that nothing in this world ever stays the same and everything has its end.
So how do you cope in those moments when the sun and the moon and the stars seem to fall from the sky and the waters seem to rush in on you?
There are a number of options: you can grit your teeth and bear it. You can grumble and complain, whine and wail, fret and feel like a failure. You can give up, curse life, call yourself a victim, blame others or even blame God for what’s happening to you.
Or, you can heed the words of Jesus: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In other words, you can respond by putting your hands in God’s hands. You can surrender to the will of God, the grace of God, the power of God.
We had a memorial service at St. James Westminster this past Wednesday. I have done hundreds of funerals since being ordained a priest, and in many of those funerals, Psalm 23 is recited, usually from the King James Bible. I have read that psalm countless times, but this past Wednesday, with the approach of Advent, the psalm took on new meaning for me. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…”
Notice those words: “thou art with me.” That’s how we get through the crises that come our way…because we believe, in the midst of the worst that life can throw at us, that God is with us. And that’s how we hold our lives together when the world around us is falling apart-by trusting in the power of God’s love to save us when we cannot save ourselves. God is with us…God is with us…God is with us in the storms of life, in the disappointments and despondencies that we inevitably experience, in the failures and frustrations from which none of us are exempt. Thou art with me…someone greater than our pains and problems is with us, today, tomorrow and always.
As a preacher, I can’t promise that you will never know heartache or heartbreak, or that you will never experience tragedy or trauma, or sickness or suffering. I can only give you the assurance of Jesus: that when these things come your way, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Even when your world begins to fall apart, you can still take hold of life, because God is with you always and forever, and God loves you always and forever.
When my wife and I lived in New Jersey, there was a section in the city of Hoboken that we particularly enjoyed-it was a lovely area by the Hudson River with a fantastic view of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. In the days after Superstorm Sandy, a TV news story about this area focused on an aging woman who had taken refuge in a temporary shelter.
The reporter asked if she had any news about her home. The woman replied, “No. It may be gone. I don’t know. But everything will be fine.”
The reporter then complimented her spirit of calm and courage, and the woman answered, “Many years ago, my son was killed in the war. A few months later, my husband died. That’s when I discovered that when they went to be with God, God came to be with me. God got me through that; God will get me through this.
Everything will be fine.”
That’s the best sermon I’ve heard in a long time. “When they went to be with God, God came to be with me.” She had found, when her world was coming apart, that God was there to be with her, hold her together, sustain her and give her the strength to carry on. That’s the good news of Advent-God is with us even in the worst of times. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”
Dear people: the miracle we demand is already here. God comes into our lives when we are weary and worn, tired and troubled, and burdened more than anyone should have to bear. We are not alone, because God is with us, strengthening and sustaining us with a love that lifts us up even when we fall down.
So what will you make of those moments in your life when the foundations are shaken, when the sun and the moon and the stars stand still, when the waters roar and the waves rush in? Take courage! Be at peace. Have no fear. Trust God, who is with you always and forever. The miracle we demand is already here in Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.