Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Heads Up

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Luke 21:20-36



The lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent are always so cheerful, aren’t they?    Did you hear that description of destruction and desolation, chaos in the heavens, in the oceans and on the earth? 


Jesus tells of the coming destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans.  The city fell in 70 AD after a long siege during which the Roman army battered the walls and the Jewish people were shut up inside the city.  Many people starved to death before the walls gave way and the soldiers poured in.  The historian Josephus described it like this, “he slew the aged and the infirm . . . as for the rest of the multitude that were above seventeen years old, he put them into bonds and sent them to the Egyptian mines.  Titus also sent a great number into the provinces, as a present to them, that they might be destroyed upon their theaters, by the sword and by the wild beasts; but those that were under seventeen years of age were sold for slaves.”[1]  No wonder Jesus warned people to flee. 


Jesus warns of distress caused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  Climate activist and Christian Bill McKibben says “the roaring and the tossing of the seas is already perplexing and anguishing us.  On an ocean planet, we’ve managed in short order to make the seas 30% more acidic; their level is rising rapidly and it appears we’ve started the irreversible melt of Greenland and the west Antartic.”[2]


Listen to Luke 21: 25-26 in the Revised English Bible.  “Portents will appear in sun and moon and stars.  On earth nations will turn from the roar and surge of the sea.  People will faint with terror at the thought of all that is coming upon the earth. . .”


People were terrorized by the events in Jerusalem in the years before and after 70 AD.  People are terrified by current events – environmental devastation, damaged economies and social systems, bitter partisanship in our public life, not to mention grinding poverty, structural racism and the fact that there are more 60 million internally displaced people and refugees in the world, that’s about one in every 122 people.  To put it another way, that’s roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Italy being pushed out of their homes.[3]


I don’t know about you, but I have an urgent need to hear a word that is less anxiety-provoking, less gloom and doom. I need to find a more hopeful word, a more productive place to stand, a better Advent posture than simple hand-wringing. 


And so I am intrigued by verse 28,  Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  This morning I showed the children how to hang their heads when Mary and Joseph were turned away from shelter.  That’s the reality for many people – we are feeling depressed and dejected, overwhelmed by suffering and sorrow, and maybe we hang our heads, or shake our heads or put our heads in our hands, but Jesus says,  “Stand up straight and hold your head high.”


How do we keep our heads high?  It seems to me that faith communities have been doing this, in the midst of terror,  since Jesus’ time.   The examples are numerous. 

·        The confessing church in Germany under Hitler

·        The Christian women who orchestrated the peace the ended the Liberian Civil War – you may remember their story from the movie “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” which some of us watched together a couple of years ago. 

·        The mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in the 1970’s and 80’s who stood with their heads high in seeking their disappeared children and in protest against the atrocities of the Argentine military.  They did this for years, despite the fact that some of them were arrested, and kidnapped or killed in response.  Ultimately, they brought down one of the most vicious military dictatorships in the world. 


The following words were written by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman in 1997, eighteen years ago, but they still resonate.  He says, “Our society is marked by a deep dislocation that touches every aspect of our lives. The old certitudes seem less certain; the old privileges are under powerful challenge; the old dominations are increasingly ineffective and fragile; the established governmental, educational, judicial and medical institutions seem less and less able to deliver what we need and have come to expect; the old social fabrics are fraying under the assault of selfishness, fear, anger and greed.  There seems no going back to our former world, since the circumstances making that world sustainable have changed. . . . Our numbed and bewildered society lacks ways of thinking and speaking that can help us find remedies—that can enable us to go deep into the crisis and so avoid denial, and to imagine a better future and so avoid despair.” 


And here is the important part:   “But when the church is faithful to its own past life with God, it has ways of speaking, knowing and imagining that can successfully address our cultural malaise. When it remembers its ancient miracles, has the courage to speak in its own cadences, and re-engages old seasons of hurt, the church possesses the rhetorical and testimonial antidotes to denial and despair.”[4]


When we are faithful, when we remember our story, Brueggeman says, we can stand up straight and lift our heads, because we have hope, because we see our redemption coming near.


Advent is the season when we remember our story, the same story we tell every year.  "Advent knows about the anguish of endless waiting.  Advent konws about the times when the light of hope is almost extinguished.  Advent is not a sentimental season, but a time that speaks to the reality of our world."[5]

Advent marks the beginning of the church year, the time when we remind ourselves about the coming of a Savior, the birth of a baby to some common folks who had the courage to hope. 


Jurgen Moltmann is one of the most widely read theologians of our time.  He was drafted into the Germany army in 1943 at the age of 16.  During a fierce bombing of his hometown of Hamburg, he was operating an anti-aircraft battery.  The friend standing next to him was torn to pieces by the bomb that left him unscathed.  Moltmann says, “That night I cried out to God for the first time:  ‘My God, where are you?  And the question, ‘Why am I not dead too?’ has haunted me ever since.  He surrendered to the first British soldier he found.  As a prisoner of war, he came into contact with Christian chaplains who shared the New Testament with him.  In a prison camp in Scotland, he read the Gospel of Mark for the first time. He said, “I came to the cry with which Jesus died My God why has thou forsaken me I felt there is my brother who feels the same way as I was feeling at that time.  And this saved me from self-destruction and desperation.  And so I came up with hope in where there was no expectation to come home soon. The imprisonment lasted for three years.”[6]


Today, Moltmann is known today as a theologian of hope.  What is perhaps his best known book is entitled The Crucified God.  So his hope is paradoxical, raising its head in the midst of suffering and terror and the time when God seems most far away. 


In his book Standing on the Promises, theologian Lewis Smedes says that hoping for others is hard, but not the hardest.  Praying for others is hard, but not the hardest.  The hardest part for people who believe in Jesus is in “living the sort of life that makes people say, “Ah so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.”


The hardest part is simple faithfulness in our work and in our attitudes, the kind of faithfulness that keeps our heads up.   


More than 200 years ago, the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought  it was the Second Coming and a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People fell on their knees to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord. But the speaker of the House, Abraham Davenport, had a different idea.  “We are all upset by the darkness,” he said, “and some of us are afraid. But, the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought." And all those who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.


In the midst of fear and grief, in the face of raw evil and terror, there are those among us who hold their heads up, those who model hope and courage. 


You have undoubtedly heard the words of Antoine Leiris.  His wife was killed in the attack in Paris last week.  I do not know whether he identifies as a Christian, but he seems to be a long way down the road towards understanding the message of Jesus.  Antoine Leiris said,


On Friday night you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you won't have my hatred.

I don't know who you are and I don't want to know - you are dead souls. If this God for which you kill indiscriminately made us in his own image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in his heart.

So no, I don't give you the gift of hating you. You are asking for it but responding to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance that made you what you are. 


You want me to be afraid, to view my fellow countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have lost.

I saw her this morning. Finally, after many nights and days of waiting. She was just as beautiful as when she left on Friday night, just as beautiful as when I fell hopelessly in love over 12 years ago. 


Of course I'm devastated with grief, I admit this small victory, but it will be short-lived. I know she will accompany us every day and that we will find ourselves in this paradise of free souls to which you'll never have access.

We are two, my son and I, but we are stronger than all the armies of the world. 


I don't have any more time to devote to you, I have to join Melvil who is waking up from his nap. He is barely 17-months-old. He will eat his meals as usual, and then we are going to play as usual, and for his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.[7]


So friends, let the candles be brought.  Stand up straight, lift your heads, your redemption is drawing near.  Amen.



[1] Richard Vinson, Luke, (Macon, GA:  Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2008),, p. 659-660.

[2] Quoted by Ragan Sutterfield in  “The Prophet’s Candle”, in The Christian Century, November 16, 2015

[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/refugees-global-peace-index/396122/#article-comments

[4] http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=26

[5] http://www.laughingbird.net/SermonTexts/AW03.html

[6] http://moltmanniac.com/jurgen-moltmann-and-miroslav-volf-discuss-joy-new

[7] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3322348/Father-wife-killed-Bataclan-gunmen-vows-not-hatred-says-17-month-old-son-insult-happiness-freedom-day-poignant-message.html