It was 1965. I was a little kid. My parents had taken me on a very rare excursion to another, larger city to go shopping at the Woolworth's -- a wonderful store with three whole stories of merchandise, including a pet department with real live birds and fish and turtles and small animals -- even a baby alligator.
I was magnetized to the pet department, where I slowly went from tank to tank and cage to cage gazing in amazement at the animals while my mother impatiently waited from a distance, urging me to hurry up and follow her to the home furnishings. I, of course, had no interest in home furnishings except for a fish bowl or birdcage; I lingered with the pets as long as I could, then unhappily turned to follow my mother down the aisle to look at curtains or pillowcases or some other dry goods of interest to adults.
But I didn't stay there. The pull of the pet department was too strong -- the noisy, friendly budgies who cocked their heads at me in an appealing way; the flashy tropical fish; the droll, sleepy guinea pigs and frenetic hamsters; the tiny, yet menacing, yet strangely fascinating baby alligator.
At some point I looked up and realized that my mother was no longer in sight. Where was she? I went back down the aisle where we'd been last and turned the corner; no Mom. I walked down the side aisle, looking down the rows of aisles; strange adults looked back at me in what seemed to me to be an unfriendly, annoyed way. I started to panic. The store suddenly seemed very, very big, and I seemed very, very small inside it. I didn't know where I was. I didn't know where my parents were. I began to cry, until a kindly clerk finally found me and delivered me to my mother, who had in turn noticed that I was missing and had been frantically looking at me at the other end of the store.
It's funny how you can be 46 years old (give or take a few weeks) and still feel like someone very, very small, caught in a very, very big, hostile world. No matter how attractive the distractions, no how adept we are or think we are professionally or interpersonally...most of us have had more than one sleepless 2 a.m. when we've felt every bit as frightened and disempowered and overwhelmed by the stuff of life as a little child lost in a department store.
The messages we hear in our readings today, while written for specific people in specific situations in place and time, ring across time and space for us. They say, Look up. See the signs. You are not lost.
God always comes down. And as Jesus points out in today's Gospel lesson, the place where we feel the most disoriented, the most anxious, the most oppressed, the most in want, the most disheartened, is the place where God is most near. Some Christians proclaim themselves "Easter people"; that may be so, but we are also Advent people -- people who, in the midst of the worst that the powers and principalities can throw at us, can see God's presence and saving power at the ready.
This is the season where many of us feel as if we're in the midst of Vanity Fair -- the noise and bling and shill of the Christmas season, which seems to descend on us earlier and more rgently each year. It's also a season when hardship and sorrow come to dwell with many of us -- sickness and death, job layoffs, financial stresses, our annual personal inventory of losses and defeats. Even those of us who count ourselves fortunate may feel our guts being wrenched by stories of war and want and injustice elsewhere. Like the Psalmist, we find ourselves praying, "How long, o Lord?"
The message of the Gospel is not that we will somehow magically avoid or finesse the problems that come with living in this world. The message is that we are not alone in our lostness and weakness -- that God is with us; that, in the person of Jesus, God is before us leading the way, and next to us as a Friend, and behind us as a Savior. The very signs that spell lost in the vocabulary of the world are the signs that remind us that we are found in Christ. And that's a good place to be.