Jodie Foster ruined scary movies for me. Until “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) I enjoyed the occasional horror film, titillated by Freddy Krueger haunting his victim’s dreams or Jason stalking mischievous teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake. But Clarice Starling? She ruined them all for me.
The scene that still gives me chills is near the end of the movie when FBI Agent Starling finds herself in the basement of serial killer Buffalo Bill. The basement is dark as pitch, laced with random obstacles, pocked by doors that lead to nowhere and random spider-webby walls. She can see nothing, but we see everything through Buffalo Bill’s night vision goggles. Though I managed to sit through the rest of the movie, I had nightmares for weeks afterward. Even now, I tremble at the thought of it. (My husband’s arm bore the marks of my fingernails for days afterward.)
What bothered me? Agent Starling was surrounded by danger, but did not know it. Her assailant was as near as her own breath, but she could not see him. Trouble in a dozen disguises surrounded her, but she was unaware of it. She stumbled through the darkness and almost directly into the arms of her enemy.
I want to know when trouble is coming. I want to know my enemy’s name. I want to prepare for potential danger. And I am not alone. A decades-old study of anticipated vs. unanticipated trouble produced results that should not surprise us. Those who know trouble is coming, negotiate the trouble better than those who are unaware. For example, if I had known Agent Starling would emerge victorious from Buffalo Bill’s basement, I would not have had to swallow my screams. I could have managed my fear because I knew what the darkness hid. (This is not a universally-applicable rule, but worth pondering.)
The aphorism “Don’t surprise old people or pregnant women” applies also to me. I can face anything I can face. But to be blindsided? (Swallowed screams.)
The distress planted by Agent Starling runs so deep in my being, that the scripture texts for the First Sunday of Advent elicit that same trembling fear. The first Sunday of the season is always devoted to texts about impending trouble and last days. From the Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 33.14-16) to the Gospel (Luke 21.25-36) we are warned of trouble to come. But in ridiculously non-specific ways. “The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah predicts. Jesus warns, “There will be signs. People will faint from fear. The powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
When is the “surely coming day”, Jeremiah?
How will we know an “end times” sign from an ordinary seasonal sign, Jesus?
Could you be more specific, please?
All of scripture is filled with warnings of danger and promises of deliverance. But nowhere is the danger time-stamped or the day of deliverance penciled on the calendar. Trouble will come. God will save. When? How? And, more important, how do we live in this maddening meantime?
The season of Advent anticipates three distinct events: the arrival of Jesus as a human child, the end of our own lives, and the great last day when we “stand before the Son of Man.” Most of us want to race to the manger, but before we do, we have to reckon with God’s non-specific time and the inevitable end of all things.
Please join us for the First Sunday of Advent and its anxiety-inducing images. We believe the days are surely coming, but when? We long to be blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus, but how? We know that “that day” will come “like a trap for all who live on the face of the earth,” but how will we receive it?
And we pray that we will have the courage to face all the trouble—the immediate and the cosmic—as Jesus instructed his disciples. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is coming near.”
I know one thing I will not be doing this weekend. I will not be downloading “The Silence of the Lambs” on Netflix. But I also know one thing I will be doing. I will be eagerly anticipating our time together in worship, as we stand together in the face of all life’s troubles.
Trying not to tremble,
Pastor JoAnn Post