"That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is expressed in our experiences as well as in the adage, 'If you don't know history, don't worry; it'll come back around.' Then we add our own folk wisdom, "And it will bite you on your back porch!"
The life cycle of the Church is no different, for Church history is human history. As we continue to analyze the decline since the 60's and 70's and try to come up with new "programs" or a misguided "marketing strategy", we overlook a crucial period in history in trying to understand why so many are walking away and why many more have fallen into a complacency about discipleship and faith. That period is known as The Enlightenment, the so-called "age of reason" which ran from about the middle of the 17th century to about the middle of the 18th century.
This period with its subsequent worship attendance decline was surely at least as bothersome to the Church then as it is now. This was the time when science was making itself known in explaining the natural world (often challenging biblical "miracles"). Philosophy also became its own force independent from religion with its own rules to break down the "old" structures and barriers and, ironically, create "new" structures and barriers (emphasis mine) (plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment).
Knowing what we do about the often heavy-handedness of the Church preceding this period in human history, there can be little doubt that the Church perceived an existential threat to its own well-being as well as to the spiritual well-being of untold numbers of souls when human reason began to trump religious faith; and any authority, particularly that of the Church, was called into question.
Following this period of spiritual rebellion was what came to be known as the First Great Awakening which was, for lack of a better term, a century-long revival within the Church intended to awaken the faithful from spiritual complacency. John Wesley's contribution to understanding and expressing faith and life in the Church cannot go without at least honorable mention as he sought to awaken the Church of England rather than try to start a whole new church.
In a nutshell, Wesley saw no conflict between our capacity to think for ourselves and the faith necessary to "see" the Lord at work in our lives and in our hearts. The doctrine of Free Will in our tradition demands that we use our own noodles, and Jesus Himself is very clear that one must first "count the cost" of discipleship lest we come off looking foolish later on when we discover we are unwilling or unable to bear the cost. In order to accept or reject, however, or make any decision of any kind, one must first have knowledge. As is so often stated but just as frequently rejected - no one "just knows" anything. Knowledge does not come from a vacuum.
Although St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans was written well before the 17th-century Awakening, he was calling for an "awakening" in his own time. "It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep; for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers" (13:11). We must understand, however, that St. Paul was not referring to that moment of justification when we become individually aware of our sins and our need for a Savior; that moment "when we became believers". Paul was not referring to a "come to Jesus" moment. Rather St. Paul was clearly talking about the "Jesus will come to us" moment when our Lord returns to "judge the living and the dead", to separate the "sheep from the goats"!
Isaiah and Matthew are also referring to a time which goes far beyond the birth of Messiah. It is often that the prophecies are used to point to that wondrous Day of the Nativity which the Church must continue to commemorate, but Isaiah's prophecy and the mission of the Church which Jesus clearly addresses obviously go far beyond Christmas Day as Jesus Himself affirms that The Day of the Lord is yet to be - that Day even the Son of God is not privy to.
So it could be suggested that this Day of the Lord is not on our spiritual radar screens, perhaps especially during this time of year, because we are so focused on the past that we refuse to look to the future; the concept of which is expressed by our Lord through the prophet Amos: "I hate, I despise your religious festivals ... I will not accept [your offerings] ... and I will not hear [your music]; but let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream" (5:21-24).
All is well with us if we have a "good" Christmas ("good" being relative to our own standards), but we rarely match our human ideal of "good" with the best of what our Lord calls from us before His return. Our Lord was admonishing His people for getting too wrapped up in their own celebrations to the exclusion of those who were on the fringes of society. Amos was all about justice.
Do we ignore the cry of the needy by suggesting they made their own beds to lie in? Do we turn our backs on the lonely and curse those families who ignore their own? Do we further marginalize those who already live on the fringes of society by insisting the government minister to them instead of us? Do we do all these things and much more because these might interfere with our "good" Christmas? Then I assure you, dear friends, we are not ready for our Lord to return! This was at the heart of the First Great Awakening.
Does this mean we have yet to sufficiently "earn" our place in the Kingdom? Of course not. It does mean, as our Lord Jesus has plainly said, "Not everyone who calls Me 'Lord' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven ... depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness" (Matthew 7:21-23); for "inasmuch as you did not [feed those who were hungry or clothe those who were naked or minister to those who were sick or visit those who were in prison], you did none of these things for Me - depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41-46).
In our own period of contemporary enlightenment when "universalism" (all will be saved) has made significant gains among the faithful, the concept of such a harsh judgment coming from such a loving God is very hard, if not impossible, to reconcile. After all, we did not cause someone to be hungry, did we? We did not cause someone to be without the basic necessities, we did not cause someone to be lonely, and we certainly did not cause someone to break the law and wind up in prison. Did we??
We cannot account for the conduct of others nor will we be held accountable for the sins of others. Being accountable for our own actions and our own neglect of those things over which we do have some measure of control, however, is at the heart of "watching" for the return of our Lord just as one would "watch" his house if he knew exactly when the thief would show up. In "watching", however, we would not merely sit idle; we would work to make necessary preparations.
How do we "watch"? What is expected of us? It's not as if we can manipulate the time of our Lord's return so that He will come only when "we" are ready, but there is something which must be taken into consideration. It is not strictly that "reveling and drunkenness", "debauchery and licentiousness", "quarreling and jealousy" are offensive to our Lord; they are, of course. It is rather that these things, these behaviors stunt spiritual growth. It is that while we are engaged in these and so many other actions, we cannot live up to our full spiritual or even human potential.
We cannot reflect the very Image in which we are all created, having become so spiritually disabled. Thus we cannot "watch" because we are spiritually blinded. We cannot "see" because the shade of spiritual darkness has overwhelmed us, and we will not "see" or "hear" until the door of the ark is sealed against us and the waves of sin and degradation wash over us and sweep us away.
The success of The Enlightenment was in giving humans "permission", so to speak, to think for themselves, including the people of the Holy Church. The fallacy of The Enlightenment was - and still is - the insistence that faith and the human capacity for reason are inherently at odds with one another. We can acknowledge the usefulness and necessity of human reason, but we must also be willing to acknowledge the limitations of human reason and the arbitrariness of human standards of "good".
The Glory of the Lord our God, however, came shining through in the First Great Awakening when the Church was reminded of her need for Her Lord and Savior in Her willing submission. The fallacy of The Enlightenment was revealed in our human weakness borne of our innate limitations!
So we as the Church are again standing at a crossroads. What we face is "nothing new under the sun", for we have been here before. If it seems good to our Lord that the Holy Spirit should awaken us once again, we must then be willing to cast aside those things that weigh us down, those things that bind us, those things that degrade and exploit us. Let us once again "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no [more] provisions for the flesh" - for we all have now more than we will ever need.
The Lord speaks through His prophet Jeremiah, "Return, My backsliding [children] ... for I am merciful; I will not remain angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity ... [admit] that you have not obeyed My Voice" (3:12,13).
Let this first Sunday of Advent be a day of New Beginnings without a definitive ending on a calendar. Let us welcome and embrace a Renewed Awakening so that we may once again find His Way beyond our own; the way to Glory, the way of the Lord's Messiah; the Way of Life, the way Home. Amen.