Monday, December 05, 2011

2nd Sunday of Advent - Striving to be found

2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

It has often been said that the apostles seemed to believe the Lord would return to establish His Kingdom during their lifetimes.  It would likely have been incomprehensible for them to think that some 2000 years later, the Church would still be found waiting (can we think 2000 years ahead??).  I think, then, they would have appreciated that the Church sometime in the 5th-6th century would move to establish the practice and season of Advent as a means to help the Church to not take the coming Day of the Lord for granted and to help the faithful to "prepare the way of the Lord [and] make His paths straight."

Yet here we are some 2000 years later talking about something that is as inconceivable to us as any other thing we can imagine; the End of the World, the End of Days, the End of Time, the Day of the Lord.  Advent was much simpler when we were children because it was merely a countdown to Christmas and Santa Claus.  Once December 26 hit the mark, it was all over.  No more fuss, no more muss, no more PRESSURE!  Put everything away, give it not another thought, and wait until next year.  As adults and mature Christians, however, we can no longer do this, of course, because even though we appropriately celebrate and commemorate the birth of the Christ Child we cannot rest on our laurels because the Day of the Lord - His imminent return - is still upon us.  Our Lord compels us to never, ever take Him for granted. And yet we do.

It is fascinating to read the account of John's ministry as a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy because of the way the acclamation and public response are portrayed.  "John ... appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And the people from the WHOLE JUDEAN COUNTRYSIDE and ALL THE PEOPLE OF JERUSALEM were going out to him ..."  The accounts make it sound like the entire nation all but shut down so everyone could go to the river to repent, be baptized, and thus "flee from the wrath to come" (Luke 3:7).    

Advent makes this same proclamation and call to repentance as the means by which to "prepare the way of the Lord" who, according to our doctrine and theology, will certainly return; but the response even within the Church is tepid and lukewarm at best.  It's just another mark on the calendar that ends December 25 after the last package from under the tree is unwrapped and tossed aside.  We are unable and sometimes perhaps unwilling to see beyond that calendar date.  Besides, we're already baptized in a tradition that also states "we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins", and the contemporary Church is being virtually overrun by the notion that there is nothing left to do except "get saved"; and once "saved", the journey is complete.  Oh, there will be the so-called "C & E" Christians who will faithfully show up for Christmas and Easter Sunday services whether they want to or not, but there is no general spike in worship attendance and participation during Advent.  So why the urgency now?  What else is there to do?  Where is the sense of urgency and anticipation which seemed to have existed during the time of John the baptizer?  Has the Return of the Lord somehow become "old news"?

Maybe we would do well to consider Advent in the same way we consider a prior notice of guests coming to our homes.  Who does not jump through hoops to make sure everything is "just so" before guests arrive?  Or better yet: how do you prepare your home when you know your MOTHER-IN-LAW is coming?!?!  Well, this changes everything!  And while we can certainly believe the Lord will be far more merciful than mothers-in-law during the "inspection tour", would it not do well for us to put at least as much attention on "preparation" for the Lord's arrival as we would for some other guest - or our MOTHERS-IN-LAW??

St. Peter urges the faithful to "strive to be found by Him".  The psalmist says the Lord "will speak peace ... to those who turn to Him in their hearts" (Psalm 85:8).  So it seems to me the Scriptures indicate that the ones who will be "found" by the Lord are those who are found in the Last Day engaged in those means of grace by which we are actively - and not incidentally -"striving to be found" (rather than striving against one another) and "turning to Him" (rather than turning away those who need our help or those who disagree with us).  We would be ill-advised to disregard the judgment of the "sheep" and the "goats" from Matthew 25:31-46, for the journey is far over.

Yet the Church universal is in a state of decline and has been for two generations.  We can blame this faction or that element or this doctrinal dispute or that political issue for the decline, but if one denomination is having a problem - and they all are to one extent or another - then the Church herself is having a problem.  Each is striving in its own way and within its own understanding of what it means to be actively engaged in the struggle to complete the Journey as faithfully as possible, and many within every denomination are stumbling. 

Some have chosen to strike out on their own, believing (or claiming to believe) that the Church is only impeding their personal spiritual growth - or that the Church has done far more harm than good.  In the end, then, it seems they do not want to be found "striving"; they only want to be found in the Last Day having been "saved" at some point in the past.  It is incumbent upon the Church - that's you and me - to faithfully fulfill the Church's mission and help these many back into the sheepfold, back into the flock and away from the many "goats".  It is necessary for the Church to continue to proclaim the Gospel that invites - rather than judges - and it is necessary for the Church to remind these many who have pulled away by "blaming" someone or something that the Church is weakened by their absence and the journey made much more burdensome for the many who need genuine spiritual help.

It is easy to see that patience for this coming Day of the Lord is wearing thin and the Church is losing - or has already lost - her focus by paying more attention to political issues than spiritual ones.  The Church seems more intent on being socially respectable rather than doctrinally faithful and if this is so, then perhaps what Peter is challenging the Church to do is to shift her focus from the here-and-now and put the spiritual spotlight back where it belongs: on what is to come.  "Regarding the patience of our Lord as salvation", according to what Peter wrote, could be construed as suggesting the Lord will NOT return to rescue His faithful or establish His Kingdom until the faithful get it right; until we prove to the Lord that HE alone is our focus, that HE alone is our salvation, that HE alone is our prayer.  Until we make this choice, until we make this our priority, perhaps it is He will leave us to languish, watch, and wait for yet another 2000 years.

It is impossible and counterproductive, of course, to try and outthink the Lord and His Coming Day especially when Jesus Himself makes it clear that even HE is not privy to when this Day will occur.  It is also a dangerous and spiritually disingenuous thing to proclaim or use the Last Day as a spiritual threat in any way, remembering that it is the LORD'S DAY and not our weapon of choice; much in the same way we should view and embrace the Sabbath itself as a PROMISE of spiritual restoration.  This, my dear friends, is what we are waiting for.  And for those "striving to be found"?  This they will find - and in abundance.  To His Eternal Glory, and in the Eternity of His Kingdom to Come.  Amen.     

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