Sunday, December 23, 2012

4th Sunday of Advent 2012: "Anticipation"

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Luke 1:39-45

"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found [lacking].  It has been found difficult and left untried."  G.K. Chesterton

How are we to understand exactly what it means for us as we prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of the "Prince of Peace"?  Something important happened when Jesus of Nazareth was born, yet something even more important will take place when Messiah returns to "judge the living and the dead", as the Church's creed states.  What this means for us in our day-to-day living somewhere between the Incarnation of Messiah and His Return can perhaps be anyone's guess, but I think the common thread that connects the prophet Micah, to Mary, and to Elizabeth - but seems substantially disconnected with us - is "anticipation"; waiting with great expectation and living as though something marvelous is ahead of us.  These biblical characters were excited about the coming Messiah, the "Prince of Peace".  Today?  We're just excited about Christmas, a date which will end even before the sun sets. 

Awaiting the "Prince of Peace" by merely waiting for Christmas Day is a challenge for the Church because we have so long associated Advent strictly with anticipation of Christmas.  It is a natural and traditional assumption because, as I have shared previously, it is the order of the Church's calendar though it is not necessarily an order of actual events because, after all, we cannot wait for something which has already taken place; we should be anticipating Christ's return even as we will celebrate His coming into the world. We are further challenged in the context of the promised "Prince of Peace" because we are a nation at war. 

Because of the challenges the world's terrorists continue to mount against peace-loving people, virtually the entire world is at war to one degree or another.  Because of the fears and uncertainties about the economic and political future of this nation, we are virtually at war with one another right here at home!  Because of the fears and uncertainties about the future of the United Methodist Church and the Church universal as a whole, we are virtually at war with one another within the very Body of Christ!!  Each "player" in these conflicts earnestly believes he or she is doing the right thing for whichever cause they profess, but how right can anything be when we know someone will be hurt in the process?

Yet we cannot discount or ignore our Lord who stated very clearly: "Do not think I came to bring peace on earth.  I did not come to bring peace but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).  How do we reconcile this with the promised "Prince of Peace", the One whom we proclaim and believe has already come?  How about the angelic host who announced to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace and goodwill toward men"(Luke 2:14)?  Was it a cruel joke?  Did the Gospel writers get it wrong?  Or was John the Baptist's question a valid one: "Are You the Coming One, or do we wait for another?" 

The Revelation indicates a 1000-year period in which the evil one will be locked into the "bottomless pit ... so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years are finished" (20:1-3).  This will be the time of the First Resurrection for "the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus", the martyrs who gave their all for their faithful work and witness, those who refused the "mark of the beast" (whatever that "mark" may be), those who held nothing back from our Lord and the work they were called to do.

For our purpose of understanding this great cosmic mystery is Peter's announcement of the Lord's intent in the seeming delay of His imminent return: "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but for all to come to repentance.  But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief ..." (2 Peter 3:8-10); that is, unexpectedly for those who do not excitedly anticipate this Day that is yet to come, unexpectedly for those who try to pretend it won't happen at all.

So the intent of Advent is very much a New Testament thing but is also consistent with Old Testament prophesies.  There are some OT references that seem clear about the literal birth of Messiah, at least within a traditional interpretation, but there are many other OT prophecies that go beyond the birth of Messiah when referring to the "Day of the Lord".  These are the prophecies which are carried forth by the apostles of Christ's Church and spoken of in the visions of The Revelation. That is, we still very much have something ahead of us, something to anticipate, most certainly something for which we must prepare not with dread or fear but with excitement; the kind of excitement only genuine, God-given faith can produce!

"End Times", however, is hard to teach and preach with a positive spin because "end times" is immediately associated with "doomsday".  Doom?  For those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, "the end" is a time of mourning and grief.  Who would look forward to anything like this?  And even to speak of "end times" as spoken of by the apostles - and by Jesus Himself - seems redundant today because we are 2000 years removed from the time of Jesus.  Within our human capacity to understand, we might even reason to ourselves that since He hasn't come by now, He's not coming at all! OR we are misinterpreting what is written for us in the Scriptures.

We mark time according to clocks and calendars in definitive terms; we cannot think in "eternal" terms.  So Advent themes get a little tricky for us if we remove Christmas from the overall anticipation because we can easily "count down" to a date we are familiar with and can see coming, but we cannot "count down" to the Day of the Lord, a time which "is not for you to know" (Acts 1:7).

Aside from this, however, "Count Down" is not even appropriate because we do not know, cannot know, NEED NOT know of the Day of the Lord until that Day is upon us.  Why?  Because we still have lives to live and a Gospel to proclaim!  Good News for any who are desperately searching for Good News, who NEED some Good News in their lives!  And the News is all good, of course, but we still live in a world filled with conflict and hatred.  The same world which the "Prince of Peace" had been born into, the same world - incidentally - that rejected Him, mocked Him, and killed Him; a world not unlike the one we experience even today.

It is time for the Church to get real about what life in Messiah and His imminent return can really mean for us, and it cannot begin and end on a single date on a calendar.  Call me a killjoy, Scrooge, or Grinch if it makes you feel better about yourself, but it is time to put certain holiday traditions in their appropriate places.  Even if we try to put the "St Nicholas" spin on the "jolly ol' elf" and feebly attempt to insert this tradition into the Gospel of our Lord, is it not ironic that we would celebrate this bona fide saint of the Church while making fun of the Catholics who venerate (NOT worship!) the saints, including the very Mother of the Most High God herself? 

It is time to give our children so much more than a moment which will pass as surely and as quickly as the morning of the 25th!  It is just not possible to teach children about Jesus and the Covenant by indulging in their every desire for gifts and fantasy.  And it is not possible to be a true witness of the Gospel to an unbelieving world which has outright rejected Christ's Holy Body the Church, when they are unable to distinguish the difference between a "Christian" Christmas and a non-Christian celebration of the holidays except by empty words chosen to designate the "proper" holiday greeting!

There is a distinctive, feel-good spirit about this time of year from which many of us have some of our most cherished memories.  This is the time of year when we remember to share our many blessings.  This is the time of year when we reflect on that awesome moment in eternity when the Almighty touched the human race in an unmistakable way, but this is also that time of year during Advent (which, remember, means "coming"; not "done come") when we are reminded that our journey is not complete and the time to anticipate is not ended as soon as the last package has been unwrapped; for it is as our Savior admonishes us: "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).

The "Prince of Peace" is in the hearts and minds of the faithful who live and work and act and worship with confidence in the Risen Christ and the Eternal Covenant in an unbelieving - and sometimes - hostile world.  The peace of Almighty God has been given to His Holy Church so that we can face the present and the future with hope, with confidence, and with great anticipation for the Eternity of the Kingdom which is upon us!

It is that Eternity which came to us in Christ and the New Covenant.  It is that Eternity we become a part of NOT when we demand that our Lord follow us in our own choices - but rather when we "take up our crosses" and follow Him.  For the Way of our Lord is the Way Home.  Confidence in that spiritual and eternal reality is where our Peace comes from.  That Peace is Christ our Lord who is always before us - NEVER behind us.  And we can and must give thanks always to our Heavenly Father who grants this peace to His Holy Church. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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