Sunday, December 14, 2014

3rd Sunday of Advent: News we can use

Isaiah 61:1-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:19-28

“Because [Israel’s] shame was double and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy will be theirs.”  Isaiah 61:7

Isaiah’s words give me pause to consider the “lot” of the Church in our society much in the same way we should consider the “lot” of Israel in Isaiah’s context.  Depending upon whom we ask, of course, and what we consider of the Church’s past and present, there is plenty to be ashamed of.  Scandals and schisms have come and gone, and churches such as Westboro Baptist in Topeka KS get all the headlines and virtually "define" Christianity for the masses – and there will likely be more - but hospitals and schools and orphanages and shelters and soup kitchens and food pantries have sprung to life and served thousands in need by the hands of the Church whenever the Church has been faithful to Her calling. 

Isaiah’s writings are directed at a less-than-faithful people who had squandered their calling, their divinely appointed role as a “priestly” nation, a holy people set apart for YHWH’s purposes.  Yet in the face of Israel’s squandering of their holy calling, YHWH nevertheless remains faithful … not to Israel, per say, but to the Holy Covenant YHWH established with Israel.

Israel cannot avoid the “shame” and “dishonor” they brought upon themselves by denying YHWH’s true love: “justice” (Isaiah 61:8).  It is the same “shame” and “dishonor” the Church shares with Israel when the Church fails not only to speak up in the name of “justice” but fails also to act in the name of “justice”.  It is one thing to demand justice through legislation; it is another thing altogether to demand acts of justice from someone else – even a government agency – when we are unwilling to perform these acts of justice and mercy ourselves.

That’s the quandary the Church faces daily.  We can easily see through the lens of the New Covenant and the Great Commission that there is much to be done besides to simply exist as a building and hope people will get the message and maybe show up for worship, yet we are easily overwhelmed when the problems we are painfully aware of simply seem too big for us to handle – especially when the demands of our own lives require virtually all of our time and attention and energy.  The Advent season and the unreasonable demands we voluntarily impose upon ourselves – demands that often have little or nothing do to with the mission of the Church - make getting and staying properly focused on the Covenant even more challenging.

But this is entirely the purpose of Advent, a penitential season in which we are called to reflect and return; return to and embrace the Covenant, return to and embrace the Great Commission.  The birth of Messiah is a good place to start, but not in the way we have grown accustomed to.  Christmas is not, in and of itself, the sole focus of Advent.  As it has been said so many times before, Messiah will not be “born again”, and yet He will come again "to judge the living and the dead".  But what we have allowed Christmas to become in the Church is no help, for we have oriented ourselves to the fullness of the Advent season to be completed – over and done - on December 25. 

Yet within the reality and the hope of the New Covenant and the Great Commission, that blessed and holy Day on which humanity was so fully touched, is only the beginning.  Upon the news and remembrance of this Wondrous Day when "the Word became flesh", we take on the role of the shepherds who came to see – and then went to tell (Luke 2:17)!

Isaiah was speaking into the current reality of the Exile.  The book itself is filled with plenty of curses that would come as a result of faithlessness, but we cannot allow ourselves to become confused between “belief” as only an intellectual acknowledgement and earnest “faith” that calls us beyond ourselves and transforms our souls and lives.  We must not allow ourselves to be convinced that Israel had stopped “believing” and that this lack of "belief" somehow brought about the demise of a once-great nation.  Rather we must affirm an understanding that the faithlessness of Israel – the "faithlessness" of a “believing” and “chosen” people - was made manifest in their collective disobedience

They knew right from wrong – and they chose “wrong” over “right” ... in their actions and in their spiritual complacency.  It was not so much that they actively sought to do harm to their neighbors; it was more that they ignored their neighbors, the "widows and orphans" in distress.

As much as they had endured by their own failures which all but invited invading armies, however, YHWH chose to approach His beloved in the midst of their exile so they would know they had not been forgotten.  And this is that portion of Advent in which, during what should be a season of penitence and prayer and preparation for the Church, we are invited to look up from our own exile, see through the tears of our sorrow, and hear the Promise which is before us.  This is the purpose and the focus of Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent; “gaudete” being Latin for “rejoice”.  And the message from YHWH is this: I have not forgotten My Covenant.

As it was with Israel, YHWH may well be doing this very thing for the Church today.  We may, as individuals and as individual churches, believe all is well; but the collective Body of Christ (which should be our greater concern) is taking quite a beating – and will continue to take a beating for as long as we continue on our current course.  And it may get worse before it gets better as YHWH expects so much from His Body the Church (“To whom much has been given, much will be required”, Luke 12:48).  So the Church must be shaken from its complacency and realize its own desires and demands are not necessarily the Will of YHWH. 

Not much gets done for the sake of “justice” (which goes beyond mere ‘law and order’, by the way) when we are concerned only with ourselves, and our “outreach” is strictly limited only to those we like – or who look like us and act the way we think they should.  In other words, we don’t want to endure the hard and often uncomfortable and painful work of “making” disciples; we prefer to “recruit” new church members who are already so oriented and will be much more useful to us.  

In the middle of this spiritual complacency, however, our Lord (through the disciplined seasons of the Church, including Advent) reminds us that as disappointed as He may be in us, He has not stopped loving us and has not completely given up on us.  It then falls to us to respond to that reality in a real and socially tangible way – not simply take it for granted that He loves "me", and then call it "good".

We have heard these past couple of weeks the ominous warnings of YHWH’s return when the Final Judgment will be rendered.  Like Israel’s “chosen” status, we have confused our “redemption” and YHWH’s enduring mercy as an “excuse” to continue as before.  We have convinced ourselves that “repentance” is strictly for the non-believer; and this simply is not true, for the non-believer has no real concept of "repentance".  They only know loneliness and isolation - and very often, a judgmental Church.

On Gaudete Sunday, however, we are given a wondrous Gift.  We are reminded of a divinely appointed status which must be reclaimed and re-embraced!  It will not make us “perfect” – but it will remind us of who we truly are … and Whose we are when we learn and discipline ourselves to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thes 5:16-18).  It is that Holy Embrace of Divine Will in which we are assured we will find once again that special status conferred on us as when we were baptized: “You are My beloved”; “and everlasting joy will be yours.”

Glory and honor to the Most High God – and peace to His people on earth!  Amen.

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