Sunday, November 27, 2016

Near the End? Or at the Beginning?

1st Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

"Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which [one] must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs [our] life, and it is grace because it gives [us] the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and [it is] grace because it justifies the sinner.  Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God so much cannot be cheap for us.  Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His own Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us.  Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

This is “costly grace” as opposed to what Bonhoeffer termed “cheap grace” which, among other things, promises forgiveness without repentance.  That is, believing ourselves to be saved in our sins rather than freed from them.  And if we think about it in the light of the chaos our world and our nation face today, it makes no sense that salvation from all this can be found without a resolve on our part to fully repent, to willfully turn away from the path of death and into the glory of Life.  The ugliness, the hatefulness, the spitefulness, the vindictiveness, and the violence we are sunk into up to our necks?  No one in his or her right mind would care to be left in that swamp of self- and social destruction!  We should wish to be delivered from it!  That is, unless we are actively engaged in it and take some perverse pleasure from the destruction of others.

Yet there must be a reason for wishing to be delivered from this peculiar and not-so-subtle evil we face today.  Humanity is in an extreme mode of self-destruction.  Authority at all levels has been called into question so much so that some feel free to take shots at police officers whose sole purpose in our society is to keep the peace and enforce the laws.  The badge, which should serve to represent the community, has become little more than a target.

Violent protests can crop up at any time and at any place without warning to the point that we cannot plan a day trip without at least being mindful of the possibility of being caught in the cross fire.  Every little thing said – in politics and perhaps especially in the pulpits – can be easily twisted and manipulated to our “offense”because we have not only lost our ability to reason; we have surrendered our willingness to even listen except to hear only what we wish to hear.

We should be so lucky that The Lord would return today!  But we are also compelled to ask ourselves the very question Jesus posed when He taught about The Lord’s demand for justice and our need to pray constantly: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).    

This is the question of Advent because what we must actually be preparing ourselves for goes far beyond the celebration of the birth of Messiah; we are awaiting the return of the Son of Man who will “judge the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed).  And as St. Paul sounded the alarm to his Roman audience; the time is “nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11b).  Nearer with each passing day.

In our world and especially in our churches, however, we face a much more sinister force than open violence.  We face the insidious deception by means of manipulation of the Bible and what is written for our instruction to build up the whole Body of Christ beyond each individual.  Maybe there were once noble intentions of telling people only what they wanted to hear initially so they would come to church and fill the pews (and maybe even the collection plates!); but as it is often said, the road to hell is paved with noble intentions.

So what to do?  The first Sunday of Advent is to celebrate Christ our Hope.  So what do we hope?   That when “two are in the field and one is taken”, we are not the one who is left?  Sure, but I think we will have to go a little deeper and look a little closer.  We will have to do better than this not only for the sake of our own souls but for the souls of our children, our grandchildren, our great-grands as well as those whom our Lord defines as our “neighbor” – those in distress, those whom the world has beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead! 

We must also not get caught up in the doom-and-gloom mindset that we are only preparing for the End because this is not at all what Advent is about!  The very nature of repentance itself is not to prepare for the End; rather, it is the start of a whole new life, a whole new way of thinking and doing that not only prepares us for an unknown End to a world we once knew but a known and well-defined Beginning of a whole new life and a new world!  It is the Beginning of a sanctified Life, the Life which purposefully grows in more godly perfection with each passing day!  Not accidentally or incidentally, but purposefully.

Every day is a new Beginning when we enter into that day with a profound sense and spirit of Hope rather than of dread.  And if we are only trying to avoid hell for ourselves, every day is a day of dread and fear!  Yet we cannot overlook Jesus’ warning in Matthew’s Gospel.  We cannot pretend this is not written.  That Day, that “unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44) will come with certainty, but note what precedes Jesus’ warning about those who will be left behind and how they will come to such a state of being unworthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

False messiahs with false messages of false hope.  Our willingness to believe anything which sounds good, requires nothing from us, and fits our own life’s narrative but is not measured against the weight of Holy Scriptures.  All “good news” with no warnings, no cautions.  Personal salvation with no concern for others.  A sense of forgiveness without having repented.  Baptism without church discipline.  Communion without confession.  Grace without discipleship.  Grace without the Cross.  Life without a sense of having died to oneself so we may live fully in and for Christ

This is Bonhoeffer’s take on Matthew 24 – and then some!  I dare to say Bonhoeffer’s message was directed to the Christians of the world – and perhaps especially to those of Germany during the Nazi era – who remained silent in their fear while “others” – those whom Jesus defined as our “neighbor” (Luke 10:25-37) - faced unspeakable evil.  A calling of conscience for those who claimed – and still claim – an affiliation and “personal relationship” with Messiah but with a blind eye and deaf ear to those who suffer, to those who struggle for justice and mercy.

And when Advent is just another “count-down to Christmas” without a closer look and profound resolve and when Christmas itself remains more about family, favored friends, Santa Claus, and gluttony than about The Lord (but we feel perfectly ok about this), we have lost our resolve for any sort of a “beginning” and have rejected the prophetic “Light of The Lord” as spoken of by Isaiah (2:5).  We have chosen instead the darkness of a godless culture; a culture which presumes “all is well” and that “no harm will come to us” (Jeremiah 23:17).

It does not have to be this way, though.  The point of Grace – the very merciful and forgiving nature of our God and Father – is that it is never too late to begin anew – this New Beginning which always involves “others” where once it never did.  It is never too late to repent – and no one of us is above a need to repent from something.  We are never too old or too set in our ways that we cannot embrace the “costly” nature of Divine Grace by which “God did not reckon His own Son too dear a price to pay for our life”.

There is a catch, though.  It is “costly” Grace because it requires our whole life (not just our “Sunday life”) and yet offers to us the fullness of a Life worth living in the here-and-now and worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven when the “Unexpected Hour” (Matthew 24:44) is upon us.  For in Christ Jesus, the Eternal Word, every day can be the very Beginning of something wonderful.  Let it begin here.  Let it begin now.  Amen.

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