Today is Advent Sunday, the first day on the liturgical church calendar.
So it’s none too early to say, “Happy New Year!”
This the first in a series of reflections on Advent, when churches observe the incarnation of Christ while anticipating and preparing for his second appearance. Click here for a Protestant theologian’s primer.
Observing the Advent Season, rather than the Christmas season that the American culture has hijacked and secularized, is a good way to remain mindful of the proverbial reason for the season. Click here for the wonderful “Advent Conspiracy,” whose motto is “Christmas was meant to be celebrated, not regretted.”
SCRIPTURE READING: Rom. 8: 18-25
KEY VERSES (24, 25): “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
I’ve always been fond of that snappy little “Prayer for Patience” that goes, “Lord, give me patience–and give it to me now!”
The Bible ends with the Book of Revelation–that radically misinterpreted message to persecuted Christians that is all about living in faith and hope–giving us a vision of a perfectly glorious future as promised by Jesus himself.
In fact, Christ the lamb of God promises repeatedly in his final earthly appearances that “I am coming soon” (Rev. 22: 7, 12, 20). His promise is to restore the paradise that was Eden, complete with all the joy and wonder that Adam and Eve experienced before they blew it. In the “New Jerusalem,” nothing accursed will be found there anymore. (Rev. 22: 1-5)
But wait! Since Jesus made this promise repeatedly, more than 2,000 years ago–and promised it all so convincingly that even the Apostles initially thought their savior would return in their lifetimes, what’s he waiting on?
The short answer, ye of little patient faith, is that he came once and remains in our midst even now; and yet, he ascended to the heavenly, Trinitarian realm, and is yet to come.
Christianity is nothing if not a paradox wrapped in a paradox. G.K. Chesterton, that big, gentle bear of a Christian thinker, put it this way:
“The crucified flesh of God on the cross sends a difficult and demanding message, namely that weakness is really strength, wisdom is really foolishness, death is really life, matter is really spirit, religion is often slavery, and sin itself, when recognized, is actually the path to salvation and authentic holiness. Of course, because of our need for the appearance of power and a firm conviction that we are right, we don’t want to hear any of this paradoxical stuff. Faith knows and does not know at the same time.”
Jesus came those 2,000 years ago and remains present with us in our joy as well as our suffering, and yet will come again in fullness to usher in the divine, peaceable kingdom, where all will be as good as when God Himself/Herself declared repeatedly in creating the world that “it is good.”
Meanwhile, Christians are obligated to meet Christ halfway, being his hands, his feet, his conscience, his consciousness.
Who knows? Maybe he’s waiting on us to get to get halfway to some Way Station.
Christianity was, after all, called “The Way” before it was ever called Christianity.
We’re obliged to work alongside Christ, as he dwells in our spiritual midst, to advance the kingdom in the here and now, people. That doesn’t happen by our sitting around twiddling our thumbs and assuring ourselves in our sinful delusions that we’ve been “saved!” and “born again!” and are thereby assured a place in heaven because, after all–we tithe 10 percent and probably will never murder anybody.
As the acclaimed United Methodist theologian Randy Maddox notes, grace comes with the responsibility on our part to respond to God, not to simply be a decent-enough person. “While grace comes to us as a gift from God, we are the ones who must respond in order to fully incorporate it into our lives and the lives of others,” Maddox writes in Responsible Grace.
Indeed, in accepting the free gift of grace we take on the responsibility of sacrificial living, not superficial mouthing.
Christ is in our midst already (Matt. 25: 40), equipping us in our responsibility and our work to advance peace, justice and a life more abundant for ourselves–and more so for those outside the comfort zones of our nice homes and tall steeple church walls.
Meanwhile, we wait in hope for the heavenly liberation of all from pain and struggle. We wait for God’s definitive peace, shalom, which entails the healing of all creation as well as the redemption of our suffering bodies (Rom. 8: 22-25).
This all requires that we bear the fruit of the spirit that is patience.
And the best antidote to impatience–or boredom or worry or anxiety or a sense of hopelessness in a seemingly hopeless world–is some hard labor in God’s vineyards.