Sunday, December 7, 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent

After the kingdom of Judah was conquered
by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar,
the Jewish people lived in exile in Babylon
for the next two generations,
until Babylon itself was conquered by the Persians
and the exiles were allowed to return.
For two generations the Jewish people
remained faithful to their God —
studying God’s Law, keeping God’s Sabbath —
as they awaited God’s salvation
and their return to their homeland.
Our first reading is an announcement of that return:
"Comfort, give comfort to my people. . .
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her service is ended."

Many of us are familiar with these words
from the opening of Handel’s Messiah,
which places them in the context of the Christian faith,
so that the waiting of Israel in exile
becomes a sign and symbol
of humanity’s long wait for Christ, the world’s redeemer.
And our Gospel reading today
presents us with John the Baptist,
a voice "crying out in the desert,"
who announces that redeemer:
"One who is mightier than I is coming after me. . . .
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
And so the redeemer whom the world had awaited
arrives in the person of Jesus of Nazareth,
and the words of Isaiah are fulfilled:
"here is your God!"

And yet. . . and yet. . . aren’t we still waiting?
Has the rugged land been made into a plain?
Has the rough county becomes a broad valley?
Has the glory of the Lord been revealed?
If we look at the news,
don’t we still see the rugged land of terror and violence?
If we look at our own lives,
don’t we still find in ourselves
the rough country of pride or sloth or greed
or just plain thoughtlessness?
If we look at our world,
can we see even a glimpse of God’s glory being revealed?
We believe that the world’s redeemer has come;
why then does our world look so unredeemed?
If in Jesus God has spoken God’s definitive word of comfort,
why do we so often feel that we are still in exile in Babylon,
far from the homeland of God’s promise?

The way theologians sometimes put the matter
is that in Jesus we experience a salvation
that has already come to us,
but is not yet realized fully in our world.
Through faith in Jesus we are already
in the homeland of God’s promise,
but still have not yet completely left behind
our exile in Babylon.

Already. . . but not yet.
It’s a nice theological formulation,
but does it help us solve the problem
of how we live with that "not yet"?
Our second reading tells us that
"with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day"
and this may help us to grasp intellectually
why we can’t expect the world’s redemption
to follow our human timetable,
but it doesn’t tell us how we are to endure
the passage of those thousand-year-long days
as we await the new heavens and new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
What we really need to know
is how to cultivate patience as we live in the "not yet."

I sometimes think that in our world today,
patience is one of the most under appreciated virtues.
It seems like we need everything to have been done yesterday,
that our computers never boot up fast enough,
checkout lines at stores never move speedily enough,
change in Washington never comes promptly enough,
and those with whom we must live and work
never adapt to our needs briskly enough.
But I suspect that it is not simply today
that we find patience so difficult.
Our second reading testifies to the fact that in the first century
people were complaining about the delay
of the world’s final redemption,
and I suspect that those same people complained
that their ox carts ran too slow
and their crops took too long to grow.

We find patience difficult because patience is hard;
indeed, the word "patience" comes from the Latin patior,
which means "to suffer."
We don’t like being patient because we don’t like to suffer.
But patience is precisely what we need
to live in the "not yet."
It is the form that faithfulness takes
as we await the new heavens and the new earth.
It is a faithfulness that allows God to act
according to God’s own schedule,
in our world and in each one of our lives.
It is what allows us to take action to make our world
a better place and ourselves better people
while allowing the fruits of our actions
to remain in hands of God,
who judges our actions and our lives
in terms of faithfulness and not results.

And so in this Advent season
we should try to cultivate patience.
We should let this season of spiritual anticipation
become a time in which we strive to live
with all of the "not yets" in our world.
I would make one concrete suggestions.
Our patience, our faithfulness,
is founded on God’s patience and God’s faithfulness.
Our second reading tells us
that what we perceive as the delay of God’s promise
is in fact God being patient with us,
God giving us time to change,
so that we can live joyfully in God’s kingdom.

As we try to be patient with God,
we must recognize that God is the source of all patience,
and so our cultivation of patience
must involve prayer, asking God for the gift of patience.
One way to cultivate patience is to make the world stop
by taking time each day, even if only five minutes, to pray.
And in your prayer, ask God for a share in God’s patience.
Ask God to enable you to see yourself and others
through God’s eyes,
those eyes for which a thousand years are but a day,
those eyes of infinite patience.
And then listen.
Listen for the glad tiding that are already here,
listen for God’s word of comfort,
spoken tenderly to you and to our world.
And then speak:
become the voice that cries, like John the Baptist,
"make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God."
Become the one through whom God speaks
words of comfort to a world in exile.

Ask. . . listen. . . speak.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

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