Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent 3

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Every election cycle the promise of change
is peddled to us like a healing remedy,
but it often proves to be more an opiate
to dull the pain of injustice and oppression
as we look for the better days that are sure to come
once the right people are in charge.
Or it is a stimulant to excite and enrage us,
to agitate us with false energy
growing from the resentments
and disappointments of life,
making us lash out at perceived enemies
who, we are told, must be put in their place
or even eliminated
in order for the promised change to occur.
And when, as so often happens,
the change that is promised does not arrive,
or—perhaps worse—does arrive
but with consequences
that we did not foresee or desire,
then our hope turns to bitterness,
until the next political season,
when new promises of change will made.

It is also what is promised to us each Advent.
Do we not hear that a day is coming
when, “the eyes of the blind [will] be opened,
the ears of the deaf [will] be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing”?
Do we not hear of Jesus,
at whose appearance among us,
“the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news
proclaimed to them”?
Do we not hear of a change that is coming,
the change to end all changes,
when suffering will be banished
and death will be no more?
What is Advent about if it is not about change?

But how do we know
that the change promised each Advent
is not the same sort of opiate or stimulant
that is peddled to us in each election cycle?
How do we know that the change
proclaimed to us in this season
does not also dull our passion for justice
with the promise of a better day to come?
How do we know the change
proclaimed to us in this season
does not also feed our resentment of those
who have things better than we do,
those whose lives have worked out
where ours have not,
making us want to put them in their place?
How do we know that the hope of change
promised to us in Advent
is a healing remedy and not a dangerous drug?

But Advent does not only promise change;
it also counsels patience.
The letter of James tells us today,
“Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.”
Of course, the counsel to patience
might sound like another version
of promised change
as an opiate that dulls our pain,
an encouragement to sit on our hands
as we await our rescue.
But we misunderstand what patience is
if we think it is just waiting around
for something to change.
The letter of James,
perhaps more than any other writing
in the New Testament
stresses the need to put our faith into action;
it is, after all, the letter that says,
“just as a body without a spirit is dead,
so also faith without works is dead.”
This is hardly a counsel to just wait around for change.

What then do we make of patience?
The root of our word “patience”
is the Latin word patientia,
meaning to suffer.
It is the same source from which
we derive the term “passion,”
which is the name we give
to the suffering of Jesus on the cross,
the great labor that he undertook
for our salvation.
As the passion of Jesus shows us,
patience is not a matter of sitting idle;
but neither is it a matter of agitated energy
breeding anger and resentment
of those we see opposing the change we desire.
Patience is the revolutionary act of being willing
to actively suffer for the cause of God,
even as events unfold around us
in ways that we do not—cannot—control.
Patience is the virtue that allows us
not to be seduced by the empty rhetoric of change
into either a gentle haze of vague hope,
or the angry agitation of resentment.
Patience is the willingness to let God determine
when change will come,
the willingness to suffer
the slow revealing of God’s kingdom,
even as we continue to actively labor
as disciples of Jesus
for that day when the desert
“will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.”

Each of us, when we were baptized,
was marked with the sign of the cross.
We begin and end each liturgy with that sign.
We make that sign at those key moments in our lives
when we need strength to act or patiently to wait.
In this Advent season, we mark ourselves
with the sign of Christ's suffering,
the sign of his revolutionary patience,
as a witness to our willingness
to fight for change
without succumbing to false hopes
or bitter resentments;
we mark ourselves
as a witness to our willingness
to follow the path of Jesus
through the cross
to new life in the Spirit;
we mark ourselves
as a witness to our willingness
to seek first the kingdom of God,
the kingdom that even now
is appearing among us.