30 November 2014

Know where you stand

1st Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

We begin with a lament: “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we [do not] fear you?” So, it's God's fault that we wander from His ways and do not fear Him? God hardens our hearts against Him? Isaiah's lament leaves us to wonder whether or not God truly wants us to follow His Word, to be awed by His glory. The prophet wails to God: “. . .we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” And our sins, our polluted deeds, our guilt, all of it is God's doing? How? Why? No one calls on your name. No one clings to your Word. No one seeks out your face, Lord; so, Isaiah says, “. . .you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.” Sin separates us from God. We cannot call upon His name nor hear His Word nor seek out His face in sin. In other words, while we dwell in sin – willful disobedience – it is as if God has abandoned us. Jesus tells his disciples (and us): “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” The time for what? The time of his return and our judgment. We wait for The End.

The End comes for us when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We celebrate his first arrival – his birth – at Christmas. So, the Advent season pulls double-duty: 1) a time of expectation before the birth of the Christ-Child at Christmas, and 2) a dry run for his second coming in glory. Advent is set aside in the Church year for waiting. Waiting with anticipation. Not just hangin' around, twiddlin' our thumbs but real, conscious, active waiting. I'll confess right now that I do not Wait Well. Watch me drive btw the seminary on S. Carrollton and the priory on Harrison any afternoon. I start wishing for roof-mounted rocket launchers on my car. Or watch me at 4am while I stand dazed, confused, and frustrated in front of the priory's slowly dribbling coffee maker. Nothing sets off my impatience like inattentive drivers or slow-working machines. Or meandering customers at Winn-Dixie. Or pointless meetings. No, I definitely do not wait well. Do you? And I don't just mean “are you impatient generally?” I mean, when it comes to being attentive to your spiritual life, your intimate relationship with God, do you wait upon Him eagerly, joyfully, without expectation? Advent is our chance to examine ourselves thoroughly and find out. 
In this sense, Advent has a penitential edge to it. We might think that Advent is a season of joy, a pre-season of cheeriness gearing up for the Real Cheer of Christmas. But on this First Sunday of Advent, we began with a sobering reminder of exactly what Advent is. We heard Isaiah's confession: God's people are sinful, unclean; even our good deeds are like polluted rags; and our guilt carries us away like a wind! Then Jesus tells us to be watchful and alert for his coming in judgment. “Watch, therefore;” he warns, “you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.” Advent is a time of expectancy, anticipating the Lord's nativity, but it is also a time of examination, penance, conversion, and growing in holiness. And it is a season for us to live out Isaiah’s confession: “O Lord, we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands.” If Advent is going to be a season of good spiritual fruit, if we are turn away from disobedience and receive God's mercy, then we must bring fresh to our hearts and minds the wisdom of Isaiah’s confession: we are made from the stuff of the Earth, breathed into life by the divine breath, shaped, and given purpose by a God Who looks upon us as works of art, creations to be loved and saved and brought back to Him unblemished and whole. 
Earlier I suggested that Isaiah seems to blame God for our sinfulness. This is a lament. Isaiah is mourning; he's grieving the apparent loss of God's favor in His people. But God did not turn away from His people. His people turned away from Him and then experienced their turning away as being abandoned by God. Believing themselves abandoned, they reveled in disobedience, fooling themselves into thinking that their words and deeds would go unjudged by the Just Judge. Isaiah's lament is a plea to God's people to turn around and face the Lord once more. . .before they condemn themselves to live forever with the consequences of their sin. Jesus' admonition to us – be watchful, be alert – is more than a warning to be on guard for his coming again; it's a plea to be ready, to be prepared to live forever in whatever state he finds us in when he comes. If you wait well, if you wait with a holy anticipation, having examined yourself thoroughly and turned away from sin, receiving His mercy, he will find you well-prepared, ready to go with him back to the Father. Like an individual piece of fine art – handcrafted and preserved – he will find you beautiful, ready for heaven.

No fewer than four times in our readings this evening, the Lord tells us that he is returning. He is coming back. Just as our fall from Eden preceded his coming to redeem us then, so our sinfulness now precedes his second coming to judge us. How we understand the coming judgment makes all the difference in how we prepare for it. If you see the Christ's second coming as a frightful event, a terrifying spectacle of hell-fire and tortured souls, then your preparation will be panicked and loaded with dread. However, if you see his coming again as the mystical arrival of universal salvation for all, then your preparation will likely be non-existent. Why bother to prepare for a judgment where no judgment actually takes place? What will the second coming and final judgment look like? No one knows exactly. The one who died for us will pass judgment upon us. Most likely, my final judgment before Christ and yours will look a lot like how we have lived our lives in his name: how we have ministered to the least of his; how we have shared his Good News of God's mercy; how we have and have not forgiven those who sinned against us. In other words, our judgment will reflect how we have and have not received the gift of Christ's death on our behalf. 
We won't know what the second coming of Christ and the final judgment looks like until it happens. So, be watchful, be alert! We don't know when the master of the house will return. But we do know that he will return. Will he find you waiting in holiness? Will he find you reveling in disobedience b/c you believe that He's abandoned you? Make these weeks of Advent your time to thoroughly examine where you stand with Christ. And if you need to, turn back to Him, receive His mercy through confession and get to work being Christ for others. Know where you stand. Because when he comes again in glory that's where you likely remain. . .forever.


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