09 December 2006

Some Hard Advent Questions

2nd Sunday Advent: Baruch 5.1-9; Philippians 1.4-6, 8-11; Luke 3.1-6
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

Time to ask some hard Advent questions: what is suffocating God’s good work in you? What is strangling His gift of joy, His grant of mercy to you? Who or what serves as the false focus of your spiritual vigor, your soulful oomph!? Shall I list the ways? Are you: nursing a petty hurt? Anxious about a roommate’s apparent immorality? Dodging your parents over money matters? Slowly rotting in lies or pretense or illusion about your achievements, your love life, your future? Are you wasting your material gifts on decadence, frivolous diversions and attempts at escape? Are you betraying a husband or a wife or a child or a friend by being someone you cannot be for them forever? Are you serving alien gods? Who or what rules your heart? Ambition? Money? Accolades? Public attention? Are your gods named Stomach, Ego, Career, and Sex? If you cannot love God, yourself, or your neighbor, why? It’s in you to do so. What can’t you say to God? What won’t you pray for that will spring open your heart? What do you fear? And, finally, who is it that you are really angry at?

Yes, these are Advent questions b/c Advent is our time to make clean the way of the Lord, to sweep the road to our hearts, to polish the stone path to our minds, and to prepare for questions deeper, brighter, more passionate than anything I can ask you from here! Oh, one more question: has your love increased more and more, knowing what is good and true and beautiful, so that when Christ returns, you can stand before him pure and blameless and filled with the fruit of righteousness? If not, now’s the time to start.

John the Baptist visited us this Advent week as a jumpy fetus, banging around in Elizabeth’s womb, jumping and rejoicing in the presence of the Blessed Mother, and our Savior, Jesus Christ. In vitro, he knows the power and majesty of the Anointed Son, not yet born and he bows before the One who will come and hang on the cross freely and finally, for all. What John knows, even before he breathes, is that his purpose, his reason for life has come and what better event, what more glorious person to honor by jumping and rejoicing than the coming of the Promised One of God. He is the One Who has begun in us a good work and continues to complete that good work until he comes again. This season of purple begs us to wait and wait and anticipate and anticipate and hope and hope. Waiting, we must repent of our sin. Anticipating, we must turn from the slavery of disobedience. Hoping, we must call on mercy and the promise of eternal rescue. John points the Way. But he will not drag us, kicking and screaming, to our repentance. Your life must be freely given in sacrifice or not at all.

Paul is quite confident that God’s good work is seeded, sprouted, and growing furiously in each of us. I wonder, are we as confident? Are we as sure as Paul that we carry a good work in us and with us and that our Lord works to complete that good work? Advent is a season for repentance, for turning around and coming back, for surrendering to the Father, and letting Him do His work in you. If we fail in our confidence, in other words, if we succumb to cowardice, we deny that God has done anything good for us at all! I’ll be more pointed: if you believe that God has not begun a good work in you; if you deny Paul’s confidence and hold that you are basically evil, incapable of pursuing the Good, or unlovable even by Love Himself, then do not recite the Creed with us, do not offer your prayers, do not walk the aisle for communion or cross yourself at the blessing! For all purposes that matter, you are excommunicated, formerly in communion…now in denial. You are the one John was sent to rattle!

John’s job is to herald the coming of the Christ, to run before and warn and rejoice and make aware and to shout: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!” Clearing a path through any crowd, John walks ahead, pulling the attention, the allegiance, and even the ire of those who come to see Jesus. He preaches, teaches, pronounces judgment, corrects error, gives good example, and, for all his hard work, he loses his head to a dancer. But for that time he called out his warning and his joy, he was a voice crying out in the desert, the one we know from Isaiah and the one we know who first knew that the Christ was among us. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

So, we honor John the Baptist by asking: what is suffocating God’s good work in you? What is strangling His gift of joy, His grant of mercy to you? Do you believe that God has made you a good work? Or do you wallow still in the Devil’s lie that you are the sum of your sins? Do you believe that God has forgiven your sins, raised you up as His preacher and witness, and made you a prophet to shout out his praise in the markets and the schools and the offices? Or do you persist in the false modesty of being a “little one” below His notice, too meager to be loved and charged with an apostolic mission? Do you believe that God will restore all creation to His just ways, putting everything there is under the rule of his Son, and subjecting each of us to His mercy? Or do you still need to hold on to the illusion that God is angry and cruel and just waiting to leap out from behind his Throne and yell, “GOTCHA!” Isn’t this about our self-righteousness and a demonic spirit of judgment than it is about who God really is?

You see, joy is not about bouncing around smiling, laughing, and having a good time. Of course, we can express joy in these ways. But joy as such is about peace. A quiet stillness in our hearts, a stony trust that electrifies our soul to reach and grasp the offered hand of God, to stretch and strain for the fingers of our Savior who put his body and soul on the cross for us. Joy is sure knowledge, passionate assurance, and the gift of a life swimming in the light of our final end. We en-joy Christ when we take him in, make him welcomed as King of our hearts, and move and breath and do and speak everything necessary to show out what he has done for us.

John announces that Christ will fill every valley, make low every mountain and hill. His arrival will signal that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Therefore, breathe! The Holy Spirit comes among us as mighty wind, a desert whirlwind and an ocean tumult. Breathe in the fire of Father’s love for His Son and watch your love increase more and more, knowing what is good, true, and beautiful so that you may then stand before God, pure and blameless, filled with the fruits of righteousness. Prepare yourself in repentance. Turn from disobedience and toward humility. From petty hurts to generous helps. From alien gods of the earth to the One God of Heaven. From your choked life of spiritual disappointment to deep breathes of the Spirit. From the coming of the Lord to his arrival.

The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy!

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