Sunday, December 7, 2014

Phil Kniss: In the wild, and at peace

Advent 2: O that you would reveal your peace!
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

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This is Advent. The word means coming.
    Because in Advent, we declare:
        God has come.
        God is come.
        God will come.
    These are the great truths of the Christian faith.
        And in Advent, we celebrate these truths.
        We worship the God who comes.
            Comes to be with us in Jesus Christ.
            And in the Spirit.
            Emmanuel. God with us.

But just declaring these truths begs some questions.
    When God comes to us, what does God find?

Our epistle reading from 2 Peter challenged us this morning,
    “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things,
        strive to be found by him at peace.”
    The invitation to us, is that when this God who comes, comes,
        we are to be found by God, at peace.
    So how are we doing on that?

I’ll return to that question, but for now,
    we’ll let it hang in the air a bit,
    while we reflect on the Gospel reading about John the Baptist,
        as told so well by Tara.

This concern about what God will find when God comes,
    is precisely the concern John was dealing with.
John was preparing the way for Jesus to come.
    Jesus the anointed one, the Messiah, was about to be revealed.
    John was getting the people ready for that coming,
        so that Jesus would find a people receptive to his coming.

That was no small task, given what John and his Jewish people
    were dealing with in the Middle East 2000 years ago.
    His Hebrew community, the children of Abraham,
        were losing their identity, their sense of peoplehood,
        the covenant was receding into the distance.
    Not their fault entirely.
        The political and cultural pressure was overpowering.
        The Empire of Rome was crushing them,
            and anyone who dared to resist it.
        The Roman and Greek culture, with its values and mores,
            was ever-present and influential.
        So not all, but many of the Hebrew people
            were losing their political and cultural identity,
            and they were losing the vitality of their Hebrew faith,
                and the covenant that sustained it.
        They were becoming more Roman and Greek than they realized.

    Now there were active parties within Judaism—
        Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots—
        who tried their best to resist this eroding of identity
            and the covenant.
        They used vastly different methods—
            from ritual purity to fasting to denial to violent rebellion.
        They operated out of different convictions,
            different assumptions about what God wanted for the Jews.
            So there was a lot of conflict between them.
            God’s people were losing their communal moral grounding.

Now . . . ponder that sort of people.
    A faith community once close, cohesive,
        of common mind, in common covenant,
        now fragmented, polarized,
        under cultural and political pressure.
    A faith community losing their peoplehood in a hostile culture.
    A faith community whose core is becoming less clear,
        who are beginning to forget
            who God called them to be in this world,
            because they have so acclimated themselves
                to the dominant culture’s way of being.

Now, am I describing 1st-century Palestinian Judaism?
Or am I describing 21st-century American Christianity?

Sometimes I think that the cultural context
    for the New Testament church,
    is not as distant from our own, as once it was.
    The social, spiritual, and cultural state of affairs
        in these two faith communities—
        have more in common
            than the 2,000-year gap would indicate.

Maybe John the Baptist’s wild and provocative witness,
    resonates with us more than we imagine.

But now remember, John wasn’t speaking out of a vacuum, either.
    His message wasn’t original,
        wasn’t unique to his first-century listeners.
    He was quoting Isaiah,
        a prophet to his people hundreds of years earlier,
        living in yet another place and time,
        in another period of floundering by the people of God,
            when they were in exile,
            and needed to come back into covenant.

So I guess we have not two, but three vastly different cultures,
    in vastly different eras,
    over a period of 2,500 years,
    to which the same sermon applies.
    And it’s fresh every time.

The sermon goes like this,
“People of God, get ready.
    The God-who-comes is coming.
    Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
    Remember who you are.
    Repent. Return to your God, to your covenant.
        God is full of mercy. God will abundantly pardon.
        God wants to meet you in peace,
            and form you as a new people.
        God wants to bring about what is right and just,
            to restore what has been broken.
        So repent, my people. Prepare for the God-who-comes.”

We read in the Gospel text,
    that John was proclaiming a “baptism of repentance.”
    That, of course, is a logical way to prepare for the God-who-comes.
        To repent, is to have a change of mind,
            it is to think differently about things,
            and thus, to act differently.
        Repentance is not sorrow.
            It is not remorse.
            It is metanoia (in Greek),
                a change in our way of thinking,
                to literally, “think again.”
            It is to “change one’s mind,”
                about who God is, who we are, who we are called to be.

    Thinking rightly, is the first step toward living rightly.
        It doesn’t guarantee behavioral change.
        But faithful thought, points toward faithful living.
        Right thinking prepares us for God’s coming.
        It makes us ready for the saving work God wants to do.

Advent, for us preachers, is the one time in the church year
    that we simply have to deal with apocalyptic scriptures,
        and their fantastical descriptions
        of God breaking into the world,
    scriptures that are easy to ignore if we had our druthers.
But they show up in the lectionary every year in Advent.
In these scriptures God’s coming is often depicted
    in a fairly intimidating way,
    in a foreboding, often cataclysmic way.
    At first reading, the imagery is even seems violent at times.

These are some of the words we heard today:
    “Every mountain and hill will be brought low.
        [God, the cosmic bulldozer.]
    The Lord God comes with might,
        and his arm rules for him.
    The day of the Lord will come like a thief,
        and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise . . .
        the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved,
        and the elements will melt with fire.”
And this year in the cycle the texts are even tamer
    than some of the other years.

So what do we make of a God who comes like this,
    a God we want to hide from,
        rather than welcome and greet?
Is this the same God we also welcome as a babe in a manger?
    who is sweetly sleeping?
    who no crying he makes?

Well, yes. It is the same God, we affirm by faith.

But what do we do with this God whose coming
    is a cataclysmic, earth-shaking, mountain-crushing
        display of power and judgment?

This year, when I was meditating on the scripture texts,
    I think received 2 Peter 3 in a different way
        than I have before.
    I received it as an unexpected gift.

I know a lot of it depends on where we’re sitting when we read.
    A text like this may be read very differently by Christians
        in Syria, or Iraq, or Sierra Leone, or Colombia,
            or plenty of other places more challenging than our own.
        They readily welcome a God who sends judgement,
            who crushes mountains and shakes the earth,
                and changes the landscape of things.

    But from where I sit, this year,
        in a world that looks a lot more fragile, and on edge,
            than a couple generations ago,
        in a world where wide-scale violent destruction is really possible,
            where deadly viruses can spread beyond control,
            where the earth teeters on the edge
                of environmental catastrophe,
            where religious extremism is spreading, rapidly,
            where new war-making technology makes possible
                human destruction by remote control . . .
                so that for the attacker,
                    going to war is almost like going to the office,
                making this war technology more likely to be used,
                    and more likely to be stolen & sold
                    to some enemy with cash, and desire to destroy.

    And we live in a country that, while we are relatively safe for now,
        there is greater fragmentation and polarization,
        there is more intense fear and reactivity,
        there is more isolation and hopelessness,
            all of which are recipes for an increase in violence,
                and a breakdown of social order.
        We see the evidence of this in the recent wave of racial violence,
            and sexual violence,
                mass shootings,
                incidents of police brutality.
        People are on edge, in the worst kind of way.

    We live in a social and spiritual wilderness, I think it’s safe to say.
        A desert.
        A wasteland, where life is a constant struggle to survive.

    And bringing it closer home,
        we might even say that the church we all love so much,
        is struggling in a wilderness,
            as some of our church family are losing hope,
                losing trust in each other,
                losing a sense of connection and belonging and purpose.

So it was while sitting in these particular places—
    in our world, in our society, and in our church—
    that I read 2 Peter with new eyes.

Yes, the cataclysmic imagery and metaphors are still there,
    plain as day—
        the elements melting with fire,
        the earth being laid bare,
        the heavens set ablaze—
    but even plainer than that,
        is the deep, and abiding, and irrepressible love of God
            for the world and for us.

Neither in 2 Peter, nor in Isaiah, nor in John the Baptist’s message,
    do we find a God who is out to get us.
    God is out to love us and draw us into God’s embrace.

    No, we don’t have it all together right now.
        We’re getting it wrong in the world,
            and in our nation, and community.
        And we’re getting it wrong, pretty often, I think, in the church.
        But God is full of love and longing.
        And God is patient.
            “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years,
                and a thousand years are like one day.”
    Yes, things seem kind of fragile,
        even a bit crazy and out of control sometimes,
        but God is coming, God is at work, God has an agenda,
            and that agenda is one of love and longing and restoration.

    God’s heart is for our salvation, not our destruction.
        God, the apostle declares, “is patient with [us],
            not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
        That is God’s desire, and God’s work.

    I used to read texts like this differently.
        When I was young and impressionable, as an adolescent,
            and books like The Late, Great Planet Earth
                were Christian best-sellers,
            and Christian movies tried to scare us into salvation,
            and my favorite Christian rock star, Larry Norman,
                was singing, “a man and wife asleep in bed,
                    she hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone
                    I wish we’d all been ready.
                    There’s no time to change your mind
                    The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.”
        I was never sure when God would strike,
            and I was afraid.
        I’m not there anymore.
            But memories of that line of thinking,
                has left me a little skittish of apocalyptic scriptures.

    Somehow, when I’ve read texts like 2 Peter,
        the parts that stood out, and stuck out,
            were the heavens on fire, and the elements melting.
        But the main logic and flow of this text is all about
            God’s patience, God’s long-suffering love for all the world,
            God’s deep desire that no one . . . no one . . . would perish.

    And the apostle encourages us, by reminding us of God’s promise.
        There is coming new heavens and a new earth,
            where righteousness is at home
            (or as the psalmist said,
                where righteousness and peace will kiss each other).
        No, that full restoration is not here yet.
            We are still in the wilderness.
            We still live in the wild,
                where danger lurks,
                where life is untamed and unpredictable.
            But we need not live fearfully, in the wild.
                We can be in the wild, and at peace.
            As it says in 2 Peter 3:15, we can
                “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

    There’s a thought to hang on to,
        in these uncertain, and nerve-wracking, and fearful times.
    The patience of the Lord is not something to resent.
        The fact that God is not, apparently, intervening right now
            to punish the wicked and bless the righteous . . .
        The fact that God is not, apparently, removing us
            from this state of affairs where evil seems to run rampant
                in the world, in our country, even in our church . . .
        The fact that God is not, apparently, stepping in
            to clear up all the ambiguity,
            but letting us live with perplexing questions . . .
        These facts are not reasons for us to despair or worry,
            or take matters into our own hands.
        These facts do not point to a need for us
            to take over responsibility from God,
            and to be judge and jury.
        These facts are not to be seen as God’s absence,
            or God’s apathy.
            Rather, they are evidence of God’s patience.
            And we “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

        We trust that God is working the angles.
        We trust that God is operating in God’s time,
            to bring about God’s purposes.
            I would like things to suddenly be clear.
                Or be just.
                Or be righteous.
                Or be life-giving, instead of death-dealing.

        But my trust in God’s deep and abiding love,
            and God’s ultimate desire that no one perish,
            will let me breathe easier in the wilderness.
            It will let me be found at peace in the wild.
            It will let me live, fully, in the desert.

O, we long for God to break through the heavens and come down.
    We cry out for hope, for peace, for joy, for love,
        this Advent, and in the approaching new year.
        “O, that you, God, would reveal your mysterious ways.”

    But . . . when God’s ways remain shrouded in mystery,
        in the world, in our nation, in our community, in our church,
        when God’s deeds are yet to be fully revealed,
        let us be content with some mystery.
        Let us not rush God, or seek to manage God.
        Let us, rather, trust God.
        And let us “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

—Phil Kniss, December 7, 2014

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