Monthly Archives: November 2012

Advent Prayer


You give us Advent, Lord,

and we are grateful and glad

to abide in your time,

unhurried and urgent,

full life in due season.

You give us Advent, Lord,

and we are grateful and glad

to watch by your light—

revealing and veiling,

old promise in new flesh.

You give us Advent, Lord,

and we are grateful and glad

to ponder your love—

sweet cure and affliction,

hard labor for earth’s joy.

You give us Advent, Lord,

and we are grateful and glad

to receive your hope—

familiar and foreign,

and child-shaped on straw.

Advent Confessions [Cf. Isaiah 11; Luke 3:1-6; Luke 1:26-38]

God of the root and the trunk,

Lord of the seed, the shoot, the flowering branch,

we cannot break these hard shells.

We are buried too deep to be softened by rain.

We do not imagine the light above ground.

We do not dream of fresh things; we sigh and fret about the old.

You say, I am coming.

Change your hearts. Turn around.

We say, Help us, O God,

to bear the fruits of repentance.

Give us what we need to hope.

God of the holy mountain,

Lord of the house where righteousness dwells,

Judge of living and dead,

we are not like you who knows the heart;

we judge by what our eyes see.

We do not consider the poor,

nor decide for the meek.

We do not inquire after you. We have forgotten your name.

You say, I am coming.

Change your hearts. Turn around.

We say, Help us, O God,

to bear fruits of repentance.

Give us what we need to be wise.

God of the lion, the wolf and the lamb,

Lord of the leopard, the kid, the child,

we do not lie down together.

We step warily near the serpent’s hole.

We are afraid of everyone;

we make them afraid of us.

We watch for each other with swords in our hands.

You say, I am coming.

Change your hearts. Turn around.

We say, Help us, O God,

to bear the fruits of repentance.

Give us what we need to make peace.

God of the threshing floor, the fork and the fire,

Lord of wild honey, of locusts and wild places,

God of the axe and the crowd,

we do not line up at the river.

We do not go in.

We do not bend our knee; we tie no one’s sandal.

We level no mountains, raise no valleys.

We are a crooked road, a stony path, a haughty crowd.

You say, I am coming.

Change your hearts. Turn around.

We say, Help us, O God,

to bear the fruits of repentance.

Give us what we need to decrease.

 God of Mary, whom you disturbed,

God of her life upturned,

God of the fruit of her womb, Jesus,

who mothered our lives with his mercy,

we are not startled by angels;

we guard against interruptions.

We do not turn the prism of our hearts,

pondering the whys.

We do not open our hands: we expect so little.

You say, I am coming.

Change your hearts. Turn around.

We say, Help us, O God,

to bear the fruits of repentance.

Give us what we need to desire.

Give us what we need to dare.

Advent Is Here, Now Put Away Your Swords [Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44]

Our Christian ancestors who invented Advent believed that following Jesus is an arduous vocation, easily abandoned when life gets tough, and even more easily abandoned when life gets really good. In both cases, they knew that we’d be tempted to deposit our human hope in things that are more immediately alluring than the Lord who left us long ago for a seat at God’s right hand. They knew that we would settle for living “ordinarily”—we would eat, drink, make merry, get and spend, marry and give in marriage oblivious to the deeper currents of God’s activity in creation, eventually losing ourselves in self-concern.

We would, they knew, get tired and bored and doubtful about the whole Christian enterprise. We would sleepwalk through our lives, waking up only briefly at times of wrenching loss or personal danger. At those motivating junctures, we might swear to live more attentively, and perhaps for a while we would let ourselves test the sharp edges of a life of faith. But it would not be long before we’d slink back to our warm beds, not long before we’d nod off again over our detective novels. We would forget who we are, where we are going, with whom we are traveling on the Way, and who it is who will come back for us when all is said and done.

And this is why those forbears of ours decided that Advent should begin with The End. Every year, the scripture appointed for the first Sunday of the season fast-forwards us to a vision of The Last Day. “Look hard at this spectacle,” the texts demand, “and see the way history ends, Jesus returns, the good are rewarded, the wicked are punished, and everything that is wrong with the world is set right. Take a lesson from this. Wake up. Live attentively. Take heart.”

These readings are traditionally drawn from texts that whack us in the face with crisis, warning, denunciation, cataclysm and judgment. It’s a genre called ‘apocalyptic’, and it plunges us into the middle of a roiling imaginative universe where angelic armies battle Satan’s minions in the ultimate cosmic smackdown. Blood drenches the moon, stars and planets explode out of their orbits, and darkness descends upon an earth laid waste by pestilence and earthquake, fire and sword. Apocalyptic is not demure about getting its message across.

Don’t waste time, it exhorts, for time is short. Shorter than you or anybody thinks. There is an end to everything, injustice is not forever, things will be straightened out once and for all. It won’t be pretty, it won’t be easy, but it will come to pass. God is in control. Therefore, do not be dismayed by the success of the wicked, much less secretly hope to enjoy that success for yourselves. Don’t be alarmed by the violent domination of the vulnerable by the strong, much less secretly covet their power. Don’t be distressed by the sleek lives of the rich, much less envy their horse farms in Virginia and easy access to Botox. They will not always come out on top. The victim will not always be victimized. A glorious reversal of fortune for the innocent, the poor and the weak is in the cards. You will see it! Hope, and keep on hoping. Wait, and keep on waiting. Be alert, and stay that way.

Easier said than done. As preacher Robin Myers writes, “life itself passes daily judgment on the idea that [God is in control], that good deeds and righteous living exempt us from mindless tragedy, or that the meek will inherit anything other than a crushing debt and a dead planet.” Nonetheless, and hoping against hope, today’s scriptures emphatically encourage us to stand firm, to refuse to throw in the towel. God really is in charge, they assert, and one day you won’t have to take that on faith.

Biblical apocalyptic paints a very big picture for the myopic Christian. It reveals the Scene behind the scene, and for faithful people it’s a good one in the end. For the faithful, the end-time’s chaos and terror are not a prelude to eternal destruction as they are for the wicked. They are birth pangs. After a long hard labor, the new age will arrive, kicking, pink, healthy, and strong. Thus the first Sunday of Advent intends to make a preemptive strike on despair as the church sets out on another year of following Christ from manger to grave, and beyond.

Quite a picture, and quite a promise! But not everybody is comforted or encouraged by it. It’s so over the top that it’s a little hard to take seriously. Its images are bizarre and off-putting, its symbolic world almost impenetrable, its action often martial and bloody. One could be pardoned for entertaining some serious theological qualms about this apocalyptic vision, questions about the way it sizes up the human condition and God’s response to it.

Whatever we may think about the Second Coming of Christ, however, most of us here today would likely agree that if he is really going to return some day, any importance this event may hold for us now does not reside in the minute details of how it might unfold then. We don’t think that in order to be a faithful disciple you have to believe in every last one of its predicted particulars.

But some Christians do think it matters. It matters infinitely, decisively, and so they dedicate themselves to a zealous study of that ‘day and hour.’ No matter how often they read in the Bible that it’s impossible for anyone, not even Jesus, to know God’s calendar; no matter how many times Jesus says not to dwell on or get anxious about what might happen at The End, but to serve the neighbor humbly in the meanwhile; no matter how repeatedly the Bible insists that judgment, reward and punishment are to be left solely to the mysterious discretion of a merciful God, they don’t think these admonitions are meant for them. And so they persist, removing this apocalyptic and prophetic end-of-the-world/Second Coming stuff from where it resides at the periphery of the Bible’s deepest concerns, and moving it right to the center.

They take it all literally, too, despite all kinds of indications in Scripture itself that we’re not supposed to. They work their spiritual slide rules overtime to determine to the millisecond when the prophesied mayhem and glorious Return will occur. Matthew’s fanciful turn of phrase about the saved wafting up to meet the Lord ‘in the air’ prompts them to plot flight paths and calculate orbits. Defenseless poetic images are routinely harmed in the making of their end-time movies.

And then there are end-time movies. And books. And t-shirts. And action figures. Even a video game. For only $39.95 and a little manual dexterity, you can join Christ’s well-armed angelic army on judgment day and mow down as many of God’s enemies as you can manage to locate through the thick smoke rising from the bodies of burning homosexuals and women who have had abortions.

They preach to millions of souls on TV as well, spinning out without irony all sorts of stomach-turning scenarios based on their findings. “We want you to be saved,” they say. “That’s why we are not sparing you the gruesome reality of the fate that awaits the unrepentant.” For our own good they lay it all out for us, down to the last bloody detail of the final cosmic war. But the glint in the eye, the suggestion of glee that’s evident when well-coiffed preachers say these things belies that high-minded intention.

When I listen to them, as I sometimes do, it seems to me that this is really not about saving souls. It’s about settling scores. It’s about what it’s like to know that you know. It’s about the rush of righteousness and the sense of satisfaction that comes over you when you know that on God’s behalf you are licensed to kill—even imaginatively—every person on earth who does not conform to your convictions. It’s about maintaining the illusion of your own innocence as you search and destroy.

But more than anything else, it’s a sick fascination with violence as an instrument of divine justice. It’s a way of reading scripture that’s got swagger and virility and moral clarity. And it is completely without apology. The Second Coming justifies a kind of bloodlust, and there are Christians in this world whose various anxieties and fears have got them fixated on it. Fear, as Anthony Froude once said, has made them cruel. And it’s hard to resist thinking that that cruelty would play itself out for real, if the chance to unleash it came along.

Preacher Fred Craddock once suggested that perhaps the reason that end-time devotees are so fixated on the Second Coming is because they are secretly so disappointed in the first one. Maybe they relish the swashbuckling triumphalism, the martial adrenalin surge, the in-your-face vindictiveness of the way they read the Second Coming because the first one was so wimpy, so peaceful, so meek. Maybe they are so comfortable with the idea that the highway to the Kingdom of God necessarily runs through pools of other people’s blood because they are deep-down ashamed that Jesus never raised a fist or a sword to convince, convert, coerce or punish anybody. He did not defend himself like a man, and he didn’t allow anyone else to defend him either. Maybe they can’t fathom how the Son of God got himself killed as a sinner and an outlaw, and they need to make up for this ancient embarrassment by turning him into a vengeful, contemptuous conquering hero-action figure at The End.

Let me now give these already-much-maligned end-time fanatics a rest, and lay all my cards on the table. I don’t think it’s only fundamentalist end-time fanatics who are mortified by the ineffectual First Coming of Christ. Very few of us really want Jesus to be the meek and humble Lamb of God and the non-violent Prince of Peace. In theory, maybe, but not for real. It’s okay to talk like that while he’s a baby, but we get impatient with his habitual mildness when he’s all grown up. Preacher Will Willimon has this to say about our impatience:

Of course we know that… Jesus’ way was love, justice, and other sweet spiritualities. But sometimes you have to be realistic, to forget all that and take matters in hand… I remember armchair campus liberation theologians who, while not thinking that violence was a good idea, particularly violence worked by the state, thought that the violence worked by Sandinista revolutionaries on behalf of the poor was OK. Violence is wrong—unless it is in the interest of justice, which makes it right. During the last Presidential election, there was debate about Senator Liebermann. “He’s a devout Jew,” some said. “He keeps Kosher. If we have a national crisis and need to go to war on a Saturday, could we count on Liebermann?” Nobody said, “George Bush is a Methodist, Al Gore is a Baptist, don’t these Christians have some funny ideas about non-violence?  Can we count on them to kick butt when we need it?” Nobody asked because, well, when it comes to such issues, you can’t tell the worshippers of Caesar from the devotees of Jesus… Relying on the power of God is fine, but just in case that doesn’t work out, keep a couple of Smith and Wessons in the glove compartment.

The lamb will indeed lie down with the lion when the Kingdom comes, but, as someone once quipped, if the dear little thing has half a brain, she’ll keep one eye open as she sleeps. Never mind that on the very night the soldiers came for him in the garden, Jesus commanded us to put away our swords. In this day and age, it is naïve and unrealistic to do anything like that.

Advent is here, and the texts of the first Sunday point us to the end of time. Perhaps the apocalyptic character of this end is hard to swallow, and if that’s the case for you, let me suggest that we just get over it and stop worrying about it, and focus our attention instead on another kind of end. How about we put an end this Advent to the idea that violence—all violence, and especially holy violence—just happens; that it’s just one more of those ‘human nature’ disabilities we are never going to get rid of, so we might as well give in and participate? Let’s end the idea that although nobody really wants it, violence just gets thrust on us, and it’s ‘naive and unrealistic’ to refuse to respond in kind. You have to set out to make a sword; it must be forged on purpose, and it is sweaty labor. Someone decides to make a bomb; it costs a lot of money. You have to want to do it. Swords do not spring naturally from the earth like gladioli. Bombs do not hang from trees like lemons and figs. We choose them. We study war. It is no accident that swords and plowshares—instruments of war and implements of food production—are mentioned in the same breath in our reading from Isaiah today. Every sword and bomb we make takes food from the poor and the hungry. We know that this is true, we know the costs and consequences, so how about ending our sleepwalking denial about it?

And while we are talking about the end in Advent, let’s put an end to the idea that only Jesus, because he was perfect, or because he is ‘God’, could do the peaceful things he preached. That his peaceful way is beyond our human capacity.  Let’s put an end to the assumption that he sets beautiful but impossible ideals for his followers, ideals we therefore are not obliged to attain, which usually means we don’t even try. An end to our subtle equivocations about the gospel. And an end to our unacknowledged shame that we are waiting for a savior who can’t save us at all—at least not in the way we’d love to be saved, with guns blazing and our enemies writhing under his feet.

Advent is here, dear church, and the first Sunday points us to the end of things. If it is true that Jesus is coming back for us some day, then along with the whole church let’s rejoice and be glad. Let’s join our hearts to the deep, plaintive longing of the ages for the universal justice that will finally be installed some great and glorious Day. Let’s be happy if then, at last, the world comes to know Christ as the One on whom God’s favor rests in a unique and awesome way. But whatever else we do, let’s not miss him here and now in the meanwhile. Here, where he lives meekly alongside the very sinners that too many Christians want to kill. Now, when he still means what he has always said to us, “Peace be with you. Now, put away your swords.”

A Good Word for the World in Advent

Advent is here. And I’m not sure I can make it through the season. That’s because I am growing impatient with a certain Advent sin often committed in the name of God in our churches. I have repented of this sin, but the fact I badly needed to repent of it tells me I will probably have to repent of it again, and so I am not exempting myself from my own warning about it. Just so that you know…

I would call it a pet peeve, but it’s more than an irritation arising from a personal preference or conviction. It’s more like a theological disquiet, even a bewilderment, an uneasy sense that we forget ourselves and the gospel when we routinely rant about the consumerist society in which we live, and by implication, deride and condemn everyone who participates in pre-Christmas ceremonies of buying and selling. I’m simply getting tired of listening to sermons in Advent that draw a sharp line between the bad world of getting and spending which barely acknowledges or even notices the reason for the season, and another good world in which none of that goes on and into which Jesus can be born properly, cleanly, to the sound of angels singing, not cash registers ringing.

Too often I’m left feeling shamed and abandoned by the church in this season, because I’m a human being like the ones I hear derided from the pulpit. I may not line up at 12 midnight on Black Friday, but I do get all caught up in commercialism and I am needy and I do want things and I do feel pressure to spend and I am certainly no Virgin Mary in Advent, rapt in pregnant contemplation in the quiet candlelight of my room during these four weeks. And if I, being a committed religious professional and all, feel shamed and condemned by anti-consumerist, world-deriding sermons, I can only imagine how it feels to a secular person who wanders into the pews to be told with divine authority that their secularity has rendered them unfit for Christmas.

Pray tell, dear preachers, where is that ‘other world’ in which people are pure and focused on the heart of the matter? (Certainly it’s not the church, which is as busy and as unfocused in this season as any heedless secularist or frantic shopper bent on the latest gadget at a door-busting price. Let the one who is without sin cast the first Christmas tree ornament.) Which world is it in which people do not need or want or try to get and try to please and try to make themselves feel better and try to escape the inevitability of their deaths? Is any of us who preaches against that bad world a citizen of some other country? No, because there is no such other world. There is only this one. And we are this world too. And we had better be. Because it is the world in which God finds us. God won’t find us anywhere else, so we ought not try to go someplace else, or lead others astray either, by telling them that the so-called secular, consumerist, commercially driven world is bad and wrong, or soon to be forsaken by God if we don’t shape up and stop buying things and having wild holiday parties.

It’s the world we have, the world we are given; and it’s a world of human creatures full of longings deep and powerful, longings for God, I would say, but so overlaid with weakness, frailty and the nagging effects of sin that we fix ourselves on needs and things that are not God. Things that are not against God, mind you; just not God. And because they are not God, our desires cannot be wholly satisfied by them. And so we keep going after other things and acquiring more things (you know how this goes—it’s your story too). But to say it is un-Christian to live like this is simply wrong. To say we have fallen into the hands of some consumerist Satan and are screwing everything up is wrong; even more, it is to miss the deeper drama. The drama God sees, the drama in which the Incarnation is the daring protagonist, the drama in which God and humans and all creatures are unaccountably finding each other, groping weirdly in the human dark by the light of desires great and small, guided and misguided, but desire for each other all the same.

It’s also wrong to imply further, as many do, that the things we lust after are bad. The things we want and need, even the things we lust after and don’t need, are not bad. Things are not bad. Materiality is not bad. Being material people is not bad and wrong. This is the way we were made, of stuff. God loves stuff. How many times do we have to be told? How much gospel do we need announced to us? And just how do we Christians who rant against stuff in Advent propose to bring people out of this bad consumerist world of stuff into that other world of purity and goodness when the very God we preach in Advent is working against us by incarnating in the world we seem to despise? Our God wants into the world we want out of—the messy, nasty, consumerist, commercial, over-sexed, greedy world is the world God loves. Remember that? Not condemns, but loves. It’s this world Jesus enters, because God loves it; and it’s in this world he lives and spends his last coin of compassion on us—this world, not some other. And it’s this world he will come again in glory to judge with a compassion so great we cannot imagine it, and because we can’t, we substitute our own judgments for his. (Ours are invariably harsh. His, invariably merciful.)

And why, at precisely the season when people are paying attention to the Story of a savior, of God’s love, of peace and justice and love—when secular people are paying attention, in their own Muzak, Hallmark, Santa Claus kind of way; not the way we might want them to, not necessarily in a churchy sort of way; but paying attention to the Story nonetheless, and with hearts softened towards it too—are we deriding them just for being people with great (if misdirected) desires, and driving them away with our anti-world rants?  Isn’t it ironic that in the season of Incarnation we tell people from our pulpits that it is not okay to be fleshy? That it is wrong to want and need?

Instead of teaching people gently to order their every want and need to God so that they can live a life of want and need with gusto; instead of carefully and patiently unwrapping for them the truth of Augustine’s daring command: “Love, then do what you want,” we take these hearts that come to us longing to love in a headlong, heedless way (although right now they only know how to do it with things, which is a start, but only a start), and tell them they need to shrivel up and narrow down and set aside those lusts so that they can be truly “spiritual.” There is no such thing as “spirituality” for Christians, at least not without a robust body-ality to go with it. The hardest thing for us is not to become spiritual, after all—escapists have been doing that forever—but to become fully embodied and fully human.

And even if everything I say here is theologically full of shit, it doesn’t even make good church growth sense to get everybody in (church attendance almost always increases during Advent and Christmastide) just to ream everybody out. It’s one thing to take seriously the preacher’s duty to prick the conscience and provoke a change of heart; it’s quite another to take a world full of human desire, a church full of longing hearts—frenzied and misguided to be sure, but good, very good—and tell it to go to hell.

Advent is here. Please don’t tell me not to be human. And don’t tell God that some great cosmic mistake was made when God chose flesh, this world, and us, and pitched a tent among us.

Your Redemption Is Near [Luke 21:25-36]

—Albrecht Durer

A couple of years ago a pastoral colleague told me the story of her debut sermon in her new congregation. It took place on the first Sunday of Advent, and her preaching text was the second coming, end of the world passage from the gospel of Luke. Apocalyptic passages like this one typically show up on the first Sunday of Advent because at the start of a new church year the Christian imagination looks far into the future, to the consummation of all things, as well into the past, to the Nativity of the Lord.

End of the world texts are notoriously tricky to preach effectively; but from what I could gather, the sermon she preached that day was theologically solid, pastorally deft, rhetorically pleasing, and socially relevant–a good sermon. What she didn’t know, however, was that in her new church it had long been the custom to let no good deed go unpunished. Sure enough, after the service she was accosted by an angry couple, parents with pre-teen kids, who proceeded to take her to task over her message.

“You’re new here,” they said, “and you need to know that in this church we don’t believe in that nonsense about stars falling out of the sky and fire on the earth and the end of the world! And if you insist on talking that way, the children will be terrified. It’s not what pastors are supposed to do, terrify children.”

I immediately thought of many things she might have said in reply, such as “Children don’t need pastors to terrify them when they already have such terrifying parents.” Sadly, she could also have reminded them that children really don’t need predictions of future catastrophes in order to feel afraid; there are plenty of awful things to frighten them right now, some of them unfolding in the privacy of their own homes.

Over-protective parents have a right to try to control what their kids are exposed to, I guess; but preachers have a duty not to trim the Good News of Jesus Christ to satisfy them, or anyone else, for that matter. And isn’t it good news that a divine regime of justice will, in the fullness of God’s good time, finally replace our world’s unjust and death-dealing systems?

And yet the doctrine of the second coming, with its multiple dimensions of judgment, vindication, consummation, and transformation, does not seem to stir us very much. We mention it once a year, on the first Sunday of Advent. And when we do mention it, we often try to explain it away; we shrug it off as if it were a silly remnant of a credulous past.

Why do we liberal Christians shy away from an active faith in the second coming? Are we not the ones who believe that through all our social justice commitments, we are preparing for the very kingdom that the second coming will finally usher in? So why not embrace it with enthusiasm?

It could be that we’re just bored. How many times have you heard the command to stay awake, to lift up your heads, to stand on tiptoe (as St. Paul says), and watch for Christ to come and install the kingdom? Every year we dutifully get up on tiptoe and watch, but nothing ever happens. After more than 2,000 years our toes get numb, and our enthusiasm begins to wane.

Recently, my colleague told me that those same parents who excoriated her for her second coming sermon took their kids to see An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s film about global warming. I guess it’s okay to tell children that the world’s going to end as long as it’s Uncle Al who’s doing the telling, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Which makes me wonder if perhaps another reason Christ’s second coming doesn’t grab us very much is that we’re just too secular to appreciate it.

We’re not totally secular, of course. Now and then we enjoy a quick peek under the veil that hides the word of mystery from our rational eyes. We’re allowed to be a little mystical as long as we don’t wallow in it. But the second coming? That’s the province of the Rapture weirdos who drive cars with “Beam me up, Lord” bumper stickers. It’s the comfort zone of the prophecy buffs with their maps and calculators. This sort of Christian exuberance about Christ’s return seems to us grossly deficient in what one theological wit called “eschatological chastity.” It is undignified—and it just isn’t us.

There’s another way in which it just isn’t us. Think for a moment about who it is that Jesus is talking to when he says, “When you see these signs, lift up your heads, for your redemption is near”? He’s talking to people who do not require academic explanations of redemption, much less theological justifications of the doctrine. They are people who from ancient days have been run over repeatedly by invaders and occupiers, exiled, enslaved, oppressed. People who have actually needed to be redeemed, literally bought back from captors and restored to their land and to their own history. For them redemption is not an interesting, odd, abstract, or debatable idea. It is their dream, their longing, their need, their passion. It is the story of their life.

As Neal Plantinga puts it, if you are a slave in Pharaoh’s Egypt, or in antebellum Mississippi, you want your redemption. If you are an Israelite exiled in Babylon, or a Kosovar exiled in Albania, you want your redemption. If you are a woman of any caste in modern India… and your fiancee doesn’t like the size of the dowry your family is offering and he threatens to send his friends to rape you, you want redemption from wicked sexism, and you want it now, with every fiber of your being… And if you are a Christian in sub-Saharan Africa this very day, you don’t yawn or roll your eyes when somebody mentions the return of Christ. When the AIDS epidemic has devastated whole populations you don’t care if your tippy-toes are going numb—you will stand up on them for another 2,000 years, if that what it takes. You want your redemption.

Can you taste that longing? Do you want the world’s redemption? Do you want your own?

Maybe you do, because maybe you have stopped claiming that you are “fine, thank you.” Maybe by some sweet grace you have broken through the denial that, as Kate Layzer says in one of her fine sermons, keeps most of us from ever really owning up to “the great big yawning need inside us that we can’t ever fill by ourselves, not with romance or work or food or shopping or booze or drugs or sex or self-help books or new drapes or travel or computers or psychotherapy or intellectual achievement or our own determination to be good responsible people.”

Maybe some calamity has befallen you that has unlocked your crying need for God’s freedom, healing, and restorative justice in a way that makes you long to hear the news that the kingdom is now very close at hand. Maybe your toes are not tired, maybe you are still watching, because your need is so deep and your longing immense. But if you’re anything like me and most people I know, if you’re having a pretty decent year in your own local personal kingdom, it’s hard for you to really long for the advent of God’s kingdom. When life is not all that bad, Plantinga notes, redemption doesn’t sound all that good.

I know that I go through my days with a Master Card in one hand and the Golden Rule in the other, and they appear to be enough to shape and anchor a mostly adequate life. And as long as this okay life of mine is not disrupted by illness, violence, or financial disaster, I don’t usually feel a strong need to be redeemed and transformed by the in-breaking of the New Age.

Redemption is not always the most welcome news, but God knows that it is in fact the best news we can get. And so the church is very wise to give us these four weeks of Advent every year to get over ourselves, to detect and repent from the largely oblivious way we live ordinarily, to reawaken in our dry bones the ancient human thirst for the Living One, and to learn to yearn also for the day when our thirst for the justice he brings will be satisfied.

The church is wise to give us Advent time and again, so that we can start fresh, start from the beginning, and try to walk a Christian path that is, as someone once described it, more than a moral coating applied over a functional atheism. To begin again to long for redemption—and if that’s beyond us, to try to long to long for it. To begin again to hope for shalom—and if that’s beyond us, to try to hope at least for a little more hope, for ourselves and for the world.

Year after year, Advent by Advent, the practice of this sort of patient desire and profound yearning for wholeness, justice and joy will shape and mold us into the very things we desire. And it will therefore also make of us a vivid testimony to the intentions of God toward the creation. Many people (as Plantinga says movingly) who don’t know a thing about God’s loving purposes but are searching hungrily for a clue will be able to look at us and say, “Ah, so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over the world!”

Our Judge and Our Hope [Luke 21:25-36]

Advent is a journey with two destinations. One is to the past, to the manger, Jesus’ first coming. We place ourselves imaginatively alongside the ancient people of Israel. With them, we cry out in elegaic songs for the Messiah—”the desire of all the nations”—to come and heal us and to bring justice everywhere. That the Messiah did come in the frail flesh of Jesus of Nazareth is the joy Christian faith celebrates on Christmas.  The other destination of the Advent journey is the future, the second coming, when Christ will return in glory. History will end, and the new way of life Jesus called ‘the Kingdom,’ for whose coming we’ve prayed all our lives, will be ours in full at last.

The earliest Christians did not pay much attention to the first coming. They focused on the second, and they believed it was imminent. For them, who had so painfully broken with culture, custom and family to follow Jesus, nothing was more desirable than to be swept into the Kingdom by the glorious Lord of their hearts.

We, I think, are considerably less eager for it. We regard it with a certain bemused ambivalence; we say, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” Jokes about Judgment Day are legion. Our sense of justice demands that God finally take charge of this world in which, as Robin Myers writes, “good deeds and righteous living provide no exemption from mindless tragedy, and the meek inherit nothing but a crushing debt and a dead planet.”

But even as we long for God to fix this mess, we suspect the whole thing might be a fairy tale. Our reason detects the scent of magical thinking in talk of a glorious return, and backs away. The second coming, after all, has been awfully long in coming. After 2,000 years, waiting for Jesus to come in glory feels a little like waiting for Elvis to re-enter the building. It’s embarrassing.

And, of course, as much as we know that things are just not right elsewhere, many of us are more or less satisfied with our own lives. If we’re doing okay, we feel no urgency about some future consummation. Even if our circumstances are not so great, faced with the prospect of a permanent interruption of the status quo, most of us would still opt for the life we know, not the one we don’t.

And so we let ranting fundamentalists on late-night cable teach people who are afraid of the world to read the sign of the fig tree and hammer plowshares into swords so that their fire-breathing Jesus can wreak vengeance on the ungodly. Ironically, the ungodly they love to condemn are the same folks Jesus loved to save. Oh, well. Perhaps, as Fred Craddock suggests, they are obsessed with the second coming because, deep down, they are so disappointed in the first one.

Fundamentalist nonsense aside, when you read the New Testament attentively, it’s hard to avoid the second coming. It’s also hard to avoid the judgment that accompanies it. “We believe,” all the ancient creeds professed, that “he will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.” And maybe this is the real reason we shy away from embracing this doctrine of the second coming. Fulfillment and wholeness, restoration and blessing, peace and justice at last—all these promises appeal to us mightily, but not the promise of judgment.

Judgment makes us nervous. In one of the exercises my congregation undertook in their visioning process many years ago, members were asked to rate a list of classical Christian beliefs from “dearly-held” to “not-so-dearly held.” When we shared the results, final judgment came in among the bottom-feeders.

And there are good reasons for our aversion. Too many of us grew up staggering under somebody’s judgment. God or a parent or some other authority was always lying in wait for us to fail. They saw everything. They forgave little. Measuring up was the name of the game, and we never did.

Faith in an incarnate God didn’t help much either. Some of us thought that the all-seeing God who became flesh and lived a perfect human life expected us to live perfect lives too, because in Jesus it was shown to be possible. As someone once noted, God could say to us, “Well, I had the same experiences you have, and they didn’t defeat me!” Who could bear to hear that on any day, let alone on the last day, when we’ve run out of chances? Let Jesus come and settle all the grand cosmic scores, but please leave our own souls and psyches out of it. We’ve had enough judgment for several lifetimes.

Or have we? Modern psychology has taught us that the worst sin we can commit is to be unsupportive and judgmental. So it’s going against a lot of grains to say that Christian tradition may be onto something important with its insistence on judgment. We may in fact need more of it, not less. More judgment, that is, of the right kind. Maybe a story can shed some light on what I mean.

A few years ago, a pastoral colleague of mine did something she regretted deeply. Feeling unsettled and guilty, she sought help from her longstanding ministry support group. She’d barely gotten through the story of what she’d done when they began telling her that it didn’t sound that bad, that she’d had good intentions, that she was way too hard on herself, and that God had already forgiven her.

They were immensely supportive, but their support made her feel worse. It seemed as if they believed she was incapable of doing anything wrong. They talked as if she were not capable of discerning a serious matter from an insignificant one. They didn’t take her seriously. All they had to offer were glib affirmations that she was really a good person.

After being left in pain by her friends, she decided she wanted to go to confession, but she wasn’t Catholic. Someone suggested she call me. I reminded her that I wasn’t Catholic either, at least not any more. But I offered to help anyway. I grabbed a UCC Book of Worship and asked her to meet me at her church. We sat down in the chancel, opened the book to the “Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent,” and began.

First we read a prayer of confidence in God. Then I invited her to confess what she had done, and in God’s presence and mine she confessed. I affirmed her confession and asked her if she was sorry. Yes, she truly was. I inquired whether she’d formed a plan to make amends. She had, and she was resolved to do so. We prayed together for mercy and healing. Then we stood up, and I declared her sins pardoned in the name of Jesus Christ. We said a final prayer recalling the joy there is in heaven when one who was lost is found, and we exchanged a sign of peace. Then she went home, and so did I.

Now, if you knew the bad thing she did, you’d probably agree with her friends that it wasn’t that bad, that she had had very good intentions and that she was being way too hard on herself. You might even think that going through an entire reconciliation ritual for that was serious spiritual overkill. But you’d be wrong on both counts.

It is a very big deal whenever someone breaks through a sense of false innocence, faces a frailty that caused damage even without intending it, and discovers a greater authenticity of life even in a relatively small moral matter. By being judged and found wanting, she received a gift most of us crave—the certainty that God (and a representative of the church) did not love her any less even knowing what God knows about her; the joy that God (and the church) took her conscience and her sense of need seriously and believed that she was worth being judged, worth being forgiven and restored.

Often what threatens us is not judgment itself, but the experience of knowing something about ourselves, or of having someone else know it, and fearing that we will not be able to love ourselves or live with what we know, nor will they. Most of us actually want judgment, because most of us finally want to face and embrace our truth. But it is also the case that most of us cannot bear to embrace the truth about our lives without the warmth and light of love. We know from bitter experience that truth and judgment without love will crush us.

And here is where we return to Advent and its double destination. Advent asks us to believe the God enfleshed in the manger is same God who will judge us on the last day. But this is not an all-seeing Perfectionist, not a God who sees us from afar, knows what we have done, and is disappointed. This is God-with-us and God-for-us—the one of whom John’s Gospel says this most amazing thing: “He knew what was in us.” He will judge us with a judgment of kinship, the judgment of One who has been inside us, inside our human motivations, understanding us on our terms. The Jesus who will be our judge on the last day is the same one who said, paradoxically, “I judge no one.”

The more you read the gospels, the more you see that Jesus’ habitual response to sinners is full of what Rowan Williams called “sheer visceral pity.” Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I. Jesus’ own terrible temptations and struggles “seem to have produced in him a sense of the precariousness of goodness so strong that no failure or error could provoke his condemnation.” The only people Jesus ever condemns are people who can’t allow for this precariousness, who refuse to see that the sinner is often a victim more than a criminal, and who imagine we are freer to choose and sin than we really are.  Jesus knows the real measure of our responsibility. He knows it better than we know it ourselves.

This divine sense of the precariousness of goodness is our hope on judgment day, and on any day when we face ourselves squarely in God’s presence.  It can save us not only from some imagined divine condemnation, but also and especially from a very real and debilitating self-condemnation. He knows what is in us.

In the cross that deals him his death, Jesus showed us the very depths of our destructive refusal of health and life, our violence and fear. And through all this he still accepts and loves us. “When we are vulnerable and fragile,” Williams concludes, “it is he who is wounded and broken, carrying all our hurt in himself.  So we may take to him our whole selves in the sure trust that nothing will be thrown back at us to wound or destroy. This is the gospel whose ministers we are.”

Yes, this is the gospel whose ministers we are. We have good news to tell of a judgment that is love and a Messiah whose only fierceness is a mercy that lays us bare for healing. May we embrace this gospel in trust and share the truth that frees. And may we use Christ’s judgment of kinship and no other with ourselves, with each other, and the world.

God Our Feast: A Thanksgiving Communion Reflection

The first big crisis in a relationship is not the day one partner finally gets tired of picking up the other’s socks. It’s not the first time partners fight over the right way to balance the checkbook, or even the right way to hang the toilet paper. The big crisis breaks the first time they cook Thanksgiving dinner at their own house.

“That isn’t stuffing!” she says, “Stuffing has apples and raisins.” Her mother made it with apples and raisins. “It is too stuffing!” he replies. “Stuffing has sausage and nuts.” His mother’s stuffing had sausage and nuts. Persuaded by the memory of a taste, each is certain of the truth about stuffing, and each is compelled to reproduce the pattern of perfection learned long ago.

The stuffing crisis is a hard one because it’s not really about stuffing. It’s about truth, ultimate harmony, right order. The memory enclosed within taste buds is the flavor of home. To have stuffing now the way it was then is to persuade our tongues and tummies that we are the same now as we were then, that things are good now like they were then.

Nostalgia has a way of distorting memories. Things are more complicated than wafting aromas suggest. It’s not for nothing that at this time of year TV sitcoms make us laugh and Hallmark specials make us cry at the anxious, ungainly spectacle of families regrouped around turkeys. At Thanksgiving, some folks don’t, won’t, or cannot go home.

For many, the nostalgia of the holidays isn’t about what was, but what ought to have been, if only. If our mouths water with nostalgia, they water also with desire—for firmer ground, for knowing and being known, for a love that circumstances can’t alter.

Dwell for a while on the thick sweet smell of nuts and sage, raisins and apples, and you will sense the source of such longings, the truth about our life: we were fashioned for a joy so fragrant we can taste it. We were made with hungering hearts. We were created for a feast laid on richly like a dream, tantalizing and aromatic, at the center of our souls.

We were made by God for God and for the amiable company of God’s people, for fellowship as pungent as precious ointment squandered by a woman on the weary feet of Jesus. We were made to sit down at a table where the feast is God.

“O, taste and see!” the ancient psalmist sings, “Taste! You’ll see how good God is.”

We are a people with a taste for God. Our history is one vast story of feeding on mercy and steadfastness, our life a drama of sustenance. Even in the harshest famines and the longest droughts, our memory floods with aromas that make our mouths water with desire for beauty and justice, that make our bellies rumble with hope for what might last—faithfulness, deliverance, vindication, breath and life, children and children’s children, righteousness, and peace.

We remember that from age to age our Shepherd’s wine runs generous and free, our cup brims full, and the board is spread with kindness. We remember that in every place our Host makes room for all kindred souls and every stranger, every widow, orphan, lost or straying sheep, each enemy, and every child.

Because we remember, we find no comfort in consuming bitter food, like the narrow do, who live only in the past. Neither are we gratified by food too rich, like the fearful do, who live just for today. We find no joy snacking on junk and skipping meals, like the headlong and ambitious do, who live only for tomorrow.

In us is a different craving, the memory of a subtle, varied flavor, tantalizingly familiar and completely new. Rolled on the tongue, lingering on the palate, filling the cavities of stomach and soul—once sampled, nothing else is good. We want no other recipe. “O God,” we cry with our ancestors, “you are our portion and our cup. For you we thirst like deserts parched, lifeless, and without water.”

“Well, then, come,” the Spirit replies, “Eat my bread and drink my wine. Come to the feast I prepared for you.”

On Thanksgiving Day we assemble around tables to say, “We are not our own. All that we have and do, all we are, comes from and belongs to our Creator and Sustainer.” We assemble to give thanks for God’s all-providing.

But when we give thanks, we aren’t settling accounts or dryly honoring a benefactor. We are God’s own; when we give thanks, our taste buds tingle, our mouths salivate, our insides rumble, our olfactory memory drives us deep.That memory makes us more than thankfully awed at what God does and all God gives; it makes us awed at who God is. Our thanks is for all our blessings, but first and most of all for having gifted palates, lives imbued with a taste for God, a predilection for the generous wares of endless love.

By the power of that love and for its sake, and for the sake of a world sated with violence and contempt, for the feeding of a world that hungers for God, we assemble so that we ourselves might become what we have tasted—bread of righteousness, seasoning of justice, water of mercy, wine of truth and sweet peace for the weary of war. We must, then, eat, and eat our fill.

Taste, see. Discover how delicious, how very, very good God is. Today, we say this grace for all this grace: “God is our feast: Thanks be to God!”