First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16| 1 Thessalonians 3:12—4:2| Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming so that gathered at his right hand they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
Today we begin a new liturgical year. The season is Advent. The word means coming. One of the things I find fascinating, the more I wonder and ponder about this thing called life, what it means to be human, who is God, what is he doing, questions like is he real, what’s he want. It’s really wonderful to take time, to have time to ponder these questions, because it seems to me that most of us live through our lives aware of a lot but not necessarily what is at the heart of everything. We need to get to the heart of everything, and what’s there is the truth — the truth.
I like the thought that I am a part of something that’s been going on for millions of years. It sort of makes me feel like I’m an integral part of something big, and it’s true of all of us. We’re all interconnected. We’re all part of a plan of God that’s bringing human beings to a place of fulfillment. And what is that fulfillment? What is God promising for us? I think the most interesting thing that we know about us, in terms of the beginning of the Judeo/Christian tradition in the Old Testament, we’re told that we are made by God, and we are made in his image and in his likeness. That means that potentially we are like God, and when we think of God, we think often of perfection. And we think, “Well, I can’t be perfect. I’m human.” And it doesn’t mean that kind of perfection, but God is perfectly God. God makes no excuses for who he is. He’s not affected by how we think about him. He doesn’t change his plan because we don’t like the plan. No, he’s confident in what he’s doing, and what we need to be, in order to be fully like him, we need to be absolutely, equally confident in what it means to be human as he is in what it means to be a God. We’re not gods, but we’re like him, which means in the kind of coolest way, I think, is that he’s our Father. He’s our parent. We come from him. We often talk about, as we get older, we become our parents.
All of that makes sense to me as we look at this beautiful image of what we’re here for, the evolutionary process of becoming more and more conscious of what is true, who we are, why we’re here, and every year we go through the story again. Every year we recap the stories, and we don’t focus on the same ones every year. We change every third year. We have a new set of readings, and one of the things about those readings is every time we go over them, it seems to me — this happens to me; I hope it happens to you — that each time we do, we look at these same stories, often told from a slightly different perspective than the year before, but every time we ponder them, there’s some hidden truth in them that clicks in. And once it clicks in, like it becomes real, it becomes not just something we know but something — not something we’ve heard but something we deeply know. We’re moving toward that fullness of the evolution of becoming who God intends us to be, and so it’s an exciting journey. And I’m delighted to be a part of your journey if you listen, because all I’m doing is sharing with you what is happening to me, and what is happening to me I see happening to the world. It’s very interesting to pay attention to where the world is today, and you can see a deep, deep longing for something. You might simply call it the truth, but what has truth promised? What does God promise us that comes with the truth? It’s a thing called love, and what is love? It’s this thing we’re made for. It’s a part of us that is often asleep, sometimes so damaged that it’s not even present, but it’s the capacity we have for empathy, for compassion, for somehow putting people first, not things, not things we want, not things we think will make us important or feel good about ourselves. No, it’s a kind of instinct that the reason we’re here is to care for one another, and it starts with caring for yourself.
What better thing could we do for ourselves than be as radically open as we could be to whatever is real and true, who we are, what we’re here for? Because the promise that God makes in his coming is that he’s starting a new kingdom. It’s a kingdom that is not out there but inside of us. It’s not about the past or the future. It’s about right now. He’s talking about living in a place of consciousness where we’re so conscious of who we are, who God is, what we’re here for. If you look carefully at the evolution of human beings, you’re going to find that the drive began basically with the drive for self-survival, but that drive has evolved from self-survival to something closer to self-actualization, being authentic, being who we really are. That’s the drive, and what keeps us from it is the thing that we know is present in the world. It’s difficult to avoid, and it’s call sin. But another word for sin, which I like much better is a lie, because if you look at the story of the Old Testament, what it is that we see that brought sin into the world is a lie. So you could say sin is missing the goal, missing the mark of where we’re supposed to be because you believe in a lie that, if you follow that lie, you’ll never — the trajectory of that lie will take you far from the target — far from the target.
So imagine that we are in this process of continually moving more and more toward this fulfillment of this plan of God, which has something to do with finding truth, which is love, and when we’re living in that place of love, when we do know in some mysterious way that the basic call that we’re here to do is to care for self and others, then something miraculously shifts, because what happens then, if we’re not believing in lies that tell us, “No, what you really want is power. What you really want is prestige. What you really want is comfort in a kind of ‘I refuse to be uncomfortable. I refuse to go through anything painful kind of way.’” That’s not it. No, it’s called peace. The truth leads to a life of love, and when you’re in that life of love, there’s some amazing, comforting sense of well-being that has nothing — nothing to do with what’s going around you, nothing.
So how do I put all that together with the readings? I got all that from looking at these readings, and I want to look at them more carefully with you, but the first reading is about a promise. God made a promise to his people. The promise is, “I will take you to a land of milk and honey, and I will free you from everything that enslaves you.” So what is that? Well, there was a literal situation that the Israelites were in, where they literally were slaves to a culture, the Egyptian culture, and so when God promised to take them away from that, he had to take them on a long journey. And what they experienced on the journey was anything but comfort. It was difficult, and they kept losing a sense of what was promised, because they weren’t comfortable, and so they kept resisting. And they were a stiff-necked people, and they often turned back to their old ways and even said, “I’d rather go back to slavery than what we’re going through.” It’s called change. It’s called growth. It’s called evolving. It’s not easy.
So when we listen to the second reading, it’s pretty clear that Paul is very much in touch with this process that we’re involved in, and he’s telling people that there’s something that God has given to you, something Jesus exhorted you to do, and it’s to conduct yourselves to please God. And to please God is really tricky, because it seems like to please God might be to follow some external, rigid, moral law or moral system or a bunch of moral practices and somehow work out of your mind and your will where you make yourself into somebody that you think will please God. Well, you can’t make yourself into somebody and please God. You can only allow yourself to become who you are, and that pleases God. He doesn’t want you to be someone you’re not. He doesn’t want you to follow someone else’s image of what it means to be in the world. If you look at spirituality over the centuries, you’ll see how often the exercises of spirituality were not founded in the truth, and they were destructive, especially during the Middle Ages. It was considered that pain is what God wanted us to be in to prove that we loved him, and people inflicted all kinds of pain on themselves. Francis, for one, St. Francis, was very aware at the end of his life, and he said, “I treated my body so badly, so badly.” And at 45, he was blind and had all kinds of health problems, and he was still a young man. But all of that was well-intentioned on the part of the people, and I know God took care of them. But it’s like you would think, “Well, God, why didn’t you give us all the information we needed? Why didn’t we come into the world wise enough to do everything you’re telling us to do? Why do we have to take so much time in figuring it out?” Well, you know why? It’s because it only can be figured out by people like you and me — you and me. Each one of us has come into the world at a particular time to take the human race a few tiny steps further. It’s been going on forever. We, individually and collectively, are changing the world, changing the way we are, changing the way we see things, and it’s not everyone that gets these insights. It’s just a few, but the few that get the insights bring everyone else along with them. So you’re engaged in a work, as I’m engaged in the work, of seeking the truth, seeking to live as God has called us to live, and each time we do that, each time we reach a higher level of consciousness, that lifts the world. It’s an amazing, exciting process. If you think you’re only here to deal with your seeking the peaceful, joyous place we want to get to, that’s just a kind of reward. It’s a side benefit. It’s not just that that we want. It’s the purposefulness of our life that is so satisfying. I have a purpose. I have meaning. I’m making a difference. And what happens in working to make differences? You have to change. You have to change. It’s hard.
So it’s so strange, when we listen to — this is the season of Advent. Jesus is coming. We should be excited about all the wonderful things, and then we have this gospel about all these terrible things that are happening in the world. It’s all falling apart. What’s so fascinating about that image, the way we often hear in the Book of Revelation especially, that the end of times are going to be this horrific time where everybody is just terrified by all this destruction all around them — the only way to understand that that makes sense to me is that, when you or I are caught in a lie and there is no clarity of why we are so miserable, because the lie seems to be the truth, it seems to be what we can use to fulfill — that God will use this lie to bring us to what we wanted, and he can’t. So whenever you leave a lie and move into the truth, you have to let something die, and when it dies, it is catastrophic, depending upon if that’s what you have in your mind as your value, as your goal. When somebody exposes a lie and you find out that the world that you created that you thought was secure and strong is completely collapsing all around you — did you ever notice, when people change, it’s often because they lie they’ve been living in overtakes so much of their reason and their logic, as far as what the truth really is, that they find themselves in this horrible place of destruction, self-destruction in many cases. So it makes sense, though, for us to have at the beginning of the season of Advent then an image of great destruction. Think about the time that something was taken from you that you had your heart set on. “This was the thing I need in order to achieve the goal I want, the happiness, joy,” the death of someone, the end of a relationship. If you have a sense of yourself as one thing and that thing is taken away from you and that’s your only sense of your value, your whole world collapses. And that’s what he’s saying. You’ve got to go through that. Stand tall. Hold your head up, because this is redemption, the death of the lie, the death of the situation you’re in, if you’re in the wrong projectile that cannot reach the goal. It’s an exciting year to go back and find the goal and find the means to get it, and that’s where we’re going.
Father, as we see your plan, as we understand who you are, as we see our nature as it truly is, it leads one to give you praise, to give you thanks. As I see images of you in heaven with angels always around you praising you, praising you, praising you, it makes sense that the only real response to who you are is an unbelievable sense of gratitude and joy. So thank you for your call to become who we are. Thank you for the means that you’ve given us to achieve it, and once we receive the fullness of your grace, help us to be effective as your Son was effective in bringing you to all those around us. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.