Sunday, November 29, 2015

Listening to God and Being Ready

November 29, 2105 –– First Sunday in Advent
Jeremiah 33:14–16 / 1 Thessalonians 3:12–4:2 / Luke 21:25–28, 34–36
Listening to God and Being Ready

ISIS…. infiltration by Syrian refugees…. suicide bombers…. nations bristling in the Near East…. shootings in our streets…. children with shattered innocence…. economic uncertainty….

There is more than enough in our daily news to keep us in an unsettled frame of mind. Yet many people choose to keep themselves distracted by the many material trinkets and pleasures that our society so abundantly offers. Black Friday events seem to enthrall the culture about as much as Christmas itself. As we enter Advent, with the Church calling us to a hope and peace that can seem more fairy tale than reality, the world counters with surface celebrations and the enticement of more and bigger things.

Which voice are we going to listen to in these coming weeks: the threatening voices, the diversionary voices, or the voice of God that blows through the Scriptures and the Church?

On the surface, the voice of God is not always immediately appealing. Even when God promises great things, the fulfillment is often suspended. Over 2,500 years ago, with Jerusalem facing total destruction, Jeremiah affirmed the coming of God’s promise––of what is right and just. A bit over 500 years later the Promise––fully God and fully Man––did come into our world, and yet in another way Jesus himself only extended the longed-for hopes. The Gospel today seems to side with the threatening voices in today’s news. There are “downer” words we’d rather not hear: dismay…. people will die…. the heavens will be shaken….tribulations…. But do we see that those things are not the focus?

What are we looking for? Again, some voices are fixed on the gloom and doom. Other voices tell us to grab whatever pleasures we can while we can. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians focus on the core of Christian Faith; in summary he is saying Live in the love of God. Too often we look for something sensational. Paul simply says: conduct yourselves to please God.

How do we do that? C. S. Lewis seems to have something for almost any occasion. For decades following World War II our nation continued to fight what was called the Cold War––a tense time of mostly passive aggression between the two big nuclear superpowers of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The looming threat then was an atomic bomb attack. I remember elementary school exercises in which the students were to crawl under their desks in a act of seeking shelter. Many homes built bomb shelters in their back yards. The fear then was just as palatable as fears today. So Lewis wrote an essay addressing this situation that seemed to be holding so many Christians in hostage. He said:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. "How are we to live in an atomic age?" I am tempted to reply: "Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents."

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors––anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

"This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. (C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, in a 1948 essay entitled, “On Living in an Atomic Age”)

So I ask again, which voice are we going to listen to in these coming weeks: the threatening voices, the diversionary voices, or the voice of God that blows through the Scriptures and the Church? The voices of fear are tempting us to forget that God is in control and that his promises are sure. The diversionary voices are tempting us to believe that something other than God can give us security and peace and happiness. The Scriptures and the Church continue to remind us of what is right and good and true, and to encourage us to be faithful.

We are here gathered around the Word and the Altar. We are here to receive Jesus and in doing so to give witness that there is nothing greater. We are here to learn to love each other as God has loved us. And as we do these things (and keep on doing them), listen again to St Paul:

Finally, brothers and sisters, we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us how you should conduct yourselves to please God––and as you are conducting yourselves––you do so even more.

This is how we are to enter Advent. This is how we are to prepare for the coming of our Lord. Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep listening to the Lord and his Church. Then we will be ready for anything.

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