1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
I hope you have all had a pleasant holiday. I had the fun of playing golf two days in a row. On Friday I met a friend’s brother for the first time. He asked me what I did for a living and once I had told him that I am a priest, whenever I hit a good ball he commented that it had God behind it or that I was obviously praying well. (I wish that there was a direct relationship between my prayer life and my golf game – it might help me to pray more consistently!) Round about the fourth hole I said ‘You know, Christianity really isn’t a reward system’. He looked surprised, and my friend told me that growing up as Catholics that was all they had heard – be good now so you won’t have to spend too longer in purgatory.
The next day, Saturday, playing golf with the same friend and her brother, I was introduced to a local chiropractor. He also inquired what I did for a living but it took him until the ninth hole to come back to the subject and tell me that he once dated a girl who was a Christian and went to one of the big churches in South County, but he couldn’t handle them thinking they were right and everyone else was wrong. I told him that Christianity really isn’t about right and wrong beliefs.
Now it’s Sunday and instead of being on the golf course, I’m here worshipping God with y’all. And so I get to think more about what we’re here for and why. If Christianity isn’t a system of right and wrong beliefs and it isn’t a system of right and wrong behavior, what is it? I think its all about right relationship - right relationship with God, right relationship with our neighbor which includes the entire planet, and right relationship with ourselves.
Our Prayer Book succinctly states that God’s mission is to bring all beings into reconciliation with Godself and with each other. If that’s God’s mission then our mission follows on from it – we are called to work for reconciliation between all beings and between ourselves and others. This means learning how to manifest God’s love in the relationships we have with those we know, and those we don’t know. In the complexities of global interaction we are all impacted by and have impacts on, far more people and non-human beings than we will ever know personally. Manifesting God’s love in all those relationships means working for social justice, working for the environment, and trying to live as simply and frugally as possible.
As today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the Church’s year, our Gospel reading points to the Second Coming. From the perspective of those who see Christianity as a reward system, the Second Coming is the final test. There will be a time when we are all judged according to whether we kept the rules. This maybe a personal event after we die or a communal event at the end of time but we will be judged on our behavior.
Those who stress right belief also imagine a final judgment where those who kept to the right beliefs will be saved. This happens for each one individually but many also think
that there will be a time when all those who believe the right thing will be swept up into heaven, leaving the others, the wrong believers or non-believers behind.
From either of these perspectives, Advent, the season of preparation, is about whether we’ve been naughty or nice. It means imagining how Jesus would view your life if he walked in today, repenting of your sins and making amends.
I think both viewpoints underestimate the breadth, depth and height of God’s love. God loves us. God loves us so much that she sent her son – a part of Godself – to become human and to live and die among us and then to rise again, conquering death and with it our deepest darkest fear of annihilation. Why? To offer us the opportunity of living in right relationship with God. Because that is the only way we can know fulfillment, it is the only way in which God’s mission and ours will be fulfilled – when all beings are living in right relationship. Right relationship involves how we behave. It also involves how we think, which comes from what we believe. So behavior and belief are not unimportant but they are not the main thing.
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Every generation, hearing these words from Luke’s gospel, has applied them to its own situation and its own fears, and we are no different. It certainly sounds like climate change to me.
But Jesus says these things are signs of redemption, signs that God’s kingdom is drawing nearer. He continues, "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
Note how he tells his disciples – and that includes us- not to let their hearts be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness… and worry. Worry. It seems as though he is saying that worry can separate us from the knowledge of Christ’s presence as surely as dissipation and drunkenness. That’s quite a challenge for most of us. Well, it is for me anyway!
Jesus is not telling us to be Polyannas – always smiling and saying that everything is fine and never taking seriously the things that need to be handled. He certainly wasn’t that way. But when we worry - when we don’t have confidence that God’s love will be sufficient, that whatever happens we can rest in God’s peace – when we are anxious we are failing to be in right relationship with God. The only security in our world is the love of God.
Resting in that security gives us the courage to handle the things that need to be handled, whether those are personal issues with our health, or in our family or whether they are community issues or global issues like climate change. Worry paralyzes, right relationship with Spirit brings hope and energy. Prayer may not improve my golf game, but prayer does bring change and hope. Prayer is part of our right relationship with God who has invited us to bring everything and anything to him.
So this Advent season our preparation is not examining our consciences against some external code of right and wrong, whether that’s right behavior or right beliefs. It’s about seeking right relationship in every area of our lives. It’s about softening our hearts so that they are receptive to the energy of the Christ child. It’s about throwing ourselves into God’s arms with trust and abandon in prayer and worshipful adoration.
From this inner work comes the outer work of creating right relationship with our neighbor, with the planet and with ourselves.
Adapting Pauls’ prayer for the Thessalonians:
Now may the Lord make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all. And may the Spirit so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen