Sunday, December 02, 2007

Expectant waiting

When you are waiting in a line, are you the type of person who sits and hopes that everyone else will somehow be moved out of the way and you’ll get through or someone who hopes that somehow a new line will open up that is exclusive to you; The Father Dennis line at the gas station. You might know what I mean if you tried to go to a grocery store on Friday. That was the day that everybody in town realized that the storm was coming and that it was time to store up food in case we are stuck in our houses until mid May. So, you may have found yourself four or five people deep at the front of the store with an apple and a can of beans waiting while the person ahead of you has an overflowing cart unloaded on the conveyer belt and the poor cashier, who is doing her best to get people through as quickly as possible, has to find out if that was a braeburn apple or a red delicious.

I think this is kind of similar to the dilemma in the readings today. We hear the first reading about God establishing the Temple Mount as the highest mountain. And, since all gods lived on mountains, the one true God is establishing his as the most important of them all. Then all people will know who the real God is and stop worshipping false gods like Baal and Zeus and Ai. Of course, as Christians, we see in this an image of what heaven will be like. We take comfort in the idea of a time of unparalleled peace; swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, nuclear weapons into space ships. Ironically, this is often what atheists will most fault us for. They say this “pie-in-the-sky” theology amounts to escapism, the notion that we will eventually conquer the forces of oppression but only when we are in heaven. They criticize us and say that we have no stake in the present world because we are constantly obscuring the view of the future.

This, it seems to me, is countered in some measure by the first part of the gospel when Jesus seems to say, not that we need to wait for a more peaceful, hopeful heavenly future but that we need to wait when God will wipe away all the evil from this world. In the days of Noah, people were living their sinful lives, doing what normal people do, and then they found out that God was coming to remove them from the equation, if you will. This is the way it will be when Jesus comes again. People who think they are prospering and living lives without acknowledging God will simply be removed from the equation. That’s what’s truly regrettable about those “Left Behind” books. They’ve completely missed the point of this passage. Jesus isn’t saying that the ones that are taken are taken to heaven. In fact, in context, they are going to be just like the unfortunate people during the time of Noah. They’ll be the ones taken to that place of torment whose name we don’t mention in pleasant company. So, an uncritical reading of Jesus message could be that we need to “be ready” or get prepared for h-e-double right angles. This, of course, leads people to a different type of criticism. Namely, people say that this leads more to a dread of condemnation than to actual faith. And, certainly Jesus doesn’t want to see forced conversion out of fear of punishment. The God who is love would never want someone to be forced to believe simply because they don’t want to be tortured. That’s the way a terrorist organization operates not a God who has given us the free will to choose him.

So, where are we? We don’t want to be pie-in-the-sky Christian simpletons and we don’t want to be hunkered down in fear either. How are we to be prepared? I would suggest that, far too often, people fail to appreciate that the preparation itself is the point. We aren’t simply working toward heaven. We are experiencing God in the here and now, albeit in an incomplete way. The master of the house is exhorted to be prepared, to stay awake and be prepared to keep the thieves out of his house. It seems to me that one of the ways that we do this is to prepare ourselves during this season of Advent. To paraphrase Paul in the second reading: Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies, drunkenness and other abusive excesses, not in promiscuity, lust and other sexual abuses, not in rivalry, jealousy and other abuses of relationship.

Being a Christian is not simply standing in line waiting for some better life ahead. Nor is it a life of trying to find the path of least resistance in order to avoid the pains of hell. There, I said it. Being a Christian means being prepared all the time. The preparation itself has meaning. “So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

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