12.10.2017 Preaching Text: “‘Those who desire life and desire to see good days…’” (2 Peter 3:10)
Denial, in certain circumstances, is a beautiful thing. And, to employ an already overused joke, I’m not talking about the river in Egypt. I’m talking about the strategy of ignoring evidence of anything stressful or unpleasant.
Which is to say that denial has been my strategy for dealing with my impending retirement and departure from First Church, a place Linda and I absolutely love. I just don’t think about it.
Then again, as the time approaches, and it’s coming faster and faster, I’ve been forced to face the inevitable. The handwriting is on the wall. Just a few short weeks and things change dramatically, in ways I’m not as yet fully prepared to accept.
As such, over the last couple of weeks, with the turn of each successive calendar page, I’ve found myself tossing and turning in the middle of the night thinking about all I have to do to get ready.
Among the most daunting projects is clearing out my office. The desk alone is an unqualified abomination. As I’ve joked over the years, I clean my desk every two or three years, whether it needs it or not.
And whenever I have gotten around to it, it’s more like an archeological dig. Unearthed are remarkable things, things long forgotten and long since out of mind.
So I’ve been tossing and turning thinking about all I have to do.
Of course, the process of getting ready – or preparation – is precisely what the season of Advent is all about, although I wish it didn’t have quite as much significance as it does this year.
Advent, as such, is a busy season. As I said last week, and as we all well know, it’s a season tinged with joyous anticipation of the mystical, cheerful, appealing, and beguiling celebrations of Christmas.
But let’s face it, the run-up is stressful. If you then were to compound this with all the troubles in our nation and world, troubles, incidentally, not too dissimilar from the events described in our scripture readings from ancient times, it can all seem downright overwhelming. (The latest conflict over Jerusalem, in other words, is not, unfortunately, really all that new.)
Another way to put this is to admit that life on this planet has never been easy. Problems go with the territory. Violence, mayhem, and extreme suffering were not invented by us moderns. The fact that we in this country have been spared much of this, relatively speaking, can render us less capable of admitting how commonplace it has been in every age, our own included.
Contrast this with the fact that every human heart yearns for peace, justice, love, and joy. It’s hardwired into us. Every single child knows this, that sin and evil should not exist. It’s not what we’re made for.
In the very first pages of the Bible we’re told that God created everything perfectly. It’s the baseline of our being. We know God intends life to be joyous and so our disappointment when it isn’t is heartbreaking.
How we deal with this makes all the difference. We can grow cynical and world-weary, allowing our outward “sophistication” to mask our deep disappointment. We might even take pride in our ability to recognize life’s failings as we navigate around them with style and panache.
If taken to an extreme, however, such cynicism can lead to despair, along with all sorts of maladaptive, escapist behaviors. It is this that causes substance abuse as well all other forms of addiction. Sometimes these addictions produce overt dysfunctionalism. In other instances, they take the form of socially approved addictions, such as workaholism and status-seeking.
In a sense, when you boil it all down, life’s worst circumstances are due to humanity’s collective inability to accept reality, to accept the facts. And because of this inability to face the truth, we make up our own reality.
Specifically, we reject the idea that human beings are existentially limited, vulnerable, finite. Unable to face this basic fact we adopt strategies for coping. We try to cover up our insecurities, forgetting that being vulnerable is the way God made us.
In truth, what we want most is to be loved. So we try to make ourselves lovable, but in contrived ways. Mostly, it seems, we attempt to cultivate a persona we think other people will be impressed by. Covering up our deep insecurities, we project strength and power, often through the pursuit of status.
Work and money are perhaps the most common means for making ourselves feel important and thus somehow more “lovable.” People will see our high station, our wealth, our lifestyle, our importance, and will admire us.
But this, of course, is sheer nonsense and we all know it, deep down at least. What’s absent is the peace of God. In a broken world filled with those who claw and grasp in order to feel loved, such peace is invariably fleeting.
So in my 3 a.m. musings, as I toss and turn, I often have to remind myself that it is God alone who is in control of life, not I. This sounds pretty simplistic, I admit. But if you really stop and think about it, it’s a basic truth we routinely ignore.
Advent, evidenced by our readings this morning, reminds us that in the midst of human anxiety, trouble, discord, sin, and evil, God is still in heaven. God has not forgotten or forsaken us.
Advent reminds us that no matter how troubled we may be about our individual lives or the troubles around us, God will act, decisively, and for the benefit of us and our world. That is the basic hope upon which our faith is premised. It is, as the author of Hebrews put it, a faith that presumes “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
We are people of the Word, which taken in faith reveals that which is hidden, that God has a plan for our world and that that plan will restore all of life to its original purity in that future moment when “death will be no more; [when] mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”
The birth of Christ kicks this plan into high gear, a plan, we are told, conceived “before the foundations of the world.” Thus, in my 3 a.m. musings this simple yet profound fact offers a steady calm and the kind of peace “the world cannot know.” In short, it offers an elemental comfort.
As a mother about to give birth, with birth pangs that disquiet and alarm, we await that which is to come, not with dread but hope, hope of a new life that shall give birth to a new joy and a new peace. In this is the essence of Advent. Amen.