In the lesson appointed for today the church begins its new year. Advent begins the year liturgically for the church. So we have chosen lessons of expectation that help us to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ, by being mindful that a faith in the birth of Christ also demands of us a belief in his return.
To his disciples, Jesus shares a private concern. He says to them that in the last days, just as it was in the days of Noah, people would be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until it was too late. In other words, Jesus was fearful that when the end-times come, people would be going on with life as usual, without a serious thought of God or their souls, matters spiritual.
But I believe there was a greater concern implicit that Jesus chose to share privately with his disciples and subsequently with you and with me.
I believe that Jesus was most concerned that those to whom he has entrusted the gospel message not be content to live ordinary, common lives. Or I might call them, secular lives. Lifestyles that have compartmentalized or isolated faith and belief to the extent that faith and belief had no effect, no conscious effect, upon our thinking, upon our choices, upon our passions, and our values. That our very hearts become indistinguishable from the world around us. That we would somehow just like it to be that way. It is a sign that we like life to be just the ordinary experiences of eating and drinking, of surviving and marrying and marriages of celebrations and feast. It is a sign that we like it that way when the most we want from life tends to be just be professional success, social acceptance, relative comfort for our families, and for our latter years, and as few hassles as possible.
Secularity is to build walls of reason and social etiquette that keep our faith from influencing our professional, our political, our social lives, and even our personal lives.
What many Christians dread most, I believe, is being stereotyped as a religious crazy. Now, when I say “religious crazy,” those are those people we stereotype because they think and act so differently that their presence appears to insult intelligence, good taste and reason. But we are also put off by the other extreme: by the radical activist Christian for whom everything is a cause and a guilt sacrifice. We are so disdained to appear anything close to a Bible thumping crazy or an activist Christian gorilla that we often fail to appear Christian in any way. Faith is kept to about an hour and a half on Sunday mornings and we assume life goes on without any accountability.
But I believe both extremists have something to say to us if we are to take our faith seriously. I remember the old adage, the interchange, when the old evangelical preacher said, “Jesus is coming again!” And the Christian activist responded, “Yeah? And he’s really going to be ticked off when he gets here.” They both have a challenge for us. Although we do not know how Christ will return, our faith teaches us that he will. And just like ancient Israel, waiting over thousands of years for the promise, we wait. We do not know whether the reappearance will be a glorified Jesus in some public event, or whether it is what we encounter in our death. But we do know, we do believe, there will be an accounting of our lives.
And how could this Jesus somehow be “ticked off”? Can we remember the angry moments of Jesus’ life and ministry? Perhaps the most famous was the driving out of the money changers from the Temple, the cleaning of the Temple, or some say, the tantrum in the Temple court. This has always been a bothersome text for those of us who like Jesus in the stained glass window, carrying lambs or posing for a Last Supper photo. But the picture is actually of Jesus in the courtyard or the Temple turning over tables, spilling the money, with animals running free from their tethers, from their crates, and stunned merchants chasing after animals, chasing after rolling coins and trying to avoid this mad man.
What so upset Jesus? What statement was he trying to make by this behavior? Marcus Borg, perhaps one of the most important biblical scholars, in his book, Meeting Jesus for the First Time, helps us to understand why Jesus was so disturbed. He helps us to understand there are two conflicting ways—or were in Jesus’ day—of interpreting the law. One was to keep oneself pure by following elaborate religious codes—dietary laws, days of religious observation and obligation, strict social exclusion of people who would be understood to be unclean such as the insane and lepers. Those who led immoral lifestyles, to keep the boundaries tight so they could not come into the boundary of the clean or the good people. People with immoral life styles. There would great demands and requirements for religious acts of purification and sacrifice, and this all centered on an annual pilgrimage to the Temple, with a Temple priest and a compliment of an economic system connected to the Temple, generated great sales because there were special sacrificial animals required that one might be freed from their uncleanness.
So all around the Temple grounds were the courtyards of the Temple. And this major feast day there would be the merchants with all their wares.
Jesus, on the other hand, believed that the law was not about religious correctness but about compassion. Religion is that which changes the heart. That is why Jesus was always eating with sinners; always associating with tax collectors and beggars; protecting harlots and adulterers; healing lepers and entering into grave yards to hear those that were insane, risking to heal the blind for whom it was understood they were blind because they had sinned.
Jesus was always doing those things that contradicted religious correctness. He was fighting to make the statement that compassion is more important than religious correctness. Now Jesus was not a man who looked askance at fate. For Jesus went to Synagogue. He read the Scriptures. He engaged in adult forums and Bible discussions. Jesus had a very deep prayer life. He believed deeply in God and was not ashamed to confess his faith. Jesus also liked a good party. We always see him at somebody’s house eating. He began his ministry at a wedding. He was always attending feasts at the homes of friends and dignitaries. Yet, his faith was evident in his life, in every phase.
You and I, the people of God through Jesus Christ, are those who may be everyday people, working everyday jobs, grinding at the meal or working in the field, in the office, in front of the computer, in the board room or the classroom, but in the day of reckoning, God will be looking for the compassionate heart. And though we may appear indistinguishable, Jesus said, people look on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. So it matters not how many rules you have kept. What Jesus looks for is the compassionate heart that drives our behavior.
Compassion is a word that has its root in a Hebrew word for “womb,” the womb of a woman. It is to help us understand that we have a kindredness with others. We all come from the womb of God. A kindredness that is inspired by a sense that God is indeed our divine parent. Like a good a loving mother, God prevails to give each of us life and continues to travails with us, to nurture us, to bring us back into his fold when we have strayed. God is like the good and loving, faithful father, always trying to guide us, protecting us. Compassion then has to do with agape, the love of God. It is that ability to see others, no matter the experience of encounter, to see them as people who are created by God and loved by God, and therefore, demands a respect on our part of the dignity of every human being.
In the letter to the Christians at Rome read as our Epistle today, St. Paul understood this and he shared this same conviction that Jesus had. When he said, we really don’t owe anyone anything except, except to have Godly respect for one another. For if we have godly respect for one another, then we will fulfill the law. We will love and respect our spouses so adultery won’t be an issue because it’s more about their dignity than our lust. We won’t have to worry about murder, because we respect someone even when we are angry with them. It will be conditioned by acknowledging that even as repulsive as they may be to us, it is someone created by God and someone whom God loves. So we always live in that tension. And Paul says we owe no one anything except to have love or godly respect for one another. For the one who does this has fulfilled the law. And the commandments, he said, are summed up in this word, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now, when you think about it, the people who have really made a difference in the world, in your own personal and private world, or in the larger world of our historic reality, have been people who have understood this. They have not been the great generals, or the arrogant bishops, or the great politicians. They have been the people who have understood that we have in the sight of God one common origin, and we are all loved of God. And they have made a difference.
Therefore, it is different from toleration. For I believe that toleration ultimately becomes managed hostility. Civility is how well we can manage our dislike and disdain for others. But I believe compassion is what only God can do. It is the changing of our heart when we truly understand that we are brothers and sisters.
Have you ever asked yourself the question, What effect should my faith have upon my professional conduct and practice? What effect does my faith have on my social and political priorities? Is there anything I do in my charitable activities, giving my time, my money and special skills, that I can say is truly motivated by my faith and not just something nice to do, but just a humanitarian act? Are my religious beliefs ever evident in my dealing with my colleagues in my professional life? Is it ever evident when I’m dealing with a difficult problem in my work, in my career? Are my religious beliefs evident in the raising of my children? In my relationship with my spouse? If you’ve never asked these questions, if you don’t have an answer to these questions, that’s a big problem. It’s a big problem because remember the one who is coming to judge us never had a car, or a chariot or a horse. Jesus did not have a bank account, nor did he have a social club membership. He had no investments, no silver and gold, no real estate. The only clothes he wore were those on his back. He was ostracized by the religious and political establishment. When we think about our priorities, if this is all we have, we need to remember that Jesus won’t be very impressed with our lives.
But what he will ask us as we were reminded in Matthew, the twenty-fifth chapter, he’ll say, “Nathan, did you feed the hungry and cloth the naked? Did you care for the sick even those that society cast aside such as the lepers and those with AIDS? Did you do what you could to insure health care for the unprotected? For the elderly, for the poor, for the immigrants? How did you cast your vote? Did you provide a spiritual presence for those who were in prison? Did you ever break the rules, Nathan, to allow strangers, the alienated, the outcasts, to find a place inside your circle, of your church, of your home, of your community, of your society?
Or whether in some public way, or in the moment of our death when we hear the stories about how our life passes before us, these kinds of questions will be asked. You and I will have to give an account. This is what our faith teaches us. And we will not be asked why were we not a Moses or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa or a Desmond Tutu or a Dalai Lama, or even an Eleanor Roosevelt or a Gandhi. We will not be asked that question.
We will be asked, “Were you, Nathan, Mary, Ryan, Kirsten, were you, you? The you that God created, and in baptism entrusted the gospel to live out in whatever way you could the good news of Jesus Christ?
Advent is a time for us to take stock and to begin preparation for celebrating the love of God that was incarnate in Jesus Christ and that is to be incarnate in each of our lives. With that comes a very special gift. For the Christian who takes her or his faith seriously, discovers the gift of peace. At the end of each service, the priest stands and raises her hands and says, “and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your heart and your mind.”
When we take seriously our faith, through a relationship with Jesus Christ by prayer, we discover that peace. I’ve often heard in counseling people say to me, “Well, I just don’t understand him or her.” And I say, “Well, have you talked to them?”
Well, if you don’t quite understand what that peace is about, have you talked with God? In my pastoral ministry, I have seen people lying at the point of death. I have seen people in great distress in family crises, and I’ve seen them in the midst of whatever their condition say to me, “But you know today I felt the presence of God and I have peace.” That is the gift that God offers to us, and that gift comes to us when we allow our hearts to be changed by opening ourselves to the one Lord Jesus Christ who has entrusted to us the Good News that love is not distant and away, but the love of God lives in each of our hearts, and we are called to let it be enfleshened to be in each of us that when our Lord returns he will return and see compassionate hearts who have made the love of God known in the worlds in which we live.