Thursday, December 01, 2011

Change Your Hearts and Lives! An Advent Lectionary Meditation

Change Your Hearts and Lives!

            Change is not something any of us deal with well.  I need to lose weight, but I find it difficult to make the necessary changes in my life style that will allow this to happen.  In other words, I find it difficult to get the necessary exercise and find the discipline to consume either less food or the right food.   Dr. Oz may have a plan for my life, but I’d rather watch Guy Fieri and contemplate dining at one of those diners that serve a ½ pound burger covered with bacon and blue cheese and maybe some chipotle mayo, accompanied by a heaping helping of deeply fried French fries!  I’ve heard the message – my doctor has already told me to change my eating exercise habits, but it’s not something easily accomplished.  Whenever we hear these calls to change the way we live our lives, which is the way that the translators of the Common English Bible render the Greek word we usually translate as repent, we tend to acknowledge the need and then move on with our lives.  It’s not that we don’t know any different, we just don’t seem to have the will to make the necessary changes.

            Seasons like Advent, like Lent, serve as reminders that if we want to get to the desired place in our lives, which is union with God in Christ, we must make changes in our lives (repent).  The texts that are featured this second week of Advent focus on this call to change our lives and hearts in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  They remind us that God is present in our midst, so that if we will let go of the distractions that cloud our hearts and minds, then we will find peace and purpose.  When I use the word “purpose” I don’t mean, as Rick Warren has defined it, God’s eternal purpose.  Rather, I mean that when we attend to the call of God, we will discover what God is doing, and therefore join with God in this work. 

            There is a strong connection between the reading from Isaiah, a word that comes out of the time of the Babylonian Exile, and Mark’s Gospel.  As we’ll see, Mark roots John the Baptist’s calling in the message of Isaiah 40.   For this unnamed prophet whose message was taken up into the Isaiah tradition, there is a word of hope and comfort to be delivered to an exiled people.  As the prophet says to this people, your time of compulsory service has come to an end and your penalty is paid, so now it’s time to go home.  And thus the prophet speaks of a voice crying out in the wilderness that calls for clearing a way through the desert.  The valleys will be raised and the mountains flattened so that the way forward will be clear, easy, and safe.  No mountains to climb or valleys to traverse (they may have scenic beauty, but there a bear when it comes to travel).  

            And why should the people heed this word?  Well, unlike the grass and the flowers, which dry up and wither under the hot wind – or just people in general – the word of God is true and lasting.  You can trust the word of God.  So shout the message, raise your voices and declare to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah that the Lord is here, “coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him.”  This word of triumphant entry is paired with the picture of Yahweh as gentle shepherd, tending the flock, even gathering the lambs in his arms and lap and leading the nursing ewes to a safe place.   

As we move through Advent, we remain in a difficult economic climate, where it seems as if we are living in some kind of exile, and so this word of hope and comfort is welcome news.  It is a reminder that we don’t go through these trials alone.  When all others fail us, even our friends and family, God’s word lasts forever.

The Gospel reading from Mark picks up on Isaiah’s word of comfort.  The good news about Jesus, who is God’s son, begins in the prophecy of Isaiah.  We hear the word of God that God is sending a messenger to prepare the way in the wilderness for the Lord.  Whereas the first reference concerned the return of the exiles to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, this word comes to a people who are spiritually lost, who need to make a change in their lives.  And so the word comes through John, this rather radical looking guy living in the wilderness who has taken up the task of baptizing folks in the Jordan.  His message is simple – Be baptized to show that you are changing your hearts and lives (repentance).  And amazingly, despite his attire and his diet, the message is hitting home, and according to Mark, everyone in Judea and Jerusalem was coming to the Jordan to be baptized.  But this work of John is only preparatory.  It is the foundation, the making of the paths straight, so that the one who is coming, the one whom John is unworthy of unloosening the straps of his shoes, may be revealed, and with this revealing will come the baptism with the Holy Spirit.  It is preparation of a new age of the reign of God. 

Mark lacks a birth narrative.  He starts with the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John.  But with this baptism comes the revealing of the new age of God’s work in the world.  The Holy Spirit, who will descend upon Jesus in this baptism experience, will be shared with all who will hear and respond the message.  But according to the narrative, that is yet to come.  In the meantime we wait and we prepare.  We examine our lives, and discern areas that need God’s attention.  We allow the God who is faithful to God’s word to make the way straight, so that the transforming presence of God will be able to flow through us.  So, we wait and we prepare for the time of God’s revealing in the person of Christ.

I’ve left the passage from 2 Peter for the ending of the conversation.  Here again we have this theme present – a word about changing hearts and lives, which is the translation that the CommonEnglish Bible uses for the Greek metanoia (repentance).  It is, according to the author of this letter attributed to Peter, but written long after Peter’s time, the Lord’s desire that no one should perish, but that everyone should change their hearts and lives.  That is the Lord’s desire, which is why God is patient, and why we should not think God is slow in acting.  Consider that for God, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years a day.  Of course, by the time that this letter is written, perhaps as late as the early second century CE, the earlier expectations of a quick return of Christ have begun to give way to a realism that maybe the Christian community might be in this for the long haul.  But hearkening back to Isaiah, God is faithful, so keep focused.    The reason for keeping focused is that the day of the Lord will likely come like thief, taking us by surprise.  On that day the heavens will pass away, the elements consumed by fire and the earth and its works will be exposed. 

You get this apocalyptic feel here, but the point is simple – be ready, be prepared, make the necessary changes to your lives, because the question that is asked will be this:  What kind of people should we be?  And the expected answer is that we should be people living holy and godly lives, living in hope of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, “where righteousness is at home.”  With this hope set before us, we are called upon to live in this time of transition in a way that demonstrates that we are living in peace and purity.  And as we do, let us consider the patience of God, who would that everyone experience this new heaven and new earth.  That is, God is seeking to bring all into God’s realm, and we should live now as we would in that realm. 

Words like these offer us hope, but they can also prove problematic.  Although we are called to prepare ourselves to meet God face to face, too often we take words about purity and righteousness to their extremes and pass rules and regulations that we impose on others, forgetting that these rules may not reflect the wisdom and desire of God, and that we too need grace.  So, as we prepare for the revealing of the reign of God in all of its fullness, let us take strength in God’s patience and God’s presence with us as the gentle shepherd who gathers us up in God’s lap.  May this Advent journey be a season of divine blessing!           

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