Friday, December 05, 2014
December 7, Advent 2, The Mission 3: Why is God Coming?
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
I do like opera, but Wagner is not my favorite, especially not his later operas with the characters just posing there singing their interminable arias. The soprano Birgit Nilsson used to sing those arias magnificently, and once she was asked what was the secret of her great success, and she famously answered, “Comfortable shoes. If you’re singing Isolde you have to have comfortable shoes.”
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” That’s the first voice you hear in Handel’s Messiah, the tenor plaintively singing it, and you will hear it sung this Thursday night. And then the aria, “Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.” Road-building and comfort. A strange combination.
John the Baptist is a strange one for comfort. He’s wearing scratchy clothes and he sleeps on the ground and he doesn’t eat comfort food. His message is a rough one too. He’s comes at you like a bulldozer, he scrapes you level like an excavator. He is a wire-brush, he roughs you up to smooth you down. And this is for comfort? Only if comfort comes through penitence.
Comfort is a big deal in Reformed theology. Our tradition is the only one which raises comfort to a doctrine, as in the opening question of our Heidelberg Catechism, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”
What does comfort suggest to you? Something comfy and soft, like cushions or your slippers, or a comfortable income, or a mother comforting her crying child. But sometimes a hard chair is more comfortable, and if you’re working on your feet all day your comfortable shoes will not be slippers. Comfort can have firmness and strength in it. The second syllable is “fort” as in “fortress” and “force.” To “aid and comfort to the enemy” is to enhance the power of the enemy.
You know it is a military metaphor, the building of a road. That was done back then by armies, great imperial armies, for invasion, and then for the occupation by connecting the forts. Military force. Com-fort. The comfort of Isaiah has some judgment in it. You cannot separate the comfort from the judgment. On the highway comes the emperor, who clears away rebellion and resistance and orders all things and sets all things to rights. This comfort is not very cushy.
In the epistle you get metaphysical metaphors, which are no less imperial. These metaphors are notoriously difficult to translate, because we see the natural world so differently than they did back then. For example, the word “elements” does not mean oxygen and iron and lead, as in the periodic table of the elements, but rather the fundamental powers of the world as celebrated in Greek mythology and as delineated in the Hellenistic philosophy, both of them supporting the Roman Empire in its power and its culture and its way of life. That’s the society that this epistle was written into.
The epistle is difficult because it mixes Hellenistic metaphysical metaphors with Hebrew prophetic metaphors. In the prophets, fire is a metaphor of the personal wrath of God, the heat of God’s personality and the blaze of God’s judgment. This fire is never for torture, or roasting, but for burning things off and burning things away and for purgation and purification.
If you blend these metaphors you get God coming in judgment, excavating, blasting, breaking, burning, clearing things away, exposing what was closed, revealing what was hidden, making things transparent. The systems in place and the powers in control cannot resist the judgment of our God, and this for you is comfort. Not for just the end of time, but for now, as the Word of God comes in to challenge our systems and to judge our cultures and our cultural assumptions, and to free us from the iron laws of our presuppositions and all that we have to take as self-evident and elementary.
For now, God’s coming is powerful but partial. We acknowledge this in prayer, especially in the Lord’s Prayer. We know that God’s will is done on earth, but not as it is done in heaven. We believe that God’s kingdom has come on earth, but not yet as it in heaven, not without resistance and rebellion. We pray that it will fully come; and that Our Lord will come and stay for good.
We confess the mystery of the faith that "Christ will come again," and I am telling you that the gospel promise is he will come and stay for good. The metaphors mean that God is clearing out things and opening up things in the world in order fully and peacefully to inhabit it.
It may take another few thousand years, or in God’s time, another few days, but right now this is the Day of the Lord, and the Lord, by means of his word, is judging and ordering and clarifying things. God is on a mission to reclaim the world and fully to inhabit it, and to share it with us, God’s people.
But God comes in stages, not all at once. First the preparation, and then the full arrival. As John the Baptist was for the Messiah at his first coming, so the church is now for Our Lord before his second coming, with a similar mission of preparing by proclaiming and baptizing.
Not that you yourselves as individuals proclaim. In Isaiah 40 the proclamation is a conversation among several voices, and it includes their questions.
The church proclaims by the collective sound of your thick and complex conversation with this God you are daring to believe in.
The church proclaims by acting out what you believe in, and by how you typically participate in the ordinary world which God is coming into.
The church proclaims by the sum total of your lives of testimony and confession.
The church proclaims by how you confess your own sins without judging others, and by how you share your real experience of reconciliation and acceptance and inclusion. And the church baptizes when you welcome others into this acceptance and reconciliation.
This is how God has seen fit for us to prepare for that full and final coming. “Okay, God, if that’s how you want it, we can do that.” Now maybe if you were God you might have designed it differently, and you might have decided not to wait, but apparently God has determined that it’s important for us to get used to God’s patience, and even to see that patience as salvation.
t would seem that God wants a very, very large population to share the world with, and that this population shall not be naively innocent like the angels, or Adam and Eve at first, but shall have been through fire and water and have had first-hand experience of the deeper love of grief and reconciliation.
One of my personal campaigns has been to counter the conventional belief that when Jesus comes again, it will be for just one short last visit, and then he’ll go back to heaven for good and abandon the created earth forever, and he’ll take us all with him to heaven for eternity.
If this is so, then Satan wins, even despite his own destruction. I get it why this is actually easier to believe, because right now Satan does not seem to be losing. Yes, there has been great progress in the world on account of the gospel—just ask any woman who can vote—but the progress in good seems to be at least matched by progress in evil.
So let me return to the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray, “deliver us from evil,” we do not mean deliver us from the world God created us for life in. When we pray, “lead us not into temptation,” we include the temptation to despair over how slow and ineffective God seems in putting the world to rights, and the temptation to conclude that Satan is not losing, and to surrender to no greater hope than a cushy forever in heaven.
But for us to keep believing in this impossible promise that God’s kingdom will come for good on earth in fullness as it is in heaven, we need some comfort. Not just some soothing consolation, but some fortifying and strengthening.
The comfort I offer you today is your own awareness of your forgiveness and reconciliation, that when you confess your sins, you are aware that you really are forgiven. You can believe in the truth and reality of your own experience of the love of God towards you.
When you do this what you are believing in is the work of the Holy Spirit within you. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. God really has come into your life. That’s a fact that does not depend upon your inner verification. You believe it first, and then you begin to sense it and verify it after the fact. God’s present coming into you is the comfort to keep you hoping for God’s ultimate coming into the world. God is patient with the world as much as God is patient with you. And this patience of God with you is not of endurance but of love. Finally it’s not even patience. God just plain loves to hang out in you.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.