Friday, November 30, 2018

December 2, Advent 1: Living Between the Times: Righteousness

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, I Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

We want the world to make sense. We want existence to add up. Einstein said that what’s most incomprehensible about the universe is that it’s comprehensible. But some thinkers have turned that around: What’s comprehensible about the universe is that it’s incomprehensible. It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t add up. And it certainly isn’t fair. The world is just not fair.

Some people get the breaks and others don’t. Some people have it good and others have to struggle. Isn’t that just evolution, the survival of the fittest? The second-born baby eagle gets kicked out of the nest. Isn’t the wage disparity in America just the cost of business and the consequence of liberty? As for any morality, isn’t it just karma, cause and effect, what goes around comes around?

You can deal with the unfairness of the world in kind. Give up on fairness, work on fitness, become the fittest for your own survival and success. Or even exploit the unfairness, especially if you have grievances. It’s payback time. This is now American policy under our current President.

But what if you believe in a God of justice and love? Then the world’s unfairness is a problem, and maybe the biggest obstacle to belief in God. That God should allow such unfairness is a theme in Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov

Coming to terms with this problem is one of the chief steps in spiritual maturity, but even the greatest saints lose heart. That sinking feeling is what Psalm 25 is getting at. “Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me” who say there is no God, who mock us for waiting in vain. Let me not be humiliated by the absence of my God.

We say that we are waiting for Christ to come again, and that we are in between the times, and the days are surely coming when he will judge the world and establish justice and vindicate fairness and set everything to rights. This coming of the Lord we celebrate in the season of Advent—that he shall come again as the Lord as certainly as he came once as a child. Advent is the season of expecting something more, some one-more great definitive day of God within the world.

Until then, between the times, we are offered a kind of justice that differs from the expectation. It is a kind of justice that is not defined as balance and fairness, but justice defined as righteousness. We learn this from Jeremiah, who combines them as “justice and righteousness.” 

The world can be unfair and existence cruel, but if there is a persistence of righteousness available for people to witness, the world can still make sense between the times. Even in overwhelming injustice, the evidence of righteousness is enough to justify the world, and give sufficient credibility to the God who claims to be in charge of the world. That’s at least the offer. Can you believe it? Does that work for you?

I had an uncle in the Netherlands named Wim. He was a Reformed Church pastor. Not an easy guy, polite but stiff. But during the War he hid Jews in the church building, and it cost him. Years later the Israeli government named him a “righteous Gentile.” He did it because he felt he had no choice. I think that’s what righteousness feels like, that you don’t know what else to do. His righteousness had a double benefit. He saved Jewish lives. But he also saved the world from the triumph of nihilism. The world still makes enough sense that we can keep going. Your little acts of righteousness today are pointers and hints and witnesses to the final justice that God will bring.

You can be righteous. You are righteous when you do the right thing even when it feels unfair that you have to do it and others don’t. You are righteous when you do the right thing even though a wrong was done to you, when you do not respond to unfairness in kind, when you break the cycle of cause and effect. You are righteous when you are kindly to someone who is unfair to you. You are righteous when you stop living by excuses and stop pleading your extenuating circumstances. You are righteous when you stop blaming others for your predicament, or for the choices that you make. You are righteous when you use your own privilege in the cause of others who experience injustice and oppression, when you resist or protest at no benefit to yourself or even at cost to yourself.

You are righteous when you recognize that you have had the benefit of much unfairness too. I have known unfairness in my life, but I also receive a lot of credit I don’t deserve. The unfairness of the world has generally been on my behalf. Therefore who am I to excuse myself from the costly righteousness of loving the world?

God does not ignore the world. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. God enters the world, God walks among us in the world, God eats with us and sleeps with us and nurses at his mother’s breast. The whole thing is a great big “yes” to the world, to the material world, so everybody wants to celebrate, and it’s no wonder that most of our celebration of the holidays is more about the world than it is about God. We sing about the baby, but we are very busy with materialism and worldliness.

Advent is the discomforting conscience of the Christmas season. Amidst our holiday busyness the Church holds forth the Advent message that “he shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.” We are people of the future no less than the past. There is more to come, and we live with expectation. We are to be alert. We are the designated drivers of the world.

We are not to lose ourselves in that most common strategy for dealing with the difficulty of the world, by drowning ourselves in it, through dissipation and drunkenness, as Jesus says, nor through the respectable temptation of materialism, which is no less an indulgence. Designated drivers resist temptations to indulge, you determine your behavior now by what you’re expecting in the future. Keep sharp, keep lively. Jesus says to keep alert and raise your heads.

He says to be on guard. Not against your enemy, but against the fear of your enemy. Be on guard, not against the turmoil of the world, but against the temptation to respond to the turmoil by fear instead of love and peace. When trouble comes, lift high your head. When unfairness and injustice come, it is your opportunity to witness to the righteousness of God.

You want to be righteous; that’s why you are here. I have good news. The Lord is your righteousness. Your righteousness is not your own success at being virtuous. Righteousness is not your own performance of saintliness. Righteousness is your orientation towards God, your commitment to God, your exploration of God, keeping your eye on God and on what God might be doing.

The Lord is your righteousness. Be wholly interested in God and the righteousness will come. Open yourself to the voice of God, to the judgement of God, as searching as it may be, and your righteousness will come. Give yourself to the comfort of God, and not your own devices, open yourself to the love of God and not your own desires, and the righteousness will come.

If I were God I would run the world differently. I would have come back already. I would not allow the misery to go on. I would have ended all the unfairness. Why God makes us wait between the times I don’t fully understand. I could say that the Lord Jesus holds off in order to give room in time for Holy Spirit to do her always surprising work. I could say that God is giving you time to live your life, that God gives you room, and that God delights in your small creative acts of righteousness, but is that delight of God worth all the other suffering? I will come back to this next week.

I am not sure of the reasons, and neither was St. Paul, I think. But the promise in the meantime is that God has not abandoned us. In the meantime, says St. Paul, God strengthens your hearts in holiness. By holiness we mean that orientation to God that counts as righteousness. And in the meantime the Lord makes you abound in love for one another and for all. Everything that God does for you is designed to make your love abound the more. Maybe a reason that Jesus waits is to give time and space for you to abound in love. That would go with Dostoevsky’s vision in The Brothers Karamazov.

And a reason that Jesus waits is to make a great long space within time for God’s unconditional welcome. That unconditional welcome is not just empty space but great embrace, not just avoidance or indifference, but unconditional love, welcoming love, hospitable love, serving love, investing love, a love which God demonstrated within that space by being born as a baby, a baby to be loved by his mommy and his daddy.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

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