Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The More They Stay the Same

In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all thing things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” (2 Peter 3.4-5)


At last night’s Bible study, we were handed four questions to help center our thoughts in these early days of Advent. More or less, they asked us to identify what comes easiest to us while contemplating Christ’s imminent birth and what we find most difficult about it. After pondering the questions silently, we paired up to exchange responses. I didn’t have much. I mentioned the Black Friday shopper who pepper-sprayed 20 people in a crazed lunge to get her mitts on a videogame, and wondered how the proverbial “we” failed her, so that she’d ever think such behavior was justifiable. I couldn’t get my arms around what it had to do with Advent, other than its challenge to maintain one’s sense of proportion. The distance between the Nativity’s irrevocably world-changing magnitude and its intimate humanity boggles the mind. Year after year I stare across that expanse with no idea how to bridge it.

Walking home, I realized my high-minded thesis wedged itself between the real answer and me. I’m most exasperated by Advent’s sense of futility. The season’s grandiose rhetoric about hope and salvation doesn’t square with stumbling through darkness, brushing against any number of monsters—within and without—that fit Yeats’s ominous portrait in “The Second Coming” (1919):

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

There is (for me, at least) an inarticulate dread lurking beneath Advent’s longing for light and deliverance. Each year brings us no nearer to awakening the dormant possibilities wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. We could spend from now to Christmas rehearsing woes we visit on the weak, defenseless, and, ultimately, ourselves. The more things change, the more they stay the same—only there’s more of it because less changes. While we’re stranded in our quagmire, Advent rolls around, urging us to hold out for light. “Salvation is coming!” it cries. One hand clutches the promise. The other unfurls an open palm to signal, “Enough."

God Isn’t Slow

Doubts and cynicism that pock our Advent road have tripped many before us, going back to first-century believers beleaguered by the same sense of futility we often feel. Fully persuaded he’s writing in “the last days,” Peter addresses increasingly prevalent fatigue and resignation in the Early Church—and he’s not very kind to those affected by it. “In the last days scoffers will come,” he writes in 2 Peter 3.4-5, “scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all thing things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’” He blasts those who confess pangs of futility for using them to excuse not doing the hard work of God’s kingdom. Clearly many have quit their faith and reverted to carnal living. But one suspects more than a few are just plain weary. The bloom is off the rose; the promise has lost its luster. They’re wondering, “What’s the use?”

Peter’s frustration with disillusioned believers comes from being on the Movement’s front line, where he witnesses progress daily. He mingles with higher-ups and preaches to huge crowds, whose lives are radically changed by the Gospel. From where he sits, everything’s happening too fast; for those far removed from Christianity’s epicenter, it appears that nothing’s happening. Thus, Peter stresses we’re not equipped to gauge what’s going on, as we have no measure for God’s timing. “With the Lord one day is like a millennium, and vice-versa,” he says. (v8) “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness,” he explains, “but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” What feels like futility is, in fact, impatience. Human timing shoves us way out in front of God. Hearing God say, “I’m coming,” we yell back, “What’s taking so long?” But God isn’t slow. We simply think so, based how little we know. Our mistake.

The Real Story

Insane though it sounds, the good news of Advent is there’s no news. Things will always change and always stay the same. Our inability to fix us defines the human condition. It confirms why we need a Savior—why Advent’s renewed hope in Christ is our surest means of never losing hope. If we could cure hatred, violence, greed, and every other self-destructive urge splashed across our front pages, of course we’d have done it. Meanwhile, what’s not reported is the real story. Right now, tens of millions of believers travel this Advent road with us, reaching for the same promise, stubbornly living it day and night, refuting every base instinct that captures the media’s morbid fascination.

We’ll never measure the light Christ brings to the world. We’ll never tally the lives Christ enables us to rescue, hearts we mend, nor the violence, poverty, and tragedies we prevent. But this we know: our hope and faith in Christ empowers us to do what we’d never even attempt without it. We resolve Advent’s tension between futility and hope by removing our shortsighted blinders and changing our tune from “Give Up” to “Hold On!” Our sense of timing, not purpose, is what’s off. Could it be what we’re waiting for is already happening, has always been and always will be happening? As long as God’s with us, whether or not things change, that will stay the same.

God Whose promises are true and Whose timing eludes us, disabuse us of impatience masked as futility. Expand our vision to discern Your will and presence alive and active wherever faith abides. Restore the drive and assurance we’ve lost to world-weariness. Lead us home. Amen.

Our hope for the world is secure because we’re in the world, and our hope in Christ refutes every base instinct seeking to destroy hope. That story will never make the front pages. Nonetheless, it’s real, and it will never change.

Postscript: “Only Hope”

Always the last to show up for the parade, I only recently found this powerful Mandy Moore recording (from the film, “A Walk to Remember”). When I feel myself sinking into futility and impatience, I pull it out: “So I lay my head back down/And I lift my hands and pray…”

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