Saturday, December 10, 2011

Magnificent Things

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me. (Luke 1.46-49)

The Talk of the Town

Let’s pretend we’re young women of 16 or so coming into our own in ancient Palestine. Our parents have brokered a splendid marriage contract with a good family, whose son, our husband-to-be, is well established in his faith and trade. With betrothal—a public rite confirming community consent to the union—behind us, our wedding is the talk of the town. For the moment, we’re our tiny hamlet’s closest thing to celebrity. Smiles and kind wishes greet us wherever we go. Our sense that the future couldn’t be finer deepens by the day, as does our gratitude when we think of brides whose families saddle them with uncaring, faithless men. We rarely get to ponder these joys, however. With so much to do before the wedding, fatigue is a constant companion and nightfall an unlikely friend. Its stillness gives us time to reflect before sleep bears us away on its soothing tide. Then, all too soon, daybreak rudely returns us to another task-ridden day.

Can it really be morning? It seems we hardly slept. Before opening our eyes, the room’s brightness and warmth raise the possibility we’ve been asleep for hours and hours, late into the day. How can that be? (We’ll ask this again and again.) We shield our eyes to glance around. The rest of the family hasn’t stirred. We peer into the light and gasp. It radiates from a being unlike any on Earth. We know it’s an angel sent by God. And we suspect we’re unprepared for whatever it harbingers, as we also know angels always bring life-altering news.

The angel greets us, saying we’re highly favored and God is with us. Its voice thunders with majesty that curiously flows over us like gentle water music. While we’re gripped by fear and wonder, the rest of the house sleeps on. How can that be? The angel tells us not to be afraid, and then relays news so terrifying it defies comprehension. “How can that be?” we ask, assuming virginity disqualifies us to bear God’s Son. The angel says we’ll conceive the Child after the Holy Spirit descends on us. First, what’s a “holy spirit?” We’ve never heard of such a thing. Second, it’s humanly inconceivable. Third, what the angel calls a great blessing sounds like a curse. We catch ourselves from asking how can that be and think this through. This is an angel. It speaks God’s will. What else can we do but submit humbly in service to God? The angel leaves us in chilly darkness. Hushed breath of parents and siblings nearby is deafening; they'll never believe they weren't awakened by what just happened. Nobody will believe this—not Joseph, his parents, no one in the synagogue, nobody. And it’s not a secret we can hide. In time, everyone will see. Being the talk of the town won’t feel so wonderful then.

A Huge Song

Mary’s first move is a smart one. She gets out of town. According to the angel, her cousin, Elizabeth, is beginning the third term of a miraculous pregnancy. Mary decides—correctly—that Elizabeth and her husband will be receptive to her news. As soon as she crosses their threshold, Elizabeth’s baby leaps for joy in her womb and she prophesies, echoing the angel’s declaration almost word for word. A song wells up in Mary, an impromptu hymn of praise that also expresses profound assurance. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Mary sings. “For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1.46-49) Because we relate to Mary’s tangled emotions and unanswered questions, we hear her sing in a muted, melodious soprano. And we hear a simple, subtle tune—something closer to an Act Two reprise than a showstopper that rings down the Act One curtain. Yet the song’s lyrics and placement as the narrative’s first act closes suggest otherwise.

It’s a huge song full of huge feelings and ideas—an aria bursting with excitement and illumination, as Mary comprehends the scale of events thrust upon her. She bypasses her mind, where logic resides, and her heart, home of human intentions, to sing from her soul, where emotions live and flow freely. Her song is about releasing herself to God’s infinite wisdom and care. Her soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit—the God within her—rejoices. The sheer impossibility of what she must do convinces Mary it will be done. Why? Because God traffics in impossibilities. God brings down the mighty and exalts the lowly, Mary sings. God fills hungry hearts and sends those satisfied with riches away. God’s mercy endures the test of time, and God’s promises stand forever. Up to now, Mary’s only seen the enormity of her challenge and its enormous risks. All of that shatters, revealing a bigger, greater God behind the challenge, a God more than capable of managing risks. It’s a huge song full of huge feelings and ideas.

Magnificent Things

A thrilling realization turns up in Mary’s improvised verse. The Greek verb, “to magnify” (megalunó) derives from the word Mary uses to describe the “great” things God has done for her (megas). When we release ourselves to God’s infinite wisdom and care—bypassing human logic and intentions so our soul is free to magnify God and our spirits can breathe joyfully—magnificent things happen. We can’t help but sing. The angel’s final words to Mary become our life’s theme: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1.37) God purposefully designs insurmountable challenges and inevitable risks to be shattered, so that God’s supreme power can be revealed in and through us. Facing sheer impossibility is the most reliable indicator that God will do what can’t be done.

The only thing that hinders God’s ability to do magnificent things for us is our reluctance to magnify God. As long as we keep God in a box constructed of our reasoning and reasons, impossibilities box us in on all sides. We negotiate with ourselves, leveraging all sorts of excuses why God’s plan won’t work. We pull out sorry songs we should have thrown out ages ago. We disqualify ourselves before God finishes explaining how we’ll succeed. If it involves something we’ve not heard of or can’t possibly achieve without God, we mistake God’s blessing for a curse. We put more faith in our predictions than God’s promises. Mary’s aria is soul music. It’s bigger and greater than any song she’s ever sung, and she sings it in a big way. It closes Act One’s conflicts and rushes toward Act Two’s magnificence. Sing Mary’s song.

We magnify You from our souls, Most Magnificent God. Our spirits rejoice in You. Every impossibility You bring to us is another opportunity for You to reveal Your magnificence to us, in us, and through us. Teach us to sing like we’ve never sung before. Make Your infinite power our lives’ theme. Amen.

As long as we keep God in a box, our reasoning and reasons will keep us boxed in. But when our souls magnify the Lord, magnificent, completely out-of-the-box things happen.

Postscript: “Magnificat”

Bach’s unsurpassed rendering of Mary’s song needs no occasion. But seeing as we’re here…

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Repost: Called to Hope

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you. (Ephesians 1.18)

How’s Your Hope?

I confess an odd sort of ambivalence about hope. Unlike faith and love—the other two abiding principles that complete Paul’s triumvirate in 1 Corinthians 13—hope strikes me as a slippery concept. Faith and love are easier to get our arms around, because Jesus and the epistle writers provide a plethora of definitions for them. On the other hand, as often as the word hope appears—180 times in the NIV—I’ve yet to find one verse that says, “Here’s what hope is.” Tracking down the Hebrew and Greek words only confuses things. Old Testament “hope” derives from “cord” or “rope,” indicating it’s a thing we hold and trust while we wait. New Testament “hope” is more straightforward: “expectation.” That gets to the nub of my consternation. When David says, “I hope for Your deliverance” (Psalm 119.166), he means, “I’m hanging on.” When Paul encourages us to “Rejoice in hope” (Romans 12.12), he wants us to exult in what we expect God will do. Where I come from, hanging on is one thing and exultation is another.

Imagine my perplexed response when thinking about hope brought this to mind: How’s your hope? I had no answer, as I had no idea what I’d asked myself. I fired back, “What do you mean?” (I have these testy inner dialogues from time to time.) Was I wondering about my tenacity to believe or my ability to expect? “All of it,” I heard myself say. “How's that going?” I didn’t like the question one bit. Truth be told, I don’t work too much on hope. I’m confident I have it. I expect God’s goodness and mercy in all things. As a rule, I trust God when I’m left hanging. Yet hope seldom captivates my thoughts. I’ve settled for having it instead of doing it, twisting it into a limbo lobby, a type of suspended optimism I hang with until something actually happens. Is that hoping? It sounds more like loitering. Now I realize why the hope I project on Advent texts feels ambiguous and thin. I’m not seeing the writers and figures do hope. I’ve got them idling—albeit excitedly—until the show starts, and that’s not what they do, since that's not what hope is.

Before Our Stories Happen

Hope is a tough concept for us because we take its operative principles less seriously than our ancestors. Modern cynicism and self-sufficiency lend credence to “promises are made to be broken.” Nowadays, it’s bad form to hold people to their word. Often out of grace, but also to escape appearing needy—Heaven forbid we rely on someone—we overlook most bad promises. (Forgiving them is a conversation for another time.) We forget that little to no faith in promises produces little to no hope. To guard against disappointment, we view hope suspiciously, which is exactly not what it’s for. Hope is given to nurture confidence in promises until they’re honored. The ancients understood hope more clearly. In their day, the burden of hope rested on the promise's maker, not its taker, because they had no alternative to depending on one another. If the farmer didn’t deliver promised grain, no one ate bread. If the weaver didn’t produce promised cloth, everyone wore rags. Promises held the world together. Hope made it spin. Their combined gravity secured daily life. That’s why God’s promises and our hope form the braid—the cord—that ties Scripture together, and why we’re consistently told to be true to our word, even as our Creator honors promises to us.

Rethinking hope as an active pursuit rather than passive—possibly futile—occupation also reveals its hidden beauty. It’s the key to entering our stories before they happen. It puts us where we want to be ahead of actually getting there. Reality-clouded intellect would have us dismiss canny hope as callow fantasy. To go through life hanging on promises, fully expecting they’ll come to pass, seems naïve and weak-minded. We’ve even coined a euphemism for it: living in denial. Paul challenges this, asserting hope is the sign of hard-won, inner strength: “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame.” (Romans 5.3-5) Yes, hardship builds character. But ending the process there limits involvement in our narrative to the moment it calls for character. True strength becomes evident when trust in God’s promises presses us to finish the sequence—to muster the guts to hope. According to Ephesians 1.18, that’s what God hopes we’ll do: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” We are called to hope. While murky minds don’t see it, our enlightened hearts recognize we have a place in our story long before promises we rely on come about.


Look at the characters arriving at the Christ-Child’s manger. Need we ask what brings them there? Every one of them, from Mary and Joseph to the Magi to the lowliest shepherd, lands in this filthy barn on wings of hope. They embrace God’s promises and act on them. They leave what they know behind—friends and families, palaces and pastures—answering God’s call to hope. Terrible outcomes cannot be ruled out. Obeying God’s call could end with Mary and Joseph being stoned as fornicators. Seeking Christ’s birthplace could result in the Wise Men’s arrest as covert insurgents. After abandoning their flocks to worship the Savior, the shepherds could return to find their livestock stolen, lost, or destroyed. Yet not one of us would consider any of the Holy Infant’s attendants delusional or weak-minded. They’re paragons of insight and strength!

Hope makes arriving at God’s promises possible and vindicates us from doubts and criticism along the way. God calls us to hope—to enter our stories with God, to follow God in active expectancy, to pursue God’s promises with enlightened hearts. Hope takes us where we’re headed before we get there. It’s what proves strength of character forged in hardship. Hope is what we do, leaving everything we know behind and trusting every risk we take will be rewarded. So how is your hope? How's that going?

O God, our Help in ages past, our Hope for years to come, we have heard your call to hope. Place in us a will to hope, to do the things hope asks of us, to live hope. Amen.

Originally posted on December 3, 2010.

Hope enables us to enter our stories before what we hope for appears. Its radiance rises over the horizon and lights our way.

Postscript: "My Hope is in You"

To do hope is to invest hope in a God Who will not disappoint. Aaron Shust beautifully renders this idea in "My Hope is in You."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Getting Through

If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. (Job 14; KJV)

Until Change Comes

I guess it was weird. I didn’t realize it, but when I pull back and watch myself, I can see why it might have struck others as, oh, I don’t know, unusual. I was 12, a bit of a nerd, a little sissified, inching ever closer to my snob phase, acting older than my years and thinking I was older than I acted—in other words, that kid who finds other kids too annoying to spend time with, who’s happiest by himself. I’d recently undergone a major sea change. In a preemptive strike against rock-and roll, a family friend gave me Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace for my birthday. I’d grown up with gospel music. But I’d never heard anything like this. I played it constantly, full-blast, in my room. (I was in heaven; the rest of the house wasn’t.) Soon I was cajoling anyone with a car to drive me around Chicago, to mom-and-pop record shops and churches where I could hear live performances of this music I’d rapidly come to love. Since no kid I knew was pursuing my obsession—or chasing another with comparable single-mindedness—I suppose it was weird. But, oh my, was it wonderful.

My connection with the music was forged with hymns and songs I knew. As I immersed myself in the worship experience, however, I grew increasingly aware that many of the semantics, which spilled out of the music into the liturgy and preaching, held less resonance for me than other worshipers. Unlike the expansive melodies and rhythms they float on, black gospel lyrics are tightly packed. They draw on a narrow lexicon of key words and phrases, most originating in spirituals that lift texts and imagery from the King James Bible and reset them, unadorned, in the context of slavery and freedom. Having been deeply imbedded into African-American faith culture, they retained their currency and spoke for themselves, often in emotions that defied explanation.

A lot of lyrics, for obvious reasons, alluded to Israel’s liberation from Egypt. But Job was also well represented, frequently in the phrase, “wait until my change come,” taken from Job 14.14: “If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.” (KJV) Whenever the phrase surfaced—in song, sermon, or testimony—the church surged. People shouted, “Amen!” and “Go ahead!” Some leapt to their feet, arms stretched to heaven, faces upturned, as if to soak in life-giving rain. Tears of joy often streaked their cheeks. Their unfiltered emotions removed any barriers to feeling what they felt. Still, I couldn’t wrap my head around the phrase’s effect. There were dozens of songs about waiting. The impact plainly lived in “my change,” and not for the life of me could I figure what it meant—not in a sense that would trigger so profound a reaction, that is. There had to be something to it. And there was.

Faith Expressed in Uncertainty

Because of what I experienced, Advent’s invitation to wait—to contemplate waiting as a spiritual principle and discipline—always leads back to Job. The wonder of Job, for me, is his ease with wondering. To be the Bible’s oldest book, its eagerness to question and grapple with big ideas feels very modern. The story’s tensions play out vertically, as Job searches for insight into God’s purpose for tragedies that inexplicably ruin him, and laterally, as he resists the simplistic counsel of friends hoping to clarify his predicament. After losing his family, wealth, and health—on a whimsical bet between God and Satan, no less—his buddies come around to explain what God meant by doing this to him. While each has his own theory about Job’s reversal of fortune, all three are certain God has spoken. Job’s not so sure about that. He won’t rule out the possibility God is speaking, and his sudden plunge into hardship isn’t the end for him, but the pivotal transition to a new beginning. The longer his friends rattle on the surer Job is that he’s right, and the more intense his conversations with God become.

Grief, homelessness, poverty, and painful affliction—their grip on Job weakens until they’re no more than irritants distracting him from what’s really going on. It’s apparent to him he’s locked in a holding pattern, and why that is concerns him less than what it means. He even ponders the idea that waiting is all there is. Perhaps the promise of newness is a red herring, a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow hidden behind his storms. “If it takes the rest of my days,” he says. “I’ll wait until my change comes.” The faith expressed in his uncertainty is a thing of beauty. He submits to what he doesn’t know and can’t understand, confessing, “Who knows what I’m waiting for? Maybe it will come. Maybe it won’t. There’s only so much time left for me to wait on whatever it is. Since that’s all I know, all I know to do is wait until my change comes.

An Evolution Occurring Within

As it turns out, I’m not the only one puzzled about what Job means by “change.” Indeed, Job’s so hazy about what he’s trying to convey he describes a process rather than a result. This is one of the rare times when the King James Version comes closer to the original than its successors. More recent translations opt for “renewal,” “release,” and “resurrection.” But Job uses a derivative of chalaph, a Hebrew word meaning, “to pass through, move past, pierce, sprout, or sweep.” It’s a forward-looking term often associated with growing up or leaving behind—letting go. Thus, Job isn’t holding out for a life-altering moment, an epiphany of some sort, or another sudden change to undo the previous one’s damage. He’s not waiting for a revolution. He’s getting through his doubt and despair, fully aware of an evolution occurring within him, even while he waits to discover where it will lead. He’s growing up, letting go. If that’s as far as his wait takes him, that’s enough. He may die before his change breaks through in sprigs of newness. Yet Job senses newness already happening inside him. If waiting is all there is, getting through it will change him, regardless if he can prove he’s been changed.

So it also turns out I misread the reactions that piqued my curiosity about this passage. The intense rejoicing it sparks arises from knowing that to wait is to change, from sensing God is already at work in us below the surface, from confidence we’re growing up and letting go while getting through the wait. Another phrase I hear when worshiping with my African-American faith family goes, “I’m not what I should be. But, thank God, I’m not what I used to be.” That’s waiting in a nutshell. Who we are today is not who we’ll be tomorrow. Who we are tomorrow won’t be the same the day after that. Getting through. Letting go. Sprouting. Changing. Waiting. We may not be what we should be. But if we learn to wait, we will never be what we were. Thank God for the wait.

God of perpetual change and constant motion, please remind us that waiting is changing, that You move constantly in us, even though we think we’re stuck in holding patterns and standing still. Teach us the fine art of knowing what we can’t feel and feeling what we can’t see. We’re waiting—and we thank You for the wait. Amen.

To wait for change is to experience change. It’s a forward-looking process that begins below the surface long before any visible signs emerge.

Postscript: “Lord, Help Me To Hold Out”

Just one of many uplifting gospel songs resounding with Job’s faith in uncertainty—this one performed by a virtual constellation of gospel greats, all of them intimately acquainted with profound changes we undergo during the wait.

Monday, December 5, 2011

No Better Way

Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Philippians 2.4-7)

Marketable Allure

How easily our romance with the Nativity slips into sentimentality! We start with two young people inadequately prepared for the task God assigns them, making bold decisions based on visions and dreams. Other than Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband, Zachariah—who empathize with her, as they’re also dealing with a miraculous conception—the Gospels mention no family or community support. Even if loved ones support them, they’re nowhere to be found when Mary and Joseph need them most. God’s plan draws them away from home and strands them in an overcrowded village, where no one cares about them. They do their best with what they’ve got, which is next to nothing. Against all odds, they bring a healthy Child into the world. As they cope with what must seem like an insurmountable crisis, our focus is diverted to simultaneous events. Beyond Bethlehem’s walls, angels sing glad tidings to shepherds. In Jerusalem, prominent foreigners consult King Herod about Christ’s birth, first brought to their attention by an astronomical anomaly. The terrified new parents see none of this.

When the odd assortment of strangers converges on the lowly stable, our movie-fed reflexes kick in. We push the tiny barn from its secluded back lot, anchor it on a sleepy street, and tidy things up to make it presentable. We tamp down the dirt floor, shovel out the manure, rid the feed cribs of rats, and de-louse the livestock. Before the guests arrive, we make sure to discard bloody evidence of childbirth, bathe mother and Child, substitute a downy white comforter for torn rags binding the Infant’s movement, put both parents in fresh clothes, and iron out the exhaustion, stress, and panic creasing their faces. Presto! The mean reality of Christ’s birth is neatly revised for distinctly Western, middle-class, marketable allure, readily amenable to Christmas cards, kiddie pageants, and easily offended children of all ages.

Appallingly Substandard

Had it been possible to photograph the scene, we’d be so shaken by what it revealed that waves of horror and nausea would crush us. We’d have to ask, “What is God thinking?” It’s not enough for Jesus to be born when the most ideal birth scenarios are ghastly primitive. No, God works overtime to see Mary delivers the Child in conditions that the poorest, most disadvantaged mothers of her day would find appallingly substandard. We cringe to question God’s judgment, but outrage forces us to ask again, “What is God thinking?” It’s a question that God must welcome, though, given what its answer reveals.

By necessity, Jesus must live a lowly life. To make clear the God in Him stoops to reach us, our atonement can never be dismissed as a noble act of human kindness. We get all of that. Still, was it really necessary to subject Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to such horrible extremes? Surely there’s a better way to do this. After all, we’re talking about God here—our God of endless options, infinite wisdom, and incomparable power. If this was God’s Plan A, there had to be at least one Plan A+ that didn’t strip the Child and His parents of all dignity and pride. We can go down that road over and over—adjusting the math, tinkering with variables, inventing comparable confluences of theology, history, and science. Yet every time we’ll land at the same conclusion: there is no better way. For Jesus’s death to set new standards for love, tolerance, and mercy, His birth must be scarred by indifference, isolation, and disgrace. The intricately detailed symmetry is simply divine.

Compassion That Rocks the World

The Nativity and Crucifixion are two halves of a whole, both brutally demeaning, yet brilliantly decisive. Together they prove God brooks no middle ground to repair our broken relationship. It’s an all-or-nothing covenant founded on God’s desire to restore all we’ve lost, even though nothing we do warrants divine favor. In Philippians 2, Paul writes, “Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (v4-8) Christ’s sacrifice begins in Bethlehem, where Jesus opens His eyes to a birthplace unfit for a slave, and culminates at Calvary, where He shuts them on a lowlife’s cross. From the start, Christ renounces divine stature to attain our deepest despair.

Before placing Christmas’s cruelty on par with Good Friday’s atrocities, let’s consider the physics of God’s plan. Every human weakness God abhors springs from our unholy craving to come out on top. It pollutes us and our filth cascades on those we presume beneath us. Sin’s gravity (in every sense) is why there’s no better way—why there can be no middle ground. It’s why Paul says Christ “emptied Himself.” Since that’s the lowest one can possibly go, to claim superiority of any kind is to exalt oneself above Christ.

Bethlehem is where Christ unleashes a tide of compassion that rocks the world off its axis. High-low status gives way to a tableland where all stand equally, side-by-side. It’s as Isaiah 40 says: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (v4-5) The Nativity’s unspeakable sorrow spawns indescribable joy when we see how low Christ goes to free us of inequities, rejection, and despair. Christmas is the defining moment when the Word Made Flesh stands at the foot of sin’s corrosive cascade and swallows it up with God’s free-flowing love, acceptance, and grace. (Cue the angels: it's time to sing!)

Prepare our hearts and grant us courage, O Christ, to arrive at Bethlehem with clear eyes. May your glory be revealed in the splendor of what transpires in the filthy stable, instead of the sentimental, sanitized spectacle we’ve been sold. May the extreme lowliness we witness cure our unholy drive to be on top and heal the wounds inflicted on us by sin’s corrosive cascade. Amen.

Sentimentalizing the Nativity sanitizes its actuality—hindering our realization of how low Christ had to go to put an end to sin’s inequities and despair.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Waiting to Be Found

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by Him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. (2 Peter 3.14-15)

Not Pretty

Friday before last, I mentioned to my pastor that I’d scanned the lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent. “Not pretty,” I said, referring to Mark 13’s “Little Apocalypse.” (See The Tender Time below.) “All of this year's Advent is like that,” she sighed. “Turning the gloom and doom into something that builds hope and faith will be a challenge.” Opening Sunday’s readings, I see what she meant. The Old Testament texts—Isaiah 40 (“Comfort my people”) and Psalm 85 (“Righteousness will go before Him”)—nicely synch up with the Mark 1’s Gospel: “Prepare the way of the Lord”. But the real meat turns up in 2 Peter 3.8-15, which is full of the same kind of nightmarish imagery that made tough-going of last week’s Gospel. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief,” verse 10 says, “and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” Not pretty. Or so it seems until we set the pyrotechnics aside and consider the pertinent question rising out Peter’s sulfurous clouds.

The Context of Their Lives

Although he's discussing the day of the Lord—i.e., the end of time—in vivid detail, Peter's teaching vigilance. And one of the odder aspects of his decidedly odd approach is how casually he predicts we’ll go out with a big bang that blows the heavens and earth to smithereens. Such prospects don’t frighten him one bit. Nor is he concerned about frightening his readers. Since the Early Church spends every moment watching for Christ’s return, time can’t end soon enough for them; they eat this apocalyptic stuff up. Yet Peter’s not all that interested in feeding their Second Coming fixation. He’s providing pastoral nurture for Christian living. He deliberately sets his remarks in an end-time context because that’s the context of their lives.

It’s a mistake to hear Peter’s cataclysmic predictions and lump him and his readers with Christians who abdicate present priorities to fantasize about a future finality. Without certainty when Christ will come, Peter says time is of the essence. We must be present and accounted for now. In light of our perceived shortness of time, he poses a perceptive question: “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?” (v11-12) He reprises his day-of-the-Lord scenario, keeping before us the urgency to remain vigilant until Jesus comes. Then he gives us the answer in verses 14-15: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by Him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

At Peace

Peter sets loose some really big ideas in this passage: holiness and godliness; pursuing lives uncompromised by clumsy stains and nagging imperfections; viewing our allotted time to wait for Christ’s appearance as a literal grace period, when preparing the way of the Lord opens us to the Lord’s way. The nub of Peter’s counsel surfaces when he says, “While you’re waiting, strive to be found by Him at peace.” Exaggerated expectancy for Christ to come and lift us out of our anguish is the surest route to anxieties that defeat why Christ comes—as a mortal Infant, our eternal Lord and King, or the gentle Savior Who gives rest to our souls. We want to rush Christ’s arrival to ease our suffering. Yet impatience hobbles our vigilance. We overlook the legacy of peace Jesus wills to us in John 14.27: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Waiting impatiently for Christ to establish peace on Earth robs us of peace Christ offers us now.

Advent rehearses Israel’s anticipation of the Messiah as our means to discover the two-fold nature of Christ’s coming. The road to Bethlehem is as much about waiting to be found at peace as finding the Prince of Peace. It’s learning that miracles take time, and fretting about why we must wait to hold them in our arms only unnerves us. Advent guides us to realize nothing God does ever goes as we expect, yet when we reach grace’s destination, everything we need is there. It’s a stable, not a palace. It’s the delivery of a needy Infant, not the mighty Deliverer we think we need. It’s an angel choir in the country, not an extravaganza in the city square. It’s brought to us on a humble donkey, not an intimidating steed.

The vigilance Peter encourages looks inward. It illuminates tiny beginnings and thin places, not booming climaxes and epic canvases. Bethlehem proves that. For centuries, Israel sits on edge, watching for the first sign of an awesome spectacle. When it unfolds, Jesus comes so quietly and unobtrusively they don’t believe in Him. In similar fashion, those anxiously awaiting an over-the-top Second Coming may be too underwhelmed to recognize it when it happens. If they’re right, and it's as earth-shattering as they predict, we’ll all be thrilled. But suppose it’s not what they expect. Will they be ready for that? Peter teaches us the importance of watching wisely while we wait. If we abuse the promise of Christ’s coming to percolate grandiose expectations and gratuitous excitement, we’ll not be found at peace when Christ appears.

God of tiny beginnings and thin places, turn our eyes from what we impatiently expect, so we may discover what’s waiting to happen inside us. Heal our addiction to anxiety and overkill. Come to us in Your own quiet magnificence and find us at peace. Amen.

Advent is as much about waiting to be found at peace as finding peace when Christ appears.

Postscript: “Waiting…”

Preparing the way of the Lord by opening ourselves to the Lord’s way will result in waiting to be found at peace.