A. Advent and the coming of Christ
1. Advent begins today. It points us toward the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and at the end of time, and calls us to get ready—with a note of urgency: “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:12).
2. We read the Palm Sunday gospel on the First Sunday in Advent because it presents the image of Christ coming to Jerusalem. “Behold thy king cometh unto thee, meek and sitting upon an ass” (Matthew 21:5). The Advent Collect, which we pray daily throughout the season, contrasts this coming in humility with Christ’s anticipated Second Coming in glory to judge the world. We ask for grace to repent and accept the humble Savior now so that we will be ready to face the glorious and righteous judge then.
3. These are compelling themes, but just how are we to apply them to our lives in meaningful ways? The Second Coming of Christ has been emphasized in several periods and places in church history. The “Jesus Movement” of the 1970’s that began in Orange County emphasized this. Adventist movements cause excitement about Christ’s coming for a short season; but once the excitement passes, the long term impact is debatable
B. The difficulty of changing
1. There are two reasons that the change Advent calls for is difficult to sustain. First, excitement doesn’t change. We may get stirred up by a charismatic speaker who tells us Christ is coming soon; but that momentary enthusiasm will always wane. As we return to the routines of life, world, flesh and devil will conspire to extinguish the flickering flame.
2. The second and more significant reason is that our culture is inordinately oriented towards the temporal; towards outward appearance rather than inward virtue; towards finding happiness now and, thus, towards eliminating the present cross that leads to future glory. Repentance involves a reorientation of our lives towards the things that are eternal. This is opposed in our culture at every turn. Consequently, repentance is hard to sustain.
3. We are unable to give persistent and honest attention to uncomfortable and weighty issues. There is an appetite for only so much reality before we must return to something that makes us feel good. For example, when a natural disaster hits, the news networks will only cover the tragic nature of it for a short and defined season of time. Then they will instruct their people to wrap up the coverage with some positive stories about aid given and recovery experienced before pulling their crews out altogether. This happens even when nothing about the condition on the ground has substantially improved.
4. Scott Peck once wrote that “all neurosis results from the attempt to avoid legitimate suffering.” We attempt to avoid legitimate suffering everywhere. We have a cultural tendency to choose comfort in the moment over the temporal pain that will produce long term good. This is why we can’t solve any problems in a lasting way. We are always looking for the solution that doesn’t require any pain. We are always choosing the pain killer over the more painful cure.
5. Lest this be seen as an opportunity for us to criticize the world “out there,” we must acknowledge that we all do this. This tendency reflects the fallen human we all possess. Why is it that I can watch a three hour sporting or entertainment event without thinking about the time, but complain that an hour and half is too long for the worship of God? Why is that I can spend extended periods of time reading about sports, entertainment or business, but then say that I do not have time to read Morning Prayer?
We hear the Advent message, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” But once the dust settles, we return to business as usual because it is just easier that way.
C. Repentance, the life of prayer and eternity vs. time
1. The point of this is not merely to make people feel guilty. To be sure, we are all guilty, and guilt has its place if it leads us to change. However, the point is to highlight how we have all unwittingly accepted a value system that undermines the central message of the gospel. If we are always primarily concerned with how comfortable we are in the moment and with avoiding every negative and painful thing, we simply will not be able to repent.
2. The word repentance in New Testament means “to have a change of mind,” to see things in a different way. This change of mind will lead us to reorder our lives. We will learn to act in the present moment in the light of our eternal hope and destiny. In other words, we learn to habitually reject the pain killer that avoids the truth and leads us to judgment; we will learn to embrace the cross that leads to resurrection.
3. This reorientation can only take place through a renewed commitment to the life of prayer. Through the disciplines of the life of prayer, we grow in our experience of God’s presence. The grace of Sacrament and prayer causes us to “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” (BCP 297). Grace cultivates within us a taste for “the things that remain” (Revelation 3:2) and a growing distaste for things that are temporal and passing.
4. Repentance must lead us to a life of prayer or it will not last. The excitement of Advent will not lead to change if it only leads us to try harder. Unaided human effort will always fall short of the glory of God. Over time, prayer will produce in us the fruit of changed behavior; but to merely try harder will only lead to failure, frustration and loss of faith.
5. Through our disciplines of prayer—through our Rule—we begin to impose the reality of eternity upon our lives in time; the kingdom of God comes into our lives now and begins to change us. Apart from the habitual experience of grace that comes to us through prayer there will be no lasting change in our lives.
D. Advent and the will to change.
1. Of course, we don’t have time for prayer. It is too difficult to re-order the pattern of our lives—and it is very inconvenient. There are too many current demands. Perhaps we can change next year or in another season of life when things slow down.
2. Change requires that we reorient our lives towards eternity and away from the false urgencies, values and promise of the world. But, are we really willing to do that? Do we really want to change? These are the questions Advent asks us as it reminds us, “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent. The day is at hand.”