Strength to Stand

Happy New Year!
I can only assume that those who are not with us in church today did not make it because they are sleeping in after their wild Christian New Year’s Eve parties last night – perhaps they will make it to the 5 pm service.

At the dawning of this new year, we embark upon a new adventure with the Gospel according to Luke – seamlessly starting where any reasonable person would start with Luke’s orderly account of the mighty acts of God – the end of chapter 21, with Jesus’ instructions about last things and the Day of the Lord.

You see, our Christian story this year could have begun with heaven and earth coming together with the sound of joyous song.  We could have begun with Mary singing, “The Mighty One has done great things for me; holy is his name.” We could have begun with angels singing out to shepherds and their sheep by night, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” But instead our Christian story this year begins, not with heaven and earth coming together, but precisely where things seem to fall apart – not with the sound of joyous song, but with the sound of turmoil and confusion at every level – the powers in the heavens are shaking and on earth, the nations are in disarray, confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  Our Christian story begins with a glimpse of the Son of Man coming for judgment.

I am about to do something unfashionable in the mainline Protestant pulpit in this day and age – and I hope you will forgive me – but I am going to ask you to allow your mind to linger over this image of the Second Coming, of Judgment, of standing before the Son of Man. You must admit that this is not an image that we as Episcopalians much cherish – we prefer to leave the judgment, the new Advent of Christ, and all doomsday speculation to the televangelists and the rapture enthusiasts.  And yet, each year, on our New Year’s Day, this is how we make our start –we skip to chapter 21 and we begin again with a gospel that insists that we must stand before the Son of Man.

Our Christian year begins with the question: When the powers have been shaken and tumult is everywhere, will we have the strength to stand before the Holy One?

On this first Sunday of Advent, our prayer is that we might be strong enough.  The Collect prays, “Give us grace to put on the armor of light.”
Paul prays that God may so strengthen the hearts of the Thessalonians that they might be blameless at the Advent of God.  And Jesus instructs his followers to pray that they might have strength to stand before the Son of Man when he comes. We pray for strength.

As a nation, it may be fair to say that we have been preoccupied with our strength of late, because in all too many ways – it has been shaken and we wonder if we are strong enough:
Are we strong enough to protect ourselves from violent extremism of all kinds – both from within and from far away?
Are we strong enough to defeat ISIS?
Is the dollar strong?
How strong is our economy, really?
We hope for strength – the kind of strength that will protect all that we have and all that we aspire to have.
We hope for strength that will protect our peace.
We hope for strength that will save us from calamity and the turmoil of uncertainty.

And yet, when we stand before the Son of Man, the one whom John the Baptist will describe as the “mightier one” or the “stronger one,” we find that there is a considerable difference between the strength we hope for and the strength for which we pray.  Because to stand before the Son of Man, who comes in judgment, is to allow the life of the Mightier One, the Stronger One, to speak over our lives.

When the life of the Mightier One speaks over our lives, it demands that we think again about the strength for which we hope.

We hope for the kind of strength that will protect all that we have and all that we aspire to have.  The life of the Mightier One speaks its, “No!” to grasping and shows us how to live with open hands.

We hope for the strength that will protect our peace.  The life of the Mightier One speaks its, “No!” to the powers that deal out death while claiming to provide peace and security.

We hope for the strength that will save us from calamity.  The life of the Mightier One speaks its, “No!” to the merest survival, and shows us how to lay down our lives.

But what about the strength for which we pray?  What is this armor of light – this inner strength beyond the outer turmoil?  Where do we find it?  We need it so desperately.

There is another apocalyptic text in scripture (Hebrews 12), one we didn’t read today, that I think helps us out.  This text was written perhaps as a sermon to a people in turmoil.  We are not quite sure what the exact nature of their suffering was, but it is clear that the preacher, their pastor, knows the toll it has taken on their community – that he has heard their despair and their anxiety, their wondering about whether God is in fact faithful to his promises or not.  And so the author of Hebrews takes his listeners on a journey, with its climax at a place almost indescribable – not to a looming mountain that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them – but to a place apart from that, apart from the turmoil.  The preacher, like our readings today, sets his listeners before the very throne of God and they look upon the Jesus, who stands there with his own blood, and his blood speaks.

His blood speaks over their lives.
His blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
His blood speaks not vengeance and death, and his blood does not say, “Exile him!” It does not say, “Away from me!”
Rather they stand before Jesus whose blood speaks a stronger word over their lives: “You are forgiven.  Love.  Live.”

The strength we pray for comes from standing before the Mightier One in these first days of the Christian year and responding to the Word that his life speaks over our lives.

It is a strength that has its source in that Word that assures us – that, contrary to all the signs, that brokenness, chaos and death are not the final word, that we can be free from our fear and raise our heads to look to the Mightier One who has already spoken a Word over our lives that will make us whole.  A Word that will endure, a Word that shall not pass away.

This is the strength that gives us the power to love with the reckless self-giving love of Jesus, to make meaningful and costly sacrifices so that the hungry may have their fill, so that those who have been cast down may be raised up, and so that justice and peace may be seen upon the earth – even now as we await the day that approaches.

This is the strength for which we pray.

Amen.


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