May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope (Romans 15:13).
In today’s Gospel reading, we are again confronted by the return of the earth’s true King described by the King Himself in cataclysmic and terrifying terms. Jesus tells us there will be confusion and fear among men as the rebellious, unjust world is ripped apart by the just and righteous wrath of the universe’s avenging God. Our reaction to this news tells us an awful lot about who we are and where we stand in the great war between good and evil. Are we confused about why God would destroy in order to create? Are we afraid about what this news means if it is true? If we were to describe the general outlook of our fellow men, confused and afraid would be excellent terms to classify our fallen world. So much of the anger and loneliness and self-abuse—which modern technology and relative affluence have only made worse—so much of that pain is revealed in the confused and fearful hearts of the hopeless souls smiling at us on TV or in the glossy photo-shopped celebrities in the checkout line magazine rack or in the screen lightened faces of the frantic, smart phone scrolling masses. How could we not find anything but confusion in a fake, plastic world constantly screaming at us for approval; how could we not find fear in a world terrified of being alone with its thoughts. And so, another year passes with fewer births and more homicides—another dip in life expectancy and another spike in overdoses. Mankind’s blind faith in human progress has once again run into the human weakness for self-destruction which must be cleansed from this world before it can be redeemed. At the first Advent, Christ came to purge this evil from our hearts; He will soon return to purge it from the earth.
What role then does the Christian have in a temporary world of confusion and fear? Do we join with those without hope and simply ape their anger and sadness for the cheap comfort always to be found there? Do we wall ourselves up in towers of self-righteousness, shaking our heads as our neighbors and family sign up to be ravaged by all the faithless ghouls to whom the damned daily pray for salvation? God forbid. No, our calling, as St. Paul makes clear today, is to be the living antidote to the lethal confusion and fear which plagues humanity; we are called to live in the certainty which flows from an unwavering, unshakable trust in the promises of God. For the Christian journeying in the dark realms of now, confusion must be replaced with trust in the faithfulness of God; fear must be replaced by faith in the Word of the Lord. This transformation of our hearts and minds will not happen by accident; this renunciation of sin and death, confusion and fear, will not happen by accident. Put another way: if hope is life, for the sake of our lives and the lives of our neighbors and families we must know the answer to this question: ‘Where do I find humanity’s only true hope?’
St. Paul gives us today, the simple but hard reply: ‘For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope’ (Romans 15:4). Our reaction to this news will also tell us a lot about who we are and where we stand in the war between good and evil. Our Lord tells us today that, ‘…Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away’ (St. Luke 21:33). Do we feel this everlasting power when we read or listen to the Holy Scriptures? Do we understand that our touchstone to immortality and peace is not found in the arms of those we love or in the last moments of our favorite movie or in whatever space we sense transcendence? All of these parts of our lives may be commentaries on the truth revealed in God’s Word, but they are only cruel mirages if disconnected from that eternal Word. The Word which created the universe is the only thing capable of recreating our hearts and filling us with the peace and hope the fallen world can never take away. We can hold that Word in our hands; we can have it coursing through our hearts and brains; we can proclaim it before our children and our neighbors and our enemies. Why don’t we?
Again, St. Paul writes, ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account’ (Hebrews 4:12-13). What do we learn from these two passages on our Holy Spirit inspired Scriptures? Well, we learn the Bible is not a source for carefully selected motivational material or an echo chamber for any earthly tribe or political party’s ideology; no, it is a weapon designed by God to cut through the lies and deceptions we pile on ourselves. Reading or hearing the Word of God should be a painful experience because we will again and again come into contact with the Holy God who is calling us to amputate from our hearts those idols our neighbors and families and enemies tell us we must love. Every time we come to God’s Word, we meet the same Lord who looks at prostitutes and tax collectors and fishermen and apostles and doctors and priests and says, ‘Leave everything and follow me.’ It should be terrifying when our Creator looks at us, naked and exposed, and says those words, and so, I don’t blame anyone who attacks or hides from the Word of God; I pity them, and I pray for them, but I understand how ignorance of God’s Will might bring a certain kind of cheap and comfortable bliss. Human history is the story of fallen men trying to find and keep this false heaven until it is inevitably smashed by confusion and fear, but the preservation of ignorant bliss can be a powerful motivation for closing our eyes to the Lord who says we must feel pain to understand hope.
But, should a Christian be surprised that hope follows suffering? Should a Christian be shocked that being reborn and prepared for the new heaven and new earth will not at all correlate with the personal comforts and soul numbing pursuits our fallen world demands we prioritize over the worship of the Living God? No, of course not, for the same world which longingly seeks our minds and hearts took the Word made Flesh and nailed Him to a tree until He drowned on dry land. The world hates the Word, and while crucifixion can be a very effective, temporary tool against the Word, it is always better to convince the confused and fearful to not only volunteer to be distracted to death, but to have them pay for it as well. Both the disgusting barbarity of the cross and the vile, disposable entertainment of now have the same effect if they keep us from the Word—if they keep us from the hope and peace that is the true Christian’s birth right. If we’ve ever wondered how it is that our Lord’s apostles could abandon Him at the moment of His greatest need, we need look no further than a generation of Western Christians who have abandoned the Word when they and their neighbor are at their greatest need.
Finally, let us end today in solemn meditation on those final four Biblical quotes St. Paul deploys today. Three are from the Psalms, a book most American Christians have never read, and the last is from Isaiah. All of them speak of the glorious completion of the Messiah’s work in the here and now through the combined worship of Jew and Gentile in His church. The Word made flesh has begun His reign as the living embodiment of our hope and peace by using His own broken and restored body to display God’s complete and utter faithfulness to His world saving covenant with Abraham—and through Abraham—all of the new humanity. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has now made it possible for the church to praise God in the unity which can only come from a to-the-death commitment to the Word of God. This glorious praise of Christ’s church unites the elect of God across all ethnicities and languages and cultures even as it unites us across the dimensions of reality: blending our prayers and hymns with the worship of heaven. All the forces of darkness, especially the ones which smile at us, work to keep us away from this communion between God and Man, but it is the church’s mission, it is every true Christian’s mission to live in this communion and bring its hope and peace to the dark corners of our fallen world, to bring the Word to the dark corners our fallen world. We are not just to be hope filled—we are to bleed hope. We start by being cut by the sword of truth; we start by living in the Word.
And so, if you are confused and afraid today, open the Word of God and hear the voice of our Creator. If you are confused and afraid tomorrow, open the Word of God and feel the pain and joy which comes from experiencing the truth. If you are ever confused and afraid, open the Word of God and find the courage and hope which will carry us through the birth pains of bearing a new heaven and new earth.