How you ever played hide and seek? Now have you ever played the game sardines? For those who do not know, sardines is the reverse of hide and seek. One person hides, and the rest of the crew count to 20 or 40 or whatever, and then they go out in search of the one who is hidden. When you find the hidden friend you stay with them, climbing into the cabinet or under the table with them. Every player searches until the entire crew are reunited, packed in like sardines.
The challenge of the game is that it is very hard not to whisper, to giggle, to expose an arm or a shoe, therefore giving away your hiding place. However, when I lived in Oregon I served with a youth group that could play this game for hours. Not repeatedly for hours, but one game of sardines could stretch out forever, and they hardly new it had been any time at all. The reason it would stretch is because they added a variation. The person who was it, the person who was supposed to remain hidden would move. One boy, his name was Mike, he was particularly skilled in this. He would move around the building like a secret agent, never keeping still. Just because you looked under the bell table and found it empty didn’t mean that he wasn’t there or wouldn’t be there soon. Not only would Mike move, but as players found him the expanding cell group would move. I would sit outside my office watching the game with gladness and watching the time with care. As the parents cars lined up outside and as the evening wore on I would begin to point the way. Did you look in the nave or maybe upstairs. The game needed to come to an end. It was time to go home.
April 2011 came and went. There was no rapture, no cataclysmic rupture, no alien invasion. You and I and the fella who got so much attention claiming it was the end of the world as we know it, we are all still here. Yet…did you wonder? Have you ever? Do murmurs of Mayan prophecies have you looking askew at 2012? We all have ‘rend the heavens’ days once in a while. Plenty of folks have ‘rend the heavens’ lives. They shout at the Lord saying, come, come like a thief; dissolve the heavens with fire; topple injustice, wash away hatred and burn it all up; sweep the whole thing up into your loving arms, GAME OVER. What if today was the day? What if today was the last battle, kingdom come, apocalypse now? Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We say that every week. But do we mean it? Or is it one of the moments when you take a deep breath rather than speak the words you would rather not comprehend? Do we live our lives as if Christ is coming again? Do we love our neighbors as much as God loves us? All of them? Do we practice our faith as if Christ was walking beside us, watching every move? Do we live as if we could be called to account at any moment? Maybe. Or maybe not.
An immanent incarnate God is just to close, to invasive. So we push him away. Go back to the heavens and let me be just good enough to do less harm than the bad guys. Come back later, when I call your name, when I need you to comfort me. The kwazmanauka madness pushes us to embrace Emmanuel, God for us, and yes, we hold him close for a few sweet hours on Christmas Eve. But then we put away the crèche and we put God in his box and tuck it in the attic where we hope he cannot see what we have done and left undone.
The Greek word for the second coming is parousia. What it means in ancient Greek is to be present; and in the New Testament it refers to God being all present, a time when God will be all in all. It is the apocalypse with a capital A, the kingdom of God fulfilled, the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. There seem to have been plenty of people in the early church who expected the parousia within the lifetime of the first generation of Christians. In the second letter of Peter we encounter a community confused and perhaps heartbroken by being still on this side of the eschaton. In the same community are those who claim that the whole second coming is a myth. Noting the delay they deny that God intervenes in the world, and they denounce the idea that there will be any judgment at all. An idea which sounds awfully familiar.
We take pains to explain how we are not being judgmental, and it seems that we cannot bear to say yes or no, or to claim right or wrong. When this is true it is even harder to accept that God’s love and God’s judgment are the exact same thing. Believers denying that our lives will be judged in the end, is that then or now? We hear people say sure, God created the world, but he has since stepped back, God is a clockmaker who doesn’t intervene, God is like the force, not capable of having a relationship. He certainly doesn’t walk among us in flesh and bone. I’ve heard that disguised as good news. Or how about this one: God wants us to be basically good and happy but would never chide, confront or lead us to put the hard work of righteousness before our own comfort. These little lies didn’t die with the early church, these parasitic falsehoods are as evident now as they were then.
We are right to scoff at those who claim to know the day or the hour of the coming of the Lord, but we are wrong to sidestep his final revelation altogether. To ignore that the day of the Lord will come, is to reject the testimony of the scriptures. Hiding from the coming of God is to push away a God who breathed his own spirit into our bodies. “Prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight” has a two fold meaning. What John the Baptist says points us toward the arrival of the Word made flesh in Jesus, and it is a call for us to prepare for the return of Christ at the end of the game. What does preparing the way of the Lord look like? The author of second Peter says that we should be honest about who we are and who we are not. Making his paths straight means that we should be striving for the kingdom of God here on earth as in heaven. He wants us to follow him home. Preparing the way is not done through glossy tidings of comfort and joy, or by being meek, mild and non-judgmental.
The Markan Gospel begins abruptly, and moves quickly. In today’s Gospel lesson we have no game of hide and seek on a silent night in Judea. It begins with the main point, the gospel, the good news is that Jesus Christ is the source of our salvation. His life, that God lived on earth, that nothing is so far from God that it cannot become a bearer of the divine, this is deliverance. What he taught and how he lived, this is rescue. That he died on the cross and rose again, this is victory over the ways of sin and death. Sometimes the infancy narratives can get in the way, we let the cheeky shepherds distract us from the game Christ is really trying to draw us into. The difference between this moment and the final consummation is that then we will no longer be able to push God away. Then we will know that there is no distance between our lives and God. We will know that he sees us just as we are. If we do not want to be found wanting then each and every day of our lives need to be confronting the evil that crushes our neighbors and makes them feel as if they have ‘rend the heavens’ lives.
We cannot embrace the Christ child faithfully without living in the hope of his second coming. If the early church had pushed God away back into the heavens and out of our lives we wouldn’t have been led to practice good news. To build hospitals, to open schools, to share food with those in need. And if the early church had stayed hidden, waiting for God to come again and bring this world of war and hate to a quick and fiery end, if they had stayed hidden we wouldn’t have a church at all. The time we have for amending our lives and repairing the world is now. Christians believe that transformation belongs to God, and that we belong to God, so that our daily work in the church is participating in that transformation: personally and corporately. We are to be shaping our lives and our communities in the practice of Christ’s own self-giving love. It is in participating in the mission of God that draws us into his kingdom. The mission of the church is the mission of God, therefore our goal is the final universal union with God.
The birth of Christ should confront us with the ultimate reality and meaning of our lives. Is it following him or is it molded by something else? Are our lives directed by selfish comforts or selfless serving? Faced with the first coming of the God we have a choice to make: to continue in darkness or join him in pursuit of his final victory. We have to choose to stop playing hide and seek with God. We cannot climb the Christmas tree and hope he doesn’t look up, and we cannot tuck him away on January 1 and hope he doesn’t look down. We have to stop believing that we can hide from him at all.
The game is not hide and seek, it is more like sardines. The goal of this game is a glorious reunion: he wants us to find him and be found by him. By his grace there will be a time when you and me and he and the whole world is gathered close to him, giggling under the bell table as if there is no time at all. It might be in a millennium, it might be next year. We simply cannot know when the day of the Lord is, so we must live as if it is today. Behold the Lord God comes with might, he will feed his flock like a shepherd and he will gather the lambs in his arms.
Advent 2B, BCP
December 4, 2011
Cathedral of St. John
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA