Are You Ready to Persevere?

Dec 15, 2019 by

I’m sorry, people!:  This is Gaudete Sunday … a day of (in Latin) Gaudium! / (in English) Joy! within a Church season that is otherwise to be about penitent preparation for the coming of the Christ.  The candle we light is pink; the music we sing is bright.  But the scriptures for this day – okay, they speak with great promise of joy, but they point to one lived experience after another for which we best heed the counsel of James (in the last verse we heard read from his letter):  “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets…”

For there is a recurring pattern across today’s readings, and – truth be told – across the whole of Salvation History; it goes like this:  First, people of faith prophetically recognize that God is at work to save God’s people, and they announce it.  Second, God’s saving deeds are enacted.  Third, those deeds are noticeably different – seemingly less wondrous – than advertised.  Fourth, people stumble over the inconsistency.

Here are the cases in point we’ve read through:  First, the return of the Hebrew people from Babylonian exile.  You know the prophetic promises they were banking on, when the emperor Cyrus beneficently set them on their way home:   Isaiah’s foretelling went like this —

,,, [T]he desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. …

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.  A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way … it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it. …  And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

A remnant of the people did go home:  an 800 km trek … some four months of trudging through wilderness.  The burning sand did not turn to pools, the mountains were not made low nor the rough places lifted up.  And when these exhausted few came to Jerusalem, not only were the city and temple lying in ruin but the place was inhabited by riff raff pretty much unsupportive of these newcomers’ take-over.  Any singing done by those returning was to the tune of lament; sorrow and sighing were their lot; the promised image of “everlasting joy … upon their heads” was enough to make them cry.

Chronologically the second scene we’re presented with today is of John the Baptizer in prison.  His days are numbered few for having held true to his prophetic calling.  John had confronted the nation with news of a Coming One, a Messiah with superhuman endowment, who would baptize with wind and fire, who would purge the threshing floor, who would hew down-to-the-roots all the fruitless trees (the unrighteous people of the land).  John had baptized his cousin Jesus into this role; now, from his prison cell, it all seems a disappointment if not a joke.  The stories brought to him tell of healer at work, not a reaper; a teacher, not a judge; the only fire here is love.  And, so, John stumbles.

The third scene is inside the New Testament Church, decades after Jesus, where people have held on, and held on, to Jesus’ promise that there were those around him (in life) who would see his coming again in glory.  Well, for heaven’s sake, those folks were almost all dead.  Where is the fulfillment of God’s promise?  It is in this context that James writes,

The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. … As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

easily identify with this same pattern because it defines our experience too.  As Baptists, our polity and practice of Church is that the local congregation, on its own, is a completely functional manifestation of what the New Testament puts forward in these terms:  the body of Christ (I Cor 12:12; Rom 12:4; Eph 1:22f; Col 1:18; Col 2:19), the Bride of Christ, the temple of God.  Yet we know how the people around us in the world, and we ourselves, can look at current conduct and events, and historical conduct and events, easily citing horrible ‘blights’ carried out by churches individually and collectively who believed they were doing right things.  Think of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the many Missionary conquests for capital gain; look at the financial and sexual scandals of church leaders in our time.  How many non-church-goers have you heard remark about the hypocrisy of people they know to be practicing Christians?  Yes, there are the lofty goals and expectations, and then there are the disappointing realities; so people stumble. 

We could talk all day about the messes.  But let us not thereby lose sight of the wonder, in and through it all, that God works on.   In this morning’s words from the Psalmist,

[God] keeps faith forever;

executes justice for the oppressed;

gives food to the hungry;

sets the prisoners free;

opens the eyes of the blind;

lifts up those who are bowed down;

watches over the strangers;

upholds the orphan and the widow.

Wisdom’s gracious, broad-view proclamation concerning the inconsistencies

  • of us who populate the Church, or
  • of the people of God in any time and place

is voiced in the beatitude: “Blessed are those who do not find them a stumbling block.”  So, yes, blessed were those who returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  Blessed were those who accepted Jesus’ method of living out the righteousness anticipated by John.  [Parenthetically here, Jesus made it abundantly clear to John’s disciples that he stood squarely in the faith tradition of Israel, as one who

  • gives sight to the blind,
  • makes the lame walk,
  • cleanses the lepers,
  • gives hearing to the deaf,
  • raises the dead to life, and
  • preaches good news to the poor.

Yet, for at least some of John’s disciples, Jesus remained a stumbling block.  For most of the Judeans, a crucified Messiah was certainly a stumbling block (I Cor 1:23).  BUT for those who embraced (rather than stumbled over) this Jesus, what joy!  Gaudium!  Joy!  This is what the pink candle, in the midst of all that purple, stands for! … this complicated, pretty-much ‘subversive’!, essentially counter-intuitive “Joy”.] <end of parenthesis!>

So (again), yes!, the exiles who returned and rebuilt were blessed; the marginalized people who followed after this charismatic counter-cultural Jesus were blessed.  Blessed too are those whose experience of the Church, and within the Church, is redemptive and saving.  Beyond the dark blots in – yes – every age, the Church does stand in the biblical tradition as an agent of healing and hope.  Throughout its 2000 years it has been the most persistent and productive of institutions of education … perhaps especially significant during the Dark Ages, and of continuing great importance in our day in developing nations with oppressive governments and terrible resource inequities.  (Not to mention the fact that the Church is the founder of the majority of Canadian universities, which we as Baptists can look several blocks southward and smile as we say!)  The Church, since the middle ages and up until recent years, was the major builder and manager of hospices and hospitals.  The Church was and is behind prison reform, the abolishing of slavery, relief and development work around the globe, the growth of social reform and social work.  And you can see the playing out of these large claims in common and particular ways:  Do a survey of volunteers in hospital auxiliaries, in seniors’ centres, in school breakfast and lunch programs, in community soup kitchens and Out of the Cold programs, in refugee centres, in blood donation clinics, and see just how many of them are Church-goers.

So, yes, it is not hard to stumble over the Church’s sins and inconsistencies in every age.  But for those who nonetheless embody and live out this temple of God, this bride of Christ:  What counter-cultural joy!  Gaudium!  Joy!

The questions of this day then return:

  • Are you/we ready to persevere?
  • Do we deeply understand our need to take the prophets as models for the patience we require, and the suffering that must be endured?

People, the time ahead – an era human-made by global warming, by grossly inequitable global economics, and by greedy politics – will present challenges that I shudder when imagining.  Following in the Way of Jesus, here and now, calls for wisdom and intelligence, determination and courage, discipline and perseverance.  The slowness of humanity to awaken to humanity’s need for salvation globally, let alone to recognize that the manner and means of that salvation actually exists and is in practice (imperfectly so, but practiced nonetheless!) … this slowness demands an attitude with – yes! – patience about it but also, and more so, an urgency in our advocacy, our modelling, our leadership, our prophetic action.

We shall persevere only if we can live into the basic pattern we’ve recognized today:  (1) God is at work, and (2) we are people of faith who can see this to be so; (3) we then can interpret and announce it to be so; (4) we accordingly hold up the vision of the life-of-the-world that God intends; and (5) we can expect to have to persist (to persevere) in moving forward in the very face of experience that is surely enough to cause stumbling.

Advent III is an annual signpost urging us to do the hard work of staying grounded in Jesus, persevering in His Way, and continually discovering this to be our surprising joy!  Gaudium!  Joy!

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