We live in the presence of God. This is a statement that I make on faith--this is also a reality that I can quickly and easily ignore. I can become immersed in the patterns of daily life and lose touch with the rhythms of grace. I am an early morning person. I wake up to the sounds of the radio, often broadcasting the economic developments that are happening in Europe, several hours ahead of us. The markets there will shape what happens in the economy of the United States, where I live. This becomes a cycle: what happens here will affect what happens in countries on the Pacific Rim, and on it goes. Before I know it, I have lost touch with a very different way of life, what the scriptures speak of as "evening and morning, the first day, and so on," a way of life that connects creator and creation, work and rest. Over a longer period of time, I can also become immersed in the schedules of my favorite athletic teams or in election cycles or in the busyness of my church's calendar; and even in the midst of doing many religious things I will sometime find myself wondering: Where is God in all of this?
Maybe you have asked yourself this question. Perhaps the members of the church at Corinth were wondering themselves. Paul has a word for them, an encouraging word:
"I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him... So that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift."
Paul was not so much complimenting his friends in Corinth as he was reminding them of a profound truth: the grace of God had been given to them and that grace was evident in the gifts that they possessed. Today we often refer to these as talents, but who we are and what we have are really gifts from God. Paul was reminding the Corinthians that they were living in the presence of God. Perhaps they had forgotten. Perhaps we have forgotten.
Years ago I came across this parable. A traveler in the desert had lost her way. As she grew weaker in the heat of the merciless sun, she saw an oasis in the distance. "Oh," she said to herself. "My mind must be deceiving me. This has to be a mirage. Surely there is nothing here." As she drew closer, she saw the date palms and the green grass covering the ground beneath them. She even beheld a bubbling spring of water.
She paused in that moment. A sophisticated woman, she then slowly resumed walking and said to herself, "I know this is nothing but a wish projection. I am craving something that will satisfy me emotionally. My mind must be playing tricks on me. This has to be too good to be true!"
A short time later two hikers came upon the same place and found the body of the traveler who had died of hunger and thirst. The one said to the other, "How strange? The dates are almost dripping into her mouth, and yet she starved. The water from the spring is within her grasp, and yet she has died of thirst. How could this have happened?"
This parable speaks to men and women who are seeking to live by faith. Immense resources are within our grasp--most people listening to my voice live within an easy drive, or perhaps even an easy walk to a church--and yet at times we do not take full advantage of these resources. In the words of traditional Christianity, we do not partake of the "means of grace." Charles Wesley expressed this in a hymn:
Come let us use the grace divine
And all in one accord
And in perpetual covenant join
Ourselves to Christ the Lord.
There is a support that we need; there is a hunger and a thirst. This is what it is to be a human being. Like the traveler who starved in the desert in the midst of plenty, we often sense that we are all alone, with no help in sight. Instead of affirming "The eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms," we simply resign ourselves to the fact that the bottom has dropped out.
That this is the case is, actually, quite understandable: we look upon the pain of the world, and we encounter sorrow in the lives of people in our very midst; technology communicates enormous suffering across the planet, and at the same time convention and pretense hides the desolation that is sometimes buried deep within those close to us.
We live in the midst of abundance and scarcity!
It is also true, we must confess, that the nearness of churches does not always imply the nearness of grace. Sometimes the church is an obstacle to grace; sometimes the church protects, camouflages grace. The title of a popular book says it succinctly: They like Jesus, but not the church!
Even as we are surrounded by religious institutions of all kinds, we might be tempted to ask again, "Where is God?" Or we might express it differently: "How does a Christian discover hope in all of this?"
Again, Paul writes,
"The grace of God has been given to us, so that we do not lack any spiritual gift, as we await the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ..."
because, he says in verse 9:
"God is faithful."
A simple affirmation of faith: God is faithful. What is Paul saying? Our hopes for the future rest with God and not in our own abilities. The future is secured in God's goodness. God is faithful.
We have always been, as a culture, obsessed with the future. Across twenty-five years of ministry I have noted the interest of people with the future in general and with the end of time in particular. Early on there was a best-seller entitled The Late, Great Planet Earth; then years later a series, Left Behind. Amidst other bestsellers, books on how to lose weight, how to run faster, how to make a million dollars (although a million is not what it used to be), how to look younger this year than last year, how to flip houses, how to get to the top... how to get to yes...or wherever you want to be, there are these books about the end times.
What motivates people to part with their hard earned money and enter into these stories about the end times? Some, many, if the polls are honest, believe that we are living in the last days. The superpowers or the terrorists could end it all, at least life on earth as we know it, with their weapons; and then, in the language of the Old Testament prophets, we would have brought judgment upon ourselves.
The gospel reading for today speaks to this fascination with end times. Folks have been wondering about when the end would come for over 2000 years. I think of the sign, worn by the weather of decades, practically falling into the land beside the farmhouse north of town, with the words boldly printed: Jesus is coming soon. It must have expressed some urgent, even confident conviction by the soul who had earnestly painted it. And, yet, the words of Jesus strike a different note:
"Of that day and hour no one knows
Not even the angels in heaven,
Nor the son, but only the Father
Take heed, then watch.
For you do not know when the hour will come. Watch!"
If we listen, the words of Paul and the words of Jesus speak a common truth: God is faithful, God can be trusted. God knows our anxieties, God knows that we pass through hard places, God knows that we wonder about our destinies, where and how life is going to end for us.
About all of this, we wonder, we question. The answer: We are simply told that God is faithful. Is that all? By no means! We do not lack for any spiritual gift, Paul says. And so Jesus tells a story about a man who goes on a journey, and leaves his servants in charge, each with his or her own work to do. We are talking about the interim. In our church we say a few simple words as we are getting ready to break the bread of communion and offer the cup to hungry and thirsty pilgrims:
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again.
We live in the interim, in the in-between times. What then are we to do? We go about our lives, we live and work and rest and love and pray. We do all of these things without having any control or knowledge about the outcome. And in this sense living through the days of Advent is like wandering through the desert, searching for hope and peace, for joy, love and light. These are gifts of God and they are real, and yet at times they elude us. They are almost within our grasp, and yet...we are not there yet.
And so we live in faith and confidence, on our better days trusting all that we are, all that we have, and all that we hope to be to the Lord. We repeat the simple creed: God is faithful. And then we engage in a simple practice: We watch. Or to use the language of one of my spiritual mentors, we pay attention, for we do not know when he is coming into our lives. I think of the parable of the Great Judgment, when Christ the King will ask you, will ask me, about our awareness of his coming into the world. "When did we see you?" we will ask.
And he will answer, "I was a stranger, I was hungry, I was in prison..."
The scriptures teach us that Christ is coming into the world, and on the first Sunday of Advent, this is our hope. Across the desert landscapes of our lives, in the midst of any or every kind of scarcity, there is this gift, God entering into the world in the form of a child. Watch for it, Jesus says. And in the meantime, remember the simple and yet deeply profound word of hope:
God is faithful.
Let us pray.
Help us, O God, to place our hopes and our trust in you. You, indeed, are faithful. For this we give thanks. Through Jesus Christ, our coming Savior. Amen.