Monday, December 08, 2008

Our Last Best Hope

Does everyone know where they were 67 years ago this Sunday morning?

Some of you were still in the heart of God, of course, not yet a twinkle in your mother’s eyes. Some of your mothers were not born by then either, did not themselves have eyes to twinkle. But there are a few of you in here who know what I am asking. You remember where you were.

For some of you the memory is as clear as the day the Twin Towers fell. You know where you were standing when you got the news, just as well as you know where you were when you heard about the assassinations in Dallas and in Memphis. You remember FDR’s famous line on the Monday following, “December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy.”

About the time church let out on the east coast, a couple of hours later, word began crackling through Philcos of the nation that something was happening, had happened, in the jewel of the Pacific: how at a deep-water harbor named Pearl, the rising of the sun had brought wave upon wave of planes, like bats out of hell, with darkness and death in their wings.
It was 67 years ago today, of course, that Japanese planes and midget subs attacked the US Navy’s unsuspecting and completely unprepared Pacific fleet, our ships and sailors both enjoying another Sunday morning in paradise, snoozing row by row. Ninety minutes later we had been dragged, burned and bleeding and humiliated, into the Second World War.

I did a little research this week, to see if I could find what preachers had been preaching on that morning as the attack got underway. I did not have much success. And so I looked instead at the assigned scriptures for that Sunday, December 7, 1941, in the lectionaries of the day. I didn’t have much luck with that either.

What I do know is last September, when I was inthe mountains reading and praying and outlining sermons for the coming year, when I looked at the the epistle reading assigned for this, the second Sunday of Advent, for this day and date, I found this, from II Peter 3, verse 10:

the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with

And suddenly to my mind came a picture of the USS Arizona, its main tower tilted to starboard and enveloped by billows of black smoke, its might guns useless to defend the ship or its crew or its harbor or its nation, sinking slowly into the sea.

With loud noises, the myth of peace and isolation, of neutrality and national security, dissolved with fire—along with the Missouri and West Virginia, the Oklahoma and USS Tennessee, and 2345 military personnel besides.

Why dredge up that painful past on such a day as this? And especially since, these days, Japan is an ally and friend?
Only to remind ourselves that the things in which we often put our trust—whether the military, political leaders, portfolios, our own youth and health and strength…all of those things pass away. Sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, sometimes with a loud bang, and sometimes with a whimper. Sometimes there is raging fire; sometimes hot embers grow cold. In any case, the season of Advent continually reminds us of our idolatries and presumption, and that a kind of reckoning is coming.

The season of Advent, beautiful as it can be, is a dark season, really—a reminder that try as we might we cannot save ourselves, that things will not naturally get better, that neither optimism nor denial are appropriate preparations for the coming of Jesus.

Advent always looks back, even before it looks ahead. It proclaims the provision of God, of course, but it names the presumptions of God’s people, we who day by day do not put our first, best hopes in God. The season of Advent confesses the sin of God’s chosen, and then God’s grace to choose them again. Advent always calls us to ask ourselves: How did we get into such a mess?

The season of Advent answers, over and over again, that we get into this mess, that mess, most every mess, by placing our faith in other than God. The season of Advent calls us to confess that sin—Advent, until lately, has been considered a penitential season—and to repent, to begin again to put our trust only in those things that last…the Purposes of God, the Presence of Christ, the Guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Advent calls us to sad remembrance and honest confession and humble repentance, to resolute recommitment to build only on the firm foundation of God’s eternity…because all else is fleeting. Passing. Impermanent.

Money. Power. Beauty. Health. Life as we imagine it, or craft it for ourselves. How quickly it can all pass away.

And so Peter says, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?”

Indeed, what kind of persons ought we to be?

Hopeful…waiting for new heavens and a new earth…

Peaceful and obedient… striving to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.

Patient… regarding the patience of our Lord as salvation.


After that Sunday, I am sure all sorts of people were saying all sorts of things… pundits and politicians, hawks and doves, saber-rattlers and doom-sayers, and preachers among the lot.

But the Psalmist has a word for us as we remember—a word that is set for today but is applicable every day—“Let me hear what the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to the people.”
Indeed. It is a prayer worthy of Advent. Let us hear what the Lord will speak, for the Lord’s word will stand for ever.

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