Sermon: When Faith Falters

11.29.2015         Preaching Text: “And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ will all his saints.” (1 Thessalonians 3:13)

To repeat an oft-cited phrase, every sermon is a heresy. Heresy here takes part of the truth and makes it the whole truth. Thus preaching on any given subject pretty much insures that you’ll miss an important caveat or two.

Last week I spoke about Christ the King Sunday, about how it, as the last Sunday in the liturgical year, focuses on the theme of Christ’s Second Coming. Among other things, it maintains that the work of salvation is planned and executed exclusively by God. As such, we humans are but passive recipients of what God is doing now and shall do at the end of “time.”

This means that God is in control, not we. Our job is to await God’s salvation with confident humility, rather than assuming everything depends on us – on our insight, wisdom, knowledge, and effort.

Today begins not only the beginning of a new liturgical year, but the beginning of Advent, a season also dedicated to waiting (similar to Christ the King Sunday). But in this instance, we await the birth of Jesus, the expectant Messiah, who is foreordained to carry out God’s salvific plan, not as an earthy king employing earthly strategies, but as a cosmic king set about to restore our world by cosmic means.

The problem, getting back to the heresy of last week’s sermon, is that the theme of waiting on Christ the King Sunday and during Advent would seem to relegate us to the role of mere passive agents with no particular role to play in the economy of God’s grace. All we’re asked to do, or so it would seem, is wait around until God decides to act.

The kind of waiting being asked of us, however, is anything but passive. It is in fact active to the extreme. Being prepared for God’s earthly intervention requires great vigilance and much hard work.

Years ago, a pastor I know compared this kind of waiting to what’s involved in getting ready to receive relatives for Christmas. We are compelled, as it were, to clean up our act till they arrive. We must eliminate the excess clutter from the house, remove the dust that never sleeps, and scrub the floors clean. We may even plan and prepare a meal, and dress up in appropriate attire, all in anticipation that our doorbell will ring.

Getting ready for God is something like this as well. We’re asked to remove the moral and spiritual clutter from our lives. We’re asked to embrace the kind of life we’d be proud to display before our discerning guest. We’re prompted to manifest God’s kingdom values as revealed in Christ (and His Church), having replaced our old and unsuitable worldly ways.

Such preparations require great patience. Our natural tendency is to tire in our efforts, or simply give up. The impetus to act, rather than wait, is compelling. Patient waiting, in fact, particularly as the world around us is urging action, can seem almost impossible. As I say, in times of stress or difficulty, the almost irresistible temptation is to fix the situation ourselves using our own limited logic and wisdom, rather than waiting for the divine to act.

I would even go so far as to say that waiting is one of life’s most extreme challenges. Especially when things are going haywire around us, it’s extremely difficult to remain quiet, still, calm, and focused, confident that God will hear our prayer and act upon it.

Faith becomes nearly impossible – faith that believes God is in charge and will act in such a way as to bring relief. When we see horrible things in our world, such as the threat of terrorism, our faith in God may falter and grow slack. At such times we’re apt to conclude that not only is God not in control but if we don’t do something all will be lost.

In such circumstances, as I say, keeping one’s head and trusting in God is anything but easy.

One of life’s not-too-hidden secrets is that we human beings continuously try to protect ourselves from life’s inevitable anxieties and uncertainties. We build walls around ourselves, using bricks made from human hands. But when crises come, as they surely will, these walls often crumble, leaving us exposed, vulnerable, and afraid.

Paradoxically, in such moments, we often feel God’s presence far more palpably. We may even come to rue to the fact that we’ve foolishly relied on our own devices, rather than placing our trust in God. As unsettling as these God-infused moments are, people often report a surprising, unearthly calm, one their current circumstance would otherwise seem to negate.

When we let God into our lives and wait for God’s immovable grace, we find not only a renewing strength and sense of purpose but an often unforeseen calm and unearthly peace.

In this we are not only freed from our fears but are inspired ultimately to share this newfound grace with others. The church, as those so inspired, is tasked with this very work. Our calling is as messengers, as those eager to share the Good News with others. Not to do so, in fact, would seem unnatural.

Thus, in our waiting, we are rendered anything but passive. Instead we are compelled to draw ever closer to our beneficent Creator, as we are to others. We seek to conform to kingdom values. And as more of those around us also come to share in this same Good News, our world is made stronger and more humane. Thus the “work” of waiting and preparing yields much good fruit, even as we await God’s final consummation.

As we enter into this new liturgical year, and into the season of Advent, as we once again anticipate symbolically the birth of our Savior, it is important to participate in its deepest meanings.

As crass buying and selling screams forth from our TV sets offering rapturous images of a purchased albeit fake grace, only to be replaced in the next instant by other utterly horrific, dehumanizing “news” images from near and far, we would hold to the true purpose of the season – that of patient waiting.

We would not be seduced by our world’s counterfeit promises of an manufactured “heaven,” nor overcome with debilitating fear by the hellish images this fake heaven is in some measure created to counteract.

No, we would place our trust in a true heaven and passionately await God’s providential response to the varied “hells” we witness here on earth. Such will require the hard work of patient waiting, refusing to fall prey to the world’s escapist panaceas or to be swamped and rendered hopeless by the human-made evils we see around us.

In the end, the task of patient waiting, as I say, is among the most challenging of life’s endeavors. Its end result, however, is a patiently ordered, holy life born of God’s will and not our own. Amen.