When Good News Is Not Cause For Joy
You probably have heard the saying, “Bad news travels faster than good news.” Sadly, good news travels slow, or it doesn’t travel very far. Case in point, most of what gets reported in the news lately isn’t what causes you or me to rejoice and give thanks. Instead, we cringe. We scratch our heads. We roll our eyes. We grit our teeth. We shake our heads in disbelief. The 24-hour news cycle seems to be fueled by the shocking and the ridiculous, meant to grab the attention of as many as possible, in order to cause grief and shame, fear and loathing, headache and heartburn. Of course, the news media can be a powerful vehicle for change, if only we know how to use it for good. But it is a challenge that so many important and critical events are happening at the same time. And we have only so much available resources to meet so many needs. And we have such a short attention span—six minutes? Lost you already. And we get distracted so easily. And we tend to gravitate away from conflict. And we are reluctant to take a stand. And we prefer to wait and see if our leaders will say or do anything, which tends to reignite already volatile passions on all sides. And we reassure ourselves that as we sit at a safe distance away from the hotspots, we think any involvement on our part would matter very little if at all. So a good many of us just cringe, and scratch our heads, and roll our eyes, and grit our teeth, and shake our heads in disbelief. And we say a quiet prayer it will just all go away. And now that we are better informed, we can return to our regularly scheduled programming.
Life can be hard. But I didn’t need to tell you that. So we come to church hoping for a little reassurance and some peace of mind, hoping we can step back momentarily from the swirling mess of our shared human condition, hoping we can make it a few minutes without being reminded of anything depressing. And then we are told that God knows our struggles, that God has heard our cries for help, that God comes to heal, to nourish, and to bestow new life. And just to cover all our bases, we close our eyes, click our heels together three times, and think to ourselves: There’s no place like home. When we open our eyes, it seems nothing is much different. Maybe God doesn’t really know our struggles. Maybe God has not really heard our cries for help. Maybe God doesn’t really want to heal, or nourish, or bestow new life. Maybe we’re really on our own. Maybe it’s really all up to us. Well, yes and no. Really.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, we encounter that strange figure of John the Baptist by the Jordan river, dressed in camel’s hair, a leather belt about his waist, living on locusts and wild honey. He is the only character in this season who manages to escape commercialization. No little action figures of him running around, no catchy tunes filling the air with his message, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We would much rather be listening to Christmas carols on the radio. Even the words of the prophet Isaiah are less jarring. “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed she has received from the hand of the Lord double for her sins.”
What are these glad tidings of which Isaiah speaks if all we see around us are poverty and suffering, violence and war, mistrust and hate, anger and exploitation, darkness and death? “Say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” How can we read these passages that speak of comfort and consolation while so many around us hurt, and God still seems so far away? Does the season of Advent even have anything remotely relevant to say to us?
The second letter of Peter is vaguely reassuring. “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” This repentance of which he speaks seems to require some work on our part. He tells us we cannot sit idly by. So when we call on God in our poverty and suffering, in the midst of much violence and war, in a fog of mistrust and hate, steeped in anger and exploitation, surrounded by darkness and death, “what sort of persons ought [we] to be?” The same passage does not hesitate to give us an answer. “[Conduct] yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God … Be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”
We are repeatedly reminded that our waiting in the Advent season is not idle, it is not fearful, it is not given over to inattention and distraction. It is certainly not tacit permission to skip right into Christmas because Christmas is for children, and they’re so cute, so we can’t expect them to wait. Rather, it’s because we don’t like to wait. It’s so inconvenient. In a culture that encourages selfish consumerism and instant gratification, it will be more than challenging to sit tight and wait patiently. We want to be doing something our senses can measure. It’s much like the troubles that we come up against in the world that we hear about in the news that we don’t particularly want to deal with. If we could instantly put an end to injustice and oppression, fear and ignorance, violence and abuse, we would gladly do it. But everything takes time. It takes time and effort to persuade the indifferent and the apathetic to a change of heart. It takes time and effort to speak honestly and listen with compassion. It takes time and effort, and a whole lot of honesty to admit our own lack of faith, and our own failure to play our part to help bring about that better world for which we so eagerly long. When we don’t know how to wait, we can’t teach our children what Advent really means. And they won’t know how to teach their children either. So Advent continues to be this seasonal Christian joke everyone knows but don’t do anything about. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Advent is about waiting patiently. Now where’s my present?
When the good news we hear in Advent is not cause for joy, it isn’t because God is deaf to our cries, or that God is powerless in the face of evil. The good news is not cause for joy because we know it takes time and honest hard work, and we would much rather just skip over the waiting while we complain that our politicians are corrupt, and the system is broken, and the church is irrelevant, and nothing will get better any time soon. We are told God is patient. We can still heed the message of John the Baptist. And we can still have a change of heart. All I can say Advent is not for wimps. Bring it on!