A World In Waiting Advent I

 

Advent 2009 Week One

 

Advent is the season when we contemplate the establishment of God’s Kingdom among us. It begins with judgment, much like our own spiritual pilgrimage that is initiated in a sense of inadequacy and brokenness. But we are complicit as we live well is an inadequate and broken world of obscene profligacy and abject poverty. Dare we ask ourselves whether Christ is in us and reflected in the choices we make? Dare we measure our life against our profession of faith? I was given a great bumper sticker recently that is on the wall in my office. It says “Jesus is coming, look busy!”

 

 

The prophets’ message was never purely negative. Even when issuing the starkest warnings of imminent disaster, they raised the sights of their audience beyond the moment. When they spoke of hope they put it in concrete not abstract terms. They offered a vision. One of the most stirring and persistent has been the vision of a city – a new Jerusalem. This is true even of Jeremiah, whose very name is often used to describe warnings of woe. Jeremiah pulled no punches. As the Babylonian invader were at the very gates of the citadel and Jerusalem was about to fall, he offered no false comfort from God: ‘I have hidden my face from this city…’ says the Lord. It wasn’t that God could not bear to see the destruction of Jerusalem, rather it was that God could no longer bear seeing how the people of the city were behaving. They had turned their backs on God. Now God would turn his face from them: ‘I have hidden my face from this city because of all their wickedness.’ The apostasy of the people was made all the more offensive in that they had not renounced their God. They pretended to honor God while pursuing a course of injustice and infidelity.

 

The good news is that God didn’t give up on them. Before the century was out, Jerusalem was being restored. And, did they learn their lesson? Tragically not. So, six centuries later, as Luke was writing his gospel, only decades after the death of Christ, Jerusalem suffered even greater devastation, this time by a Roman army ruthlessly suppressing an ill-conceived nationalist revolt. God had again hidden his face from the city, the city over which Christ wept (Luke 19:41).

 

Once again that was not the end of the story. In the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, we read: ‘I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name’ (Revelation 3:12). The vision of the

New Jerusalem has been kept alive in Christian tradition from Augustine in the late 4th century, with his Tale of the Two Cities, to William Blake in the late 18th century. The theme has been employed in liturgy and music.

 

For Friends the language of James Nayler is of particular importance when he seeks to answer the question: “What His Kingdom Is?”. “But”, Nayler writes, “his kingdom in this world, in which he chiefly delights to walk and make himself known, is in the hearts of such as have believed in him, and owned his call out of the world, whose hearts are purified, and whose bodies he has washed in obedience and made them fit for the Father to be worshipped in.” And then he writes: “He leads them by the gentle movings of his Spirit out of all their own ways and wills in which they would defile themselves, and guides them into the will of the father by which they become more clean and holy. Deeply he lets them know his covenant….” Then comes the query: “come try whether Christ is in you. Measure your life and weigh your profession with that which cannot deceive you, which has stood and will stand forever….”

 

So we ask, Where has the vision gone in our age? Might one of the reasons for our economic crisis be precisely that as developed nations and peoples we are suffering from impaired vision? Short-sightedness, tunnel vision, lack of focus – these defects have caused us to lose sight of what economic justice is all about. It has caused a disconnect between financial transactions and the real world which has become apparent only when the damage has already occurred. In the Advent reflections which follow our deficiencies in vision will be our subject.

 

An epithet was hurled at Goldman Sachs, the world’s largest investment bank, in Rolling Stone Magazine in July this year. He wrote: ‘A great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’. Pretty strong language. But it certainly expresses the sense of anger and injustice felt by the fact that so far the biggest beneficiaries of all the public money spent to get a nation out of its financial crisis are the very firms that got us into it. Later that same month Goldman Sachs declared that it had made more than $100 million on revenues on each of a record 46 days in the second quarter of 2009, beating the old record of 34 such $100 million days in the previous quarter. But Goldman Sachs was hardly alone. In the first half of 2009, the top 11 investment banks all did very nicely. Nor are retail banks doing much for their reputation as they respond to the crisis by imposing tougher terms for extending credit and by increasing fees for overdrafts. By the end of the year, US banks will have collected a record $38½ billion in fees for overdrafts.

 

No wonder the cries of anger and injustice are so loud and bitter. Even if sometimes not entirely fair, such protests at least prevent us from being lulled into thinking that the economic crisis we are in is simply the result of ignorance, or faulty economic models. It is a matter of justice. And cries out to be heard. Justice must be at the heart of economic life. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate published in July this year: ‘… the canons of justice must be respected from the outset, as the economic process unfolds, and not just afterward or incidentally.’

 

Where do we as the people of the Kingdom fit into the debate? Shouldn’t the notion of justice be grounded in the reality of a covenant, and with the argument that economic justice will only lead to happiness and prosperity if it is linked to a morality which gives pride of place to the notion of a good life and the common good. Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, argues that instead of seeing ‘justice’ on the basis of one single logical line of reasoning, it would be far more fruitful – and realistic – to approach justice as an interaction between the notions of fairness, freedom, the rule of law and the meeting of need. In the words of Jeremiah: ‘In those days…Jerusalem shall live undisturbed and this shall be her name: “The Lord Is Our Justice” (Jeremiah 33:16). It is only when we return to justice that God will no longer hide his face.

 

Advent is the season when we contemplate the establishment of God’s Kingdom among us. It begins with judgment, much like our own spiritual pilgrimage that is initiated in a sense of inadequacy and brokenness. But we are complicit as we live well is an inadequate and broken world of obscene profligacy and abject poverty. Dare we ask ourselves whether Christ is in us and reflected in the choices we make? Dare we measure our life against our profession of faith? I was given a great bumper sticker recently that is on the wall in my office. It says “Jesus is coming, look busy!”

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