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Wanted: Vigilance & faith
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During Advent, Jesus calls us to be awake and vigilant.  “Let your belts be fastened around your waists and your lamps be burning ready,” he warned his disciples. “…It will go well with those servants whom the master finds wide-awake on his return…Be on guard, therefore.” (Luke 12: 35, 37, 40).

So urgent was his command to wakefulness, Jesus even compared himself to a thief.  He wanted to drive home the dangers of spiritual lethargy in the face of the world’s coming judgment. The irony of his crucifixion between two thieves may only have served to pound in this point more painfully:

“Be sure of this: if the owner of the house knew when the thief was coming he would keep a watchful eye and not allow his house to be broken into.  You must be prepared in the same way…” (Matthew 24:43-44).

So essential was the task of convincing early Christians to maintain vigil in the midst of this world’s preoccupations, the expression “like a thief in the night” repeats itself over and over in the New Testament.  See Luke 12: 39-40, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3, and Revelation 16:15, for some examples.

Yet even a person fully alert can fall victim to a home invasion.  Jesus himself acknowledged this when he taught, “No one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man” (Matthew 12:29, Mark 3:27).  Of course, our Lord was referring to the fact that Satan maintains a unified household; in order for him to be vanquished and his captives set free, the devil has to be bound completely.

Yet these teachings about vigilance, about thieves in the night, and about binding the home’s owner - meditated so often in this season of Advent - all played out with one of our parish families this past Wednesday night.

Their home was invaded by two armed men.  The adults were bound.  Their valuables were stolen, and they were left terrorized.  Among them were four children who witnessed the entire ordeal.  I found out about this crime on Thursday evening after I buried the third victim of fatal shootings in less than two weeks.  The question “what in God’s name is happening to Stockton?” kept ringing in my ears.  Without a doubt, the evil one is loose.

The combination of moral disintegration and the erosion of faith-based principals in our society, together with increasing unemployment and the loss of so many homes, thrown together with the breakdown of our families and the generally un-civil atmosphere of our communities, added to drug abuse, gang activity and organized crime, and stirred up by the strident determination of Satan to destroy systematically every good that God has conceived and inspired in the created order, all lead ultimately to the tragic situation in which we now find ourselves.  All this has been predicted from the beginning by the great profits, from Daniel to Malachi, from Jesus the Word made flesh to John of Patmos (the author of Revelation), down to the visionaries of our day.  We may still live in a time of privilege and relative security - we’re not in Iraq, Afghanistan, Rio de Janeiro, or East L.A. - but no one can deny that we’re in a downward spiral.  The time has long since passed for denial and false optimism.  We need to take strong measures.

But what measures can we take? In the face of so much wickedness and the persistent corruption of our souls by so many negative influences, what can a concerned citizen or a victim of violence do to remedy the situation?

I talked about this yesterday with the young man who had been shot during the home invasion, and later with his wife and sister-in-law, who had also been attacked and bound during the home invasion.  There is a great deal more to this conversation, and the reactions of others who came onto the scene shortly after it happened, that I can’t share for reasons of their safety.

What I can share is that we came to the conclusion that very little could be done that would not either promote more violence, or put the family and their children further in harm’s way, or simply add to the problem.  Nor did the option of pulling up stakes and leaving town seem viable.  For the time being, they must rely on the police, the courts, and on divine assistance.

Of all who took part in this conversation, the wife of the man who’d been shot spoke most eloquently about forgiveness. Her concern wasn’t so much about the long-range consequences of revenge or of taking the law into our own hands, but rather of giving witness to Christian values and overcoming the tendency of our fallen human nature to return violence for violence.

“We can’t carry so much hatred in our hearts,” she said.  “That’s not what Jesus Christ taught us to do.”  I had agreed with a family relative who had arrived just late enough not to have been shot himself, but who struggles with anger.  We have to get people like these criminals off the streets.  But I had to agree with this woman, too.  When we take action ourselves, evil only increases its grasp on our lives.  The intention to set things right soon gives way to the instinctive animal impulse to attack whatever threatens us.

We try to clothe our aggressions with justifications based in scripture and in the life of Jesus Christ.  One time Jesus got mad and drove out the money changers (Matthew 21:12).  Shortly before his arrest, Jesus warned, “...let the man without a sword sell his coat and buy one...” (Luke 22:36).  

But the overwhelming witness of the Prince of Peace was always one of non-violent trust in the Father of Mercies.   When his disciples pulled two swords out, he scolded them: “Enough!”. They’d misunderstood his words.

“My kingdom does not belong to this world,” he would tell Pilate.  “If my kingdom were of this world, my subjects would be fighting to save me from being handed over…” (John 18: 36).  He for whom legions of angels would stand in battle array (Matthew 26:53) would not return evil for evil.

“When a man can suffer injustice and endure hardship through his awareness of God’s presence,” wrote St. Peter, “this is the work of grace in him.  If you do wrong and get beaten for it, what credit can you claim?  But if you put up with suffering for doing what is right, this is acceptable in God’s eyes.  It was for this you were called, since Christ suffered for you in just this way and left you an example, to have you follow in his footsteps.  He did no wrong; no deceit was found in his mouth.  When he was insulted, he returned no insult.  When he was made to suffer, he did not counter with threats. Instead, he delivered himself up to the One who judges justly.  In his own body he brought your sins to the cross, so that all of us, dead to sin, could live in accord with God’s will.  By his wounds, you were healed.  At one time, you were staying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls”  (1 P. 2:19-25).

This peaceful confidence in God’s provident care and capacity for justice is what Advent inspires.  As we make the journey to Bethlehem, we recall that the Lord of Life has a solution for the disasters caused throughout the universe by the presence of the evil one, the murderer of souls.  Trusting in the promises of Christ, let us keep our eyes fixed, as Peter says, on the prophetic message of hope, “as you would on a lamp shining in a dark place until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19).   Then we will all join the angels in singing:

“Glory to God in the Highest, and Peace to His people on Earth!”

Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Church, Stockton.  December 4, 2009