SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Prayer of the day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi 3:2
“Be careful what you wish for.” That was one of my Mom’s favorite sayings. It has often proven itself in my own experience. Christmas gifts for which I longed as a child frequently lost their charm before the dawn of the new year, leaving me to wish that I had coveted something else. Though the promotion I worked so hard to get brought a higher salary and a greater degree of financial flexibility, it also burdened me with responsibilities that brought stress and anxiety, commitments that took me away from my family and round the clock duties that robbed me of what little time I had for leisure activity. Wishes always come with an invisible price tag. In the words of Galinda in the musical, Wicked:
“I couldn’t be happier, no I couldn’t be happier,
Though it is, I admit, the tiniest bit, unlike I anticipated.
‘Cause getting your dreams, strange as it seems
Is a little bit complicated.
There’s a kind of a sort of cost,
There’s a couple of things you’ve lost.
There are bridges you crossed
You didn’t know that you crossed till you crossed them.”
Sometimes a wish come true ends in tragedy. How many stories have we not heard of lottery winners discovering that their “ticket to a dream” turned out to be a nightmare? Garth Brooks got it right: “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
In this week’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures the prophet Malachi sounds a cautionary note against his peoples’ longing for the day of the Lord. He seems to be asking his hearers, “Do you have any idea what you are asking for?” He goes on to say, “[the Lord] is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” I don’t know, but I suspect the folks listening to Malachi had a reaction similar to mine last Sunday as I participated with my church in the intercessory prayer. The rubrics typically call for the minister leading the prayers to end each petition with, “Lord in your mercy,” and for the congregation to respond, “hear our prayer.” This week the congregational response was changed to “Let your kingdom come.” As so often happens when a familiar liturgical response is altered, I read right over the words on the page and reflexively spoke the customary refrain.
This alteration was hardly a departure from any liturgical norm. After all, we speak the same words every week and I pray them every day in the Lord’s Prayer. Seeing them in this new context, however, gave me pause. I wondered, do we really know what we are asking for when we pray “Thy kingdom come, they will be done”? Do we fully appreciate the borders that will have to open up, the claims of sovereignty that must be surrendered, the privileges and entitlements that must be relinquished if everyone is to be assured of daily bread-the essentials to living well? Are we prepared for all the consequences that might flow from the abolition of an unjust economic system impoverishing millions even as it pays our salaries, finances our retirement plans and enables us to enjoy a lifestyle that is, by the standards of most the world’s peoples, extravagant? Do we imagine that the reign of God can be born in our midst without the birth pangs about which we read in last week’s gospel? Malachi’s words remind us that the kingdom cannot come until we have been made ready for it. Thus, when we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we are praying for a radical transformation of ourselves and of our world.
In truth, I am more than half afraid of the coming of God’s reign when I see signs of it. I fear that I will be on the losing end of the new creation-among the mighty that must be cast down and the rich sent away empty. Luke 1:52-53. Yet Jesus assures me that I cannot lose more than he offers me. And I cannot receive what is offered until my hands are empty. That promise enables even people like me to hear the words of poet Langston Hughes with hope rather than dread.
I look at the world
I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.
I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!
I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.
Source: Poetry (January 2009) Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. This poem is one of a few that were never published in his lifetime. They were recently discovered by a rare book cataloger at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. You can read more about Langston Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).