[HOMILY] Why we Prefer this World to Heaven (Hint: It’s Comfortable)
The Jewish people have a keen sense of the holiness of God according to the true definition of the word- that he is set apart. A beautiful example is the veil which separated the Holy place from the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple. It was simple draping but a complicated array of thick, beautiful upholstery approximately three feet thick- God’s presence is not something you casually happen upon. In fact, as many of you know, there was only one day of the year anyone could enter the Holy of Holies, and only one man on that day. The feast of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which for the Jewish people was- and is- the holiest day of the year. The High Priest entered the Holy of Holies where he first incensed the holy ark, then he sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the front of the ark.
This experience, though surely a life-altering, powerful experience of God’s presence for the priest, was also frightening. Why? Because Israel had seen the power of God, they knew him. They did not have some primitive sense of a brutal and bloodthirsty God. God had chosen them, brought them out of slavery, he made them his own people. Yet, they knew God was not one of them; he is holy, he is infinite, other, transcendent. This gave them a righteous fear, a sense of awe, we see the psalmist’s grappling for words- he is the God of Gods, king of Heaven, king of righteousness, the high tower.
Luke’s gospel begins with the story of the high priest Zechariah entering the holy of holies on Yom Kippur to sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat offering atonement for the people of Israel. Those outside notice Zechariah is delayed, what did they think? In the Zohar, a medieval mystical Jewish text, it mentions that they would tie a chain around the ankle of the high priest when he entered the Holy of Holies in case he was struck down, that they could then pull him out. If this was true- perhaps they considered tugging the chain just in case. Zechariah was not dead, but he did come out mute. And it was not until the naming of his child- John- that his voice returned. At this those around him wondered, “What then will this child be?”
This brings us, finally, to the gospel today. John the Baptist appears in the wilderness. Where has he been, what had become of him? There is plenty of speculation, perhaps he was living amongst the Essenes. Perhaps he, like the prophet Elijah before him, was living the life of a hermit. Regardless, he appears on the scene, dressed in camel hair and girdle, feeding on honey and locusts, preaching and baptizing. There is something new here, there is a sense of urgency in his voice.
You see, all the prophets who preceded John yearned for the coming of the messiah, it is woven into every prophetic text. Yet they were different than John. Ronald Knox describes their yearning beautifully, saying it was as though they stood in pitch darkness and off in the distance there was a light. You have surely experienced this- you look off in the darkness and see a light, but you have no clue how far off. The light could be a few hundred feet away or it could be miles away. So the prophets yearned for the coming of the messiah, but none spoke with the urgency of John the Baptist for they knew not the time.
“One mightier than I is coming after me, I baptize you with water, he will baptize you with the holy spirit”
Jesus did come, the same God who created the heavens and the earth, who invokes in us a righteous and holy fear came among us as an infant. Thirty years later he appeared alongside John, preaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand. He died for us on the cross, he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven- all this we profess weekly in the creed.
Now, again, we wait- for 2000 years we have waited, yet something has happened in that time. Do we have the same yearning for the 2nd coming of Christ that the prophets had for the 1st? The early church certainly had that restless yearning, that hope. As they looked off in the darkness at that bright light, they hoped it would turn out to be just in front of them.
Do you want Jesus to come- or are you comfortable? One of the critiques I hear so often from my non-Christian friends is that we Christians are so caught up thinking about heaven that we refuse to confront the issues that face the world here and now.
I think that is right on one account: we aren’t confronting the issues we face here and now, but that is because we aren’t caught up in heavenly thoughts. If we as Christians were really contemplating heaven, we would operate with the urgency of John the Baptist, laying aside anything and everything that doesn’t serve the mission. But we don’t, and for the most part we are kind of glad Jesus is a bit delayed, because we like this world, we like our sins. They give us satisfaction- however fleeting and empty- here and now while heaven is some far off, vague idea.
We must stop spending our energy on the fleeting things of this world. For myself I often feel like every little shiny thing catches my eye! We are all pulled in so many directions; every new car, phone, new pair of kicks, that better job- whatever it is!
We must stop, take time this Advent to strain our eyes, to stare off in the darkness looking for that light, the light which cannot be overcome by the darkness. Ask yourself: do I want Jesus to come- really want it?
Am I filling in the valleys of my soul, tearing down the mountains that stand between me and God? Am I making a highway for my God? Because if you’re not, if everything in your life isn’t ordered toward that end- then you are living a meaningless life, and you will never be happy.
“Our God comes with power”- God is not a vague idea, he is a person who loved you into existence and has prepared a place for you in heaven. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered our hearts what God has planned for those who love him.” This advent we must yearn for the coming of Jesus- like the prophets of old- we must prepare the way of the Lord!
 Zohar Vol. 16 Emor, Section 34. Yom Kippur, Par. 251
 Image is from Ronald Knox, Advent, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 403, Ignatius Press.