Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Rock and a Soft Place

If I'd thought if it sooner, I could have brought a rock and a pillow with me and tossed them both into the congregation—a good test to see if they really knew the difference!

   First Sunday of Advent   B 

We all know the difference between a pillow and a rock, don’t we?  Well, it seems that some of God’s holy ones through the ages have had a difficult time making the distinction. 

Take the patriarch Jacob, for example.  He was on a journey and, as the sun was setting, he found himself at a roadside shrine.  Settling in for the night, he took a stone from the shrine to tuck under his head and there he dreamed of a ladder—a stairway—leading all the way to heaven.  Use a rock for a pillow and of course you’ll have some crazy dreams! 

And then there are churches scattered across Italy that keep rocks as sacred relics of St. Francis of Assisi.  Having embraced a life of radical poverty, St. Francis always slept on the floor or the bare earth.  It seems that when he visited these places, these particular stones served as his pillows.

But you and I will never make the same mix up!

How do you describe a pillow?  Soft.  Comfortable.  Something you use to rest and be at ease.

And how do you describe a rock?  Hard.  Strong.  Something sturdy on which you can depend.

And God: Is he more like a pillow or a rock?

Our first reading this Sunday, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, would definitely lean toward the pillow.  “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”  The Lord is pictured as a tender shepherd cradling a fluffy lamb in his arms.

Our gospel reading, on the other hand, from the very beginning of the gospel according to Mark, tends more to the rock.  There we meet John the Baptist: the messenger preparing the Lord’s way.  Where does St. John live?  In the desert.  And what does he wear?  Camel’s hair and leather.  And what does he eat?  Locusts and wild honey.  If you live in a rocky wilderness, wearing scratchy hides and eating grasshoppers, it’s safe to guess you’re a pretty tough guy.  And John declares, “One mightier than I is coming after me!”  His message is a rather hard one: Acknowledge your sins and repent of them.

There are times where we’re tempted to think of God as only a pillow.  We convince ourselves that he’s really a big softy, and he’ll let us get away with just about anything.  And there are times when we’re tempted to think of God as only a rock—adamant and unyielding in his demands of us, ready to get even with sinners when the time is right.

Of course, neither of those perspectives is true.  God is, in fact, much more a mix of both.

Now, we can also fall into thinking that I must please God “the Rock” before I get to enjoy God “the Pillow”—as if we have to somehow earn his love, his kindness, his compassion.  The fact of the matter is that the opposite is actually the case. 

That’s what we learn from the second letter of St. Peter.  Jesus had promised his disciples that he would come again…and Christians were beginning to wonder what was taking him so long.   Peter assures them that what they’re experiencing isn’t a delay, but God’s incredible patience.  He doesn’t want to see any of his children perish, and so in his love and mercy God is giving them ample time to turn from their sins.  But even clinging to this comforting truth, they must face the hard fact: one day this sin-stained world will be wiped out to make way for new heavens and a new earth.  And so they need to always conduct themselves with holiness and devotion, to be eager to be found without spot or stain, becoming before God the sort of person that they ought to be.

It’s not that, if we’re good, then God will love us.  It’s because God loves us that we can’t help but want to be good.  You see, it’s only when I genuinely believe that I am loved—that I have full confidence that God loves me passionately, tenderly, unconditionally—that I can find the courage to honestly reassess the direction of my life, and then take the necessary steps—no matter how dramatic—to change my ways.  That’s the ringing shout of John the Baptist.  That’s the healing cry of Advent.

So maybe folks like Jacob and St. Francis were onto something with their eccentric sleeping habits!

Let God be your pillow.  Take your comfort in him.  Be at ease in his presence.  Allow him to restore and refresh you.  But also make God your rock.  Permit him to challenge you, to call you to repentance, to be your steady strength.  The Lord of all compassion is also the Lord of mighty power.  Rest in him, and stand firm.

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