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2 before Advent: The Steep and Rugged Pathway

19 November 2006
Crossing the Rubicon
Daniel 12:1-3, Mark 13:1-8, Psalm 16 Preserve me, O Lord
The Lord shall preserve our going out, and our coming in: the Lord shall preserve us from all evil.

The thread running through today's readings seems to be a warning that we cannot forever sit on the fence: Daniel reminds us that many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And the psalm says I will thank the Lord for giving me warning and thou shalt not leave my soul in hell...thou shalt show me the path of life.

Crunch-time is here. As the croupier says at the roulette table just before he spins the wheel:
Faites vos jeux, mesdames, messieurs. Rien ne va plus!
Or, as the hymn expands the thought:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side...
Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied...
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
James R Lowell in the Boston Courier, 11 December1845

C S Lewis pointed out that all Jesus's teachings have this underlying message:

people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic...[or the Devil]. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse... But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
'Mere Christianity'

Lewis also points out that the longer we put off making decisions the more difficult they become, and deciding once and for all about the divinity of Christ and what we intend to do as a result is no exception:

If you dip into any college or school, or parish - anything you like - at a given point in history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow-room and contrasts weren't so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there's even less room for indecision, and choices are more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad getting worse: the possibilities of neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder. And not only in questions of moral choice. Everything is getting more different from everything else. Evolution means species getting less and less like one another. Minds get more spiritual, matter more material. Poetry and prose draw further apart.
'That Hideous Strength'

However, even supposing that we do make the decision to side with St Michael and all the angels in defending Heaven, that is only the beginning of our problems. Mark tells us of Jesus' warning:

nation shall rise against nation...and there shall be famines and troubles: these are but the beginnings of the birth-pangs of sorrows.

In other words,

fasten your seat-belts, it's going to be a bumpy night of the soul.

We can't say we weren't warned - both the old and the new testaments are full of dire warnings of these birth pangs of sorrow.

We are promised that if we trust in God He will not abandon us:

When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, neither shall the flame consume you.Isaiah 43:2

But no one is suggesting that it is going to be easy:

O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee. For my soul is full of trouble: and my life draweth nigh unto hell. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit: in a place of darkness, and in the deep. My sight faileth for very trouble: Lord, I have called daily upon thee, I have stretched forth my hands unto thee. Lord, why abhorrest thou my soul: and hidest thou thy face from me? cf Psalm 88

And Lady Jane Grey, facing death upon the scaffold,

How long will you be absent? For ever? Oh Lord! Have you forgotten to be gracious, and have you shut up your loving kindness in displeasure? Will you be no more entreated? Is your mercy clean gone for ever, and your promise come utterly to an end for ever? Why do you wait for so long? Shall I despair of your mercy? cf Psalm 89:46

It is easy simply to be overtaken by weariness:

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you waiting at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
Christina Rossetti

But let us not be dismayed by the prospect of a steep and rugged pathway, and the silence of the desert through which we shall pass:

Here I will stand
To fulfill
What your faith in me
I will take the desert upon myself,
The absence of your answers,
Your multifaceted, eloquent silence,
To allow the fruit of solitude
To ripen in me
As nourishment for others.
I will not run away,
Even when I become afraid
Of the endless sand, of the senselessness,
You silent one,
Because you are never far.

Ulrich Schaffer

Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil : for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me. Psalm 23

In darkness and in light,
In trouble and in joy,
Help us, heavenly Father,
To trust your love,
To serve your purpose
And to praise your name,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

adapted from The Daily Office Revised

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