2nd Sunday of Advent

December 7, 2008
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 40:1-11
Reading 2: 
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Reading 3: 
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:1-8
By Bruce G. Epperly

The lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Advent call us to an imaginative “everyday eschatology,” grounded in a transformed “prophetic Pelagianism.” First of all, the passages assert that our vision of God’s future calls us to certain ethical, spiritual, communal, and interpersonal behaviors. Second, the passages invite us to see ourselves as God’s companions in an eschatological adventure, in which we are not passive observers but active participants. Living toward God’s future involves an adventurous and imaginative journey, in which we interpret the events of our lives, most especially in times of uncertainty and transition, in light of God’s vision of a “new heaven and new earth.”

Perhaps, the worst name you can call anyone in orthodox Christianity is a “Pelagian.”  Those are fighting words which are intended to describe your theological opponent as an idolatrous proponent of “works righteousness.” Sadly, these words have been invoked to discredit anyone who sees salvation and divine power as relational rather than unilateral. With the growing interest in Celtic spirituality, exemplified in the work of J. Philip Newell, the theological insights of Pelagius are being recovered. Pelagius is now being rediscovered as a faithful Christian whose theological vision was, in fact, quite orthodox, biblically speaking, in his affirmation of a lively divine-human call and response and his recognition that humans are called to respond creatively to God’s grace. Rather than puppets, driven by a god who decides everything in our lives without our input, we are adventurers who respond to God, claiming the path that God has illuminated for us. Pelagius imagined a world in which our actions can truly make a difference and called persons to individual and communal responsibility as contributors in bringing God’s intent for the world into being.

Despite their strong affirmation of God’s life-giving presence, process theology, prophetic Pelagianism, and the biblical prophetic tradition alike affirm that the future of the world has not yet been fully decided. God has not determined everything in advance apart from human responsiveness. Rather, God wisely and creatively calls all things toward God’s realm of shalom and asks humans to become partners in God’s quest to heal creation. Divine power is relational, not unilateral, in character. God respects our creativity, rather than seeing our efforts as a form of impiety or call to sin.

Tragically, Augustine’s vision of unilateral and all-determining divine activity won the day and has been identified for centuries as the heart of Christian orthodoxy. From the Augustinian perspective, human creativity is either a fall from grace or an affront to divine majesty. Augustine’s either/or approach to divine-human interactivity failed to grasp that grace finds fulfillment in the responses of humans who creatively respond to God’s prior and ongoing life-transforming activity. Our creative responses enhance rather than diminish God’s glory. As we ponder the Augustinian turn in theology, we are left asking, “What would have happened if Pelagius’ relational theology had been victorious? How would it have shaped Christian understandings of power, the role of women in the church, our understanding of orthodoxy, our relationships with other faith traditions, and our care for the planet? What would have happened if Christianity had held the insights of Pelagius and Augustine in creative contrast, rather than dismissing Pelagius as a heretic?”  In light of the many challenges facing us today, a prophetic Pelagianism invites us to be faithful to the Biblical call to repentance and openness to God’s vision of the future. It calls us to be responsible junior partners in God’s holy adventure to save the planet and its many diverse species.

Isaiah 40 speaks words of comfort in a time of national trial. The prophet speaks of a radical, creative transformation in which “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see [this glory] together.”  God’s glory is revealed in loving care. Like a shepherd, God will care for the flock, soothing and protecting those who been traumatized in the national debacle. God will lead the flock toward the future, drawing it forward by God’s vision of a world of peace and wholeness.

The prophet notes the transitory nature of life. “All people are like grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades.”  On this Pearl Harbor Day, sixty seven years after the December 7, 1941 attack, the transitory nature of life is obvious. Days of infamy happen over and over again in our world, whether on 9/11, in the torture and water boarding of prisoners, and in the impact of unbridled corporate greed on the USA’s most vulnerable persons. Nations rise and fall; our lives are brief, punctuated by the interplay of celebration and sorrow, flourishing and diminishing. But, even amid the decline of empires, the diminishing of retirement investments, and our own obvious mortality, God stands firm, “the word of God will stand forever.”  God’s word is creative, transforming, and healing. It is constantly birthing new life in the cosmos and in the human adventure. While the exact nature of God’s transformation cannot be discerned, and certainly cannot be controlled by human machinations, God’s visionary companionship will abide, bringing wholeness and recovery within the lives of broken persons and communities.

But, we are not passive observers of God’s vision of shalom. A voice calls out: “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”  Could this voice be God’s call to the people, embodied in the creativity of the prophet’s own words, to move them from passivity to action, to hear God’s voice and then respond with acts of justice and healing, reflecting God’s vision of shalom, justice, and hospitality?

Psalm 85 describes a times in which “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” God takes the initiative, and calls us to respond with words and acts of healing and wholeness.

Mark 1 briefly portrays the ministry of John the Baptist. God has sent John to “prepare the way” for Jesus, proclaiming “a baptism for the forgiveness of sin.” John the Baptist responds to the call of God; he is an actor, not an observer or puppet, in God’s process of salvation. As he begins his own ministry, Jesus reaffirms John’s prophetic message as he states his own mission of God’s good news, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

The calls toward repentance of John the Baptist and Jesus are grounded in God’s initiative and our ability and choice to respond to God’s call. Repentance finds its foundation in human creativity, our ability turn around, take a new path, and live by a life-transforming vision. We can experience transformation precisely because we can creatively respond as artists and actors whose actions shape the world’s future. The ability to align oneself with God’s vision, according to process theology, is both ontological, rooted in the nature of reality, and soteriological, essential to the experience of wholeness and salvation.

The reading from Peter 3:8-15a describes the ethics of everyday eschatology. In light of God’s vision of shalom, we are called to treat every moment as a holy moment in companionship with God’s holy adventure. The author of the epistle asks the probing question: in light of God’s unexpected coming, “what sort of persons ought you to be?” Peter asks Christians here and now to lead “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the day of God.” While alternative translation suggests “earnestly desiring” rather than “hastening”, the impact of both translations is that we have a role in embodying God’s vision of shalom. Our role is to live as individuals and communities as participants in God’s new heaven and God’s new earth. Hopeful in God’s vision of possibilities, we live guided by living as if God’s reign is already here.

What would it mean to live “holy lives” as participants in God’s “new earth?”  Surely it means living moment by moment awakened to God’s call and responding with acts of love and mercy, interpersonally and socially. What does holy living mean in the context of the secular Christmas season which threatens to drown out the hopeful expectations of Advent? How will it shape our priorities in daily life, most especially in the context of the consumerist theology of the Christmas season?

While the pastor is not called to provide exact directions for her or his congregation, he or she can affirm that holiness of life means a life of integrity and wholeness that will transform our world, our communities, and us as God’s children, when we practice holiness moment by moment and day by day. We are God’s active partners in incarnating God’s vision of healing the earth. This is truly a “prophetic Pelagianism,” grounded in a relational, loving, and creative God who calls us to be relational, loving, and creative in response.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.