Living In-Between

. . . a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ (Mark 1:1-4)

Everything around us this week has been telling us that the Christmas season is well under way. Don’t believe it.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t get a jump on your shopping or take advantage of the great deals on Amazon. I’m not trying to tell you to stop watching those Hallmark Christmas movies or delay your efforts to get your cards in the mail. I’m well aware that many of you are eager to get on with it, whether enthusiastically or just to get it done and over with. Hopefully, as you look to the month ahead, your enthusiasm exceeds your dread.

All that being said, faith communities have a different way of marking time when it comes to the so-called ‘holiday season.’ In the world that dominates my time and attention – what I often call ‘church-world’ – the season begins with the first Sunday of Advent. No one really seems to think that way about this season of the year. Pastors and the choir, but hardly anyone else.

The point of all this is that I’ve got some good news about this week, this very day.

Thanksgiving was done and in the books over a week ago. The first Sunday of Advent is still a couple of days away. This brief interlude on the calendar is a treasure. It doesn’t happen every year. It won’t happen next year. Very often it seems the dishes have barely been washed from Thursday’s thanksgiving meal, and almost immediately on Sunday we’re plunged into Advent. But not this year.

This year we get a chance to pause, to catch our breath, to think for a moment about what we can do to prepare him room in the midst of our crowded days.

That Blank Page in the Bible
What’s true of our lives this week is true on a much larger scale in the biblical story. You can see a very simple visual representation of this in the way many Bibles are printed. If you locate the very last page of the Old Testament, and then find the opening page of Matthew’s telling of the life of Jesus, you’ll very likely find a blank page. Possibly you’ll find a page that is mostly blank except for ‘The New Testament’ appearing in bold letters.

That blank page contains the lengthy unwritten story of the interval that followed the last of the Hebrew prophets and led to the birth of Jesus. Scholarly types refer to this as the ‘intertestamental period,’ the time between the close of one era and the beginning of another. Sometimes these years are spoken of as a silent period – but that isn’t quite right. These years were hardly silent.

Whereas you and I have few days before Advent begins, before we begin telling about how God entered our world in the birth of his son Jesus, the intertestamental period was roughly 400 years long. Four centuries of yearning and hoping and praying. I’m troubled sometimes by God’s sense of timing. I wish he’d show a little more urgency and act a little quicker on our behalf.

This much, however, can be said with certainty. Our waiting is not wasted. God is at work in the in-between places that appear to be void of his word and his works.

People Get Ready
The figure who signaled the end of the intertestamental period would have never thought to speak of an intertestamental period. He was a blunt and fiery preacher who dressed like Elijah and evoked the people’s collective memory of Israel’s great prophets. We call him John the Baptizer (or Baptist). Even though he was only a few months older than Jesus, he stood between the times, the time of the prophets and the announcement of the Messiah.

Here between Thanksgiving and Advent, I’d like to direct your attention to John the Baptist. At the same time, I’d like to invite you to name the in-between places in your own life.

Often, the in-between places can feel barren and boring. What was no longer is. But what will be is not yet clear. We’re waiting, but we’re not quite sure what we’re waiting on. Maybe we’ve moved beyond simply waiting. In the in-between we sometimes flounder, lacking direction and passion and vision for a future that used to seem vivid and exciting. In his book, The Land Between, pastor Jeff Manion argues that these in-between stretches of life can be fertile ground for spiritual growth and transformation. But they can also leave us beaten up and bitter.

Here on the threshold of Advent we’ll spend some time getting ready for the season by naming and facing the in-between spaces we inhabit. Where is yours? And how are you doing in that place today?

Ever patient God, our tendency is to rush. We rush through meals and conversations. We rush through our todays trying to secure days yet to come. We don’t like the in-between places, and we easily fail to see you at work there. Slow us down enough to get ready for what you are doing in these days. Come and find us in the in-between, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Our Fitting Response

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

A couple of years ago, shortly after we had moved into our home here in Bethlehem, a generous and skilled friend came over to install an electrical outlet in my basement. Such things do not fall within the sphere of my spiritual gifts. I helped occasionally by handing him a needed tool. Mostly I helped by trying to stay out of the way.

I’m not sure when or how it happened, but somewhere along the way household projects became big entertainment. Americans are into their houses, both figuratively and literally. We stay in our houses and watch TV shows about what other people are doing to their houses. This feeds our desires to invest time and energy and money back into our own houses, so we can be more comfortable as we watch shows about freshly renovated houses.

Marnie and I call this ‘brain candy’ – and trust me, we watch our fair share.

I’ve noticed for some time that this house-based entertainment industry tells us about something far more significant than design and construction. The show may be about a house, but it’s showing us something about our souls. And what it shows us isn’t always attractive. Allow me to explain.

Entitled or Indebted?
Let’s go back a few years. In February of 2004 ABC aired a new series, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Over nine seasons this show garnered a massive following as each week a home was entirely renovated or rebuilt within a matter of days. In every episode the renovation project was connected to a story – usually a story of a family in need.

Yes, most of the hour featured design plans and monumental feats of reconstruction, but the real drama was at the end of the hour when the renovated home was revealed to the family. The format of the show was no secret. You knew what would happen. Still, every time a family was presented with their newly renovated home I found the moment deeply moving. They were being given something they could have never attained on their own.

Things have changed a bit over the past fourteen years. First of all, there are many more shows that entertain us with renovation and design. House-flipping has become intense drama. House-hunting keeps us on the edge of our seats wondering what property the befuddled buyers will choose. When people are paying for what they want, they tend to be a little more demanding. They have a ‘wish list.’ If they can afford to pay, they can afford to be picky.

Back in the day of Extreme Makeover, the work being done on the house was done as a gift. The gift was the driving narrative. The presentation of the gift was the high-point of the show (“Bus driver, move that bus”). But now the shows are more about our wants and how our wants fit our budgets. The story is more about our quest to get the perfect place and fulfill our dreams.

While not missing entirely, what we see far less of these days is gratitude. That’s what our fascination with house-based entertainment exposes about our souls. We are more inclined to be entitled people than we are thankful people. We see our lives as something we worked hard for, something we deserve, or something we’ve rightly obtained because we paid for it. Our pride grows. Our gratitude shrivels.

All of Life Is a Gift
Thankfulness is our fitting response to a gift. And the very moment we forget that life is a gift is the moment we forget to be thankful.

At the heart of our faith is a story about the love of God freely given to us in Jesus. Perhaps without meaning to, or without knowing it, we sometimes speak as if God loves us because there’s something in us that’s innately loveable. “Of course God loves me . . . why would he not?” The Bible’s story, however, is quite different. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

When we were indifferent or even hostile to God, God loved us. Jesus did not die for former sinners. He died for those who were and are ‘still sinners.’ His love for us isn’t something we deserve, nor is it something we’ve earned by our exemplary lives. What’s more, having received God’s gift in Jesus we don’t have to live our days trying to pay God back. That’s something we could never do.

The good news of the Christian faith is that God freely does an ‘extreme makeover’ on us. And the only response that makes sense is gratitude.

In all things, merciful God, we are utterly dependent upon you for your grace. Every breath, every moment of every day comes to us as a gift. And your love comes to us the same way – not earned or paid for by what we do, but freely given in Jesus as we trust in him. Make us thankful people, we ask in his name. Amen.