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First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C

John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text

If you haven't seen it already, I encourage you to check out my reflection for Christmas Day this year, which deals with John 1:1-14 as well as the two passages in Luke for earlier Christmas services.

That earlier entry was in part on the theme that the Incarnation is NOT how a distant god became close to humanity. The prologue to John's gospel, which we read again this Sunday, makes that much clear in saying that the logos or "Word" Jesus incarnated was with God in the beginning and that all things were made through the logos. Indeed, Hebrew scripture -- like the Christian "New Testament" -- has plentiful representations of God as present among and intimate with God's people. Psalm 139 is just one example among a great many.

This week, I want to talk about another misconception I've heard in many a sermon, and that the prologue to John's gospel ought to put to rest. The misconception goes something like this:

God is righteous. Righteousness means not only avoiding all wrongdoing, but avoiding all wrongdoers. Therefore, God fundamentally can't stand humanity -- at least as long as humanity is sinful. Indeed, God wants and needs to punish wrongdoers with something worse than the death penalty: death plus eternal suffering. Only blood can satisfy God's sense of justice. The Incarnation solves this problem as God the Son, who wants to have compassion for humanity but knows that only the shedding of human blood will satisfy the Father, becomes human to suffer and die for humanity's sins, after which God can stand to be around humans who accept this blood sacrifice on their behalf.

The above is a particularly crude version of what some call "substitutionary atonement." There are versions out there that are not so crude, and at the very least, any view that Jesus' blood was shed as a full and perfect sacrifice for sin ought to have at least one implication that would be very helpful were we to live into it: namely, that human beings cannot demand blood or even suffering from another as punishment for wrongdoing, since Jesus paid the full price for all human sin, and further suffering from others is neither necessary nor efficacious. Can you imagine a world in which everyone who claimed to be a Christian refused absolutely to participate in any kind of vengeance, punishment, or shedding of human blood? That would be a radical shift.

But our gospel passage for this Sunday asks us to contemplate something far more radical:

"No one has ever seen God. It is God the Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."

In other words, as my dissertation supervisor puts it, God is like Jesus.

That might not sound so radical at first. In many circles in the U.S., we're accustomed to or even fairly jaded with respect to theological language about Jesus. But what I've observed over the years is that our thinking about the Incarnation and what it means tends to run in the opposite direction from what John 1:18 suggests. We start with our ideas about what God is like (those far too often being simply our cultural values writ large), and then assume or project into the New Testament that Jesus is like that.

We believe that family (defined in our usual cultural manner of those closely related to us by blood or marriage) should be a person's chief priority (other than God, perhaps), so we believe that God commanded as much, and therefore Jesus did too. We scratch our heads a little if we come across most of what Jesus said about family in the biological or legal sense, but figure the text couldn't possibly mean what it says and quickly move on.

We inherit a "Protestant work ethic" from our culture; we project that onto God; and then we find ourselves saying things like, "well, didn't Jesus say, 'the Lord helps those who help themselves'?" (That was Ben Franklin, by the way.)

We embrace a kind of individualistic faith that says that God is concerned primarily with the state of our hearts rather than what we do with our money and power, and then invent all kinds of interpretive contortions with texts about the "rich" and the "poor" in the New Testament so we don't have to think that Jesus has any problem with the poor remaining poor and the rich remaining rich.

In a particularly subtle way that's therefore particularly difficult to become aware of, we believe that God is basically a nice guy who made a nice world and then got out of the way, sending Jesus as one of many occasional reminders to humanity that we should also be nice and not do anything really bad to one another -- in other words, that following Jesus will not require anything more than church attendance from someone who's basically a good and respectable guy or gal.

Or we start with a firm idea of what God likes and doesn't like (usually pretty similar to what we like and don't like), and that God wants and needs to punish those who do the latter, and then we assume that Jesus is like that too. But what does John's prologue do to this way of doing theology?

If Jesus is God the Son, close to the Father's heart, who has made our Creator known to us, then we don't start with ideas about what God is doing in the world and project them onto Jesus; we start with what Jesus does in the world and know that this is what God is doing.

That's yet another reason that we can't chart the significance of the Incarnation without talking about what happened between the lines of the creeds -- after "he was made man" and before "he died and was buried." If it is Jesus, the Word made flesh, who makes God our Creator known, then we know what God is like by looking at what Jesus in his life "in the flesh" was like.

Jesus taught and healed. He confronted the powers and the power dynamics that kept some people shut out of the villages as feared demoniacs. When people were hungry, he fed them. Indeed, he broke bread with them, without checking first, second, or later about whether they were the "right sort of person." He broke bread with the person he knew was betraying him to suffering and death. He spoke words of invitation and forgiveness even from the cross on which he died. Those last invitations -- to the thief on the cross in Luke's gospel, for example -- came without precondition; there was no "as long as you don't mess up again," or "as long as you're sincerely sorry for what you've done," or "assuming you don't have any major nasties in your history that I don't know about." He also challenged people -- not just the "sinners," but the respectable people -- to grow into the fullness of discipleship, receiving and caring for all who came to Jesus' table as their own flesh and blood.

Had he just behaved that way, he wouldn't have been particularly threatening to anyone. Some people are completely indiscriminate about the company they keep. Some people treat their enemies in pretty much the same way they treat their friends and family. They won't be elected president any time soon; they're weirdos whose hanging out with those on the margins of society renders them marginal as well. Jesus would have been similarly unimportant if that's all he did.

But he did more. He said that God -- the Creator of the universe -- behaved toward humanity just as he did. He acted with God's power to bring those at the margins in to the center as empowered and beloved children of God. And so John's gospel very aptly says that his glory is "full of grace and truth" -- properties not at all in contradiction in Jesus' ministry, or in the kingdom of God.

All of those who take the Left Behind books as gospel and are therefore expecting Jesus, or the God whom Jesus proclaimed, to undergo some kind of eschatological personality shift to gleefully kick his enemies' butts are going to be disappointed if John is right. Those who worship a god who poses no threat to the empires of this world will be surprised by the God revealed in the life of Jesus, who gathered people to live in a way that threatened Roman rule enough to get him executed for treason against the emperor.

But for those who are attracted to the ways in which Jesus challenges the rulers and embraces the marginalized -- those who glimpse abundant life in Jesus' way of life -- the news that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who makes the Creator known is Good News indeed -- the best news there is.

Thanks be to God!

December 29, 2006 in Christmas, Christology, Discipleship, Eschatology, John, Luke, Mark, Righteousness, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)

Christmas Day, Year C

Luke 2:1-14(15-20) - link to NRSV text
Luke 2:(1-14)15-20
John 1:1-14 - link to NRSV text

I owe a lot in my reading of the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew to Richard Horsley's outstanding (and, unfortunately, out of print) The Liberation of Christmas. I heartily recommend checking it out from the library to read it during Advent next year. It's short (176 pages), readable, and the best cure I've ever come across for a vision of the birth of Jesus that's all about adorable pastoral scenes and children with tea-towels on their heads and sweetness and light, with very little connection to the radical, life-changing, WORLD-changing person and message proclaimed through the rest of the canonical gospels.

I'd like to issue a challenge for Christmas sermons -- not just this year, but every year:

Let's preach sermons at Christmas that suggest something of why the LIFE of this person whose birth we're celebrating is important.

Or here's another way to think about it: I don't think we've given a good characterization of Jesus unless we communicate a sense of why powerful people found him a threat. I think our Christmas sermons should get some of that across.

I can hear two objections to this idea right away. The first: "Christmas is one of two times a year when a LOT of people who don't go to church often will come to worship. Anything challenging will just turn them off church for good." I don't buy that.

For one thing, I'm not talking about yelling at people or telling them they're going to have to sell everything they have; I'm just talking about a little truth in advertising. Following Jesus can change your life. Following Jesus can change the world. This is profoundly Good News for anyone who's ever encountered darkness, anyone who's ever struggled, anyone who's ever looked at a newspaper headline and sighed, anyone who knows anyone living a broken life -- anyone who knows s/he is living a broken life. It's Good News for anyone who knows there is brokenness in the world and who wants wholeness.

I suspect that this category includes an awful lot of people who don't go to church. I suspect that a lot of them aren't going to church specifically because nobody has ever suggested to them that being part of the life of a church will do anything more than boost their perceived respectability, maybe clean up their act a little, maybe feel a little more loved as they meet a few more friends. But really, what is it that our communities of faith have to offer that doesn't happen at least as often in the Sierra Club, the local P.T.A. or Neighborhood Watch, eHarmony?

One potential one-word answer to that question might be "Jesus." But personally, I can't say that's quite it.

I've seen Jesus show up on mountain hikes -- as I'd expect from the prelude of the Gospel According to John. If Jesus is the logos through whom all things came into being, then of course I'd see Jesus in his creation.

I've seen Jesus show up in diverse groups gathered around a shared vision for schools and communities in which every child has a chance. I remember in particular one woman who had thought of herself as a nobody, someone no one would or should listen to, and about how one day, she was walking by a vacant building in her neighborhood that had been used a number of times by men who dragged a young girl on her way to school inside to assault her. This time, she got MAD. She got so mad that she brought all of who she was to bear to bring that building down -- she gathered the neighbors and wrote letters and stood up at meetings and refused to sit down just because the man with a jacket and tie sitting behind the microphone told her she should. The building came down like Jericho, and at the same time something of even greater long-term consequence happened: a prophet in and for the city was raised up. I've read about Jesus and the money-changers in the Temple, and I can tell you that I have seen this Jesus in that woman's eyes.

And I've been blessed to see Jesus in my own life and in others' in their self-giving, committed love. I've seen it in couples whose passionate union stokes their passion for the world; I've seen it in my single brothers and sisters whose powerful, faithful love for friend and stranger, and for other people's kids who desperately need the love and support they don't find at home, is a beacon for the world of the true love and real community for which it was made.

So yes, people can find Jesus in the Sierra Club and in the P.T.A., via eHarmony or in the house shared by activists in the 'hood.

And, by the way, people found God on mountaintops and the words of the prophets, in births and marriages and friendships, before Jesus was born. The Incarnation doesn't make a cold, distant God finally accessible to humanity. God was never cold, distant, or inaccessible. God has always loved Creation and humankind, each of whom God knew before they were born. God walked with us in the garden, freed us from slavery, gave us the Torah that teaches that the ultimate power in all the universe cares passionately and unwaveringly about our relationships with one another, and whether those relationships enact justice for the poor, for whom God has particular and passionate care.

I know that from Hebrew scripture. Heck, we can't say that scripture supports this commonly taught idea that Jesus' birth is exciting because it makes that cold and distant God accessible even if all we've read is the prologue of the Gospel According to John, which makes it as clear as day, and it's a potentially revolutionary vision:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

The radical vision that makes the rulers so very uncomfortable is not that Jesus is so much better than the God we knew before. It is that what we see in Jesus' life -- in Jesus' creativity and love, in Jesus' gathering of prophets and prostitutes, soldiers and lovers and lawyers and losers and any who would break bread with him, in Jesus' healing and teaching, in Jesus' forgiving and reconciling enemies -- is what the whole world has been the very heartbeat of the world from its very beginning. And in Jesus' life -- in what he said and did throughout his life -- we can see what this God whom Jesus proclaimed, this God whom Jesus incarnated, is about in the world.

That's why I don't think we can proclaim the Good News of Christmas, of the Feast of the Incarnation, without saying something about Jesus' ministry to come. If Jesus had been born as God made flesh and then lived to a ripe old (for his time) age of fifty as he worked hard, played by the rules, invested wisely in olive oil, paid his taxes, avoided the morally suspect and the poor (i.e., those we get to call impure because privileged folk can make them deal with those filthy things the privileged would rather avoid), raised his kids to do the same, and died as an example of just how much more peaceful things are when you just go with the flow within the world's empires, the Incarnation wouldn't necessarily be particularly good news at all. If t would just say that God was ever bit as banal as some people make God out to be. With that as the world's source and end, we may as well just hunker down and do the best we can for ourselves and those closest to us. That kind of incarnation would make out the power and love and wholeness of God we witness on mountaintops and the shoulders of the prophets among us and in loving relationships to be a kind of joke, or at best a fleeting distraction from the world as it was, and is, and always will be -- a very depressing one.

But that's NOT how it was at all. Remember a moment when you took in a view of Creation, of a human being, of loving community and you said, "THIS is living!"? Remember how you almost dared to think that it really was, that the world was made like this and the whole would could be like this? Well Jesus' life in its wholeness showed us that it really is and the whole world really could be, because God is. Everything really could be made whole. God is whole. And Jesus, who was broken by the worst our brokenness could dish out, is whole.

The person who does that is truly our Savior. That person is a serious threat to the worldly powers who think their might gives them that title. It may come as a surprise, given how often Christians these days use the title "Savior," that Luke 2:11 is the only place in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in which Jesus is called "Savior." And it's not coincidental that it occurs here. The passage starts with a reference to someone else who claimed the title "Savior": Caesar Augustus, whose conquering might was such, that, Luke points out, his decrees were said to bind "all the world" (Luke 2:1). And yet, in the city of David there was proclaimed another Savior: Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimed by angels in heaven and poor shepherds shut out from Caesar's shining cities as the anointed king, Christ the Lord.

In other words, it's not coincidental that the Greek word euagelion, which gave us the word "evangelism" and which we usually translate as "gospel" or "good news," is a word used in Greek literature for, among other things, the herald's announcement of a new emperor. In other words, the Caesars of this world can turn in their costumes; the role has been cast. We see the real power in this world, what it was made for and where it is bound, in Jesus' work among us.

That means that the healing and justice that is Jesus' mission will be the final word. Such Good News empowered Desmond Tutu to look at apartheid's security forces at the peak of their strength and say to them with confidence spilling into exuberant joy: "You can still join the winning side!" Such Good News of Jesus the Lord has given many I've known power to overcome all kinds of anxieties and addictions that enslave. Such Good News tells me that if I want to be on the side of the angels, I'll want to seek out those in this world who, like the shepherds, are left to live as best they can quite literally on the margins, vulnerable to weather, drought, and predator, in Caesar's order -- and I'll want to stand with them. They, and not the rich men in their palaces, are the first to bear witness to the Good News that is freeing and reconciling all. Rise up and follow the star!

A blessed, joyous Feast of the Incarnation to you all! And thanks be to God for such Good News.

December 22, 2006 in Christmas, Evangelism, John, Justice, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (4)

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

A Christmas entry is coming tomorrow.

Luke 1:39-45(46-55) - link to NRSV text

I have to admit that I'm a little sad that Advent is almost over. It just might be my favorite liturgical season. It isn't just the Christmas pre-show that points toward and helps us prepare for the Big Event on December 25. Indeed, what Advent readings -- especially the gospel readings -- urge us to long for expectantly isn't so much the birth of the Christ child as it is the full realization of God's redemption of the world in Christ.

That's why I love it -- and why I need it. I need regularly to get in touch with that big-picture view. There is so much going on in the world that, taken in isolation from the big picture we see in Advent, might make me think that the world's story is like this Del Amitri song I used to cover in clubs:

Bill hoardings advertise products that nobody needs
While angry from Manchester writes to complain about
All the repeats on T.V.
And computer terminals report some gains
On the values of copper and tin
While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
For the price of a hospital wing

Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
They'll burn down the synagogues at six o'clock
And we'll all go along like before

And we'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow

The title of the song? "Nothing Ever Happens." When my dissertation supervisor came to hear me play one night, as I recall, he referred to it as the "let's just drink a bottle of Lysol song." It can be depressing as hell -- a word I use advisedly here -- to think that way, to see all of what's gone horribly wrong in the world around us and to enter into that state of impoverished imagination that says that this is how the world was, and is, and will be. It's a step toward hope to say I'll work for change, but when I think it's all about your and my working, it can still be overwhelming. I know many good people who have picked up the newspaper and finally said to themselves something like this:

"It's time to grow up. It's time to give up all of that youthful idealism stuff that says we can change the world. The world is just plain messed up, and I owe it to myself and my family to face facts and concentrate on making my world -- my family's home, and schools, and neighborhood -- a haven from the world and the even worse place it's headed."

But Advent reminds us that this way of looking at the world is missing a crucial piece -- actually, several crucial pieces -- of the picture:

God made this world. God loves this world. And God is redeeming this world. The universe arcs toward the peace, joy, love, and wholeness in and for which it was made.

All of that scary stuff we've been reading about fire and disaster and fear over the last few weeks isn't there to suggest that this is how the world ends; it is there to let us know even when we are surrounded by fire and disaster and fear that God is there with us -- suffering with us, yes, and also working among us to bring an end to suffering:

See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
(Revelation 21:3-5)

What does it look like when we have taken in this vision of where the world -- God's world -- is headed? What happens in our history when we write and live it in the context of God's history? It looks like this:

A young girl -- no more than fourteen, it's almost certain -- is making her way alone on a journey. Everyone knows that there is much to fear on these lonely roads even when traveling in a well-prepared group. These are desperate times. The rulers of Judea and Israel are desperate to consolidate their positions of power -- always tenuous, and completely dependent on the good will of Caesar, who rules the world, and that takes tributes, and building projects, and armies, and good order maintained by armies -- all of which must be paid for by someone. Taxes are high. People are desperate. Brigands seem to be everywhere.

Not that the world was ever a safe place to be for a young girl on her own.

Far from it, and especially for a pregnant girl, who ought to be at home guarding what, if anything, is left of her shame.

But not this girl. Not today. She makes her way through the hill country alone and yet unafraid. Her haste is not the haste of one running for cover; it's the rush of someone who can't wait to share the good news she knows.

She finds her cousin, who has good news of her own, and that moment of joy and hope and faith is so powerful, so far from anyone's containing it, that the children in their wombs leap for joy with the women. And they are filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with the fullness of what God is doing, wonderful beyond comprehension or description.

If there weren't so much competition for the title among so many suffering, it would have been difficult to find two people so unlikely to be hopeful to the point of being ecstatic -- the single pregnant girl traveling alone and the elderly wife of a poor country priest considered cursed by his neighbors.

And yet there it is. Hope is born -- in Advent, not in Christmas. And more than hope: power is born, power for a girl to pass joyfully and peacefully through wilderness and bands of thieves like her son would one day pass through crowds seeking to stone him (Luke 4:4-30).

As a singer, I particularly love it that Mary's passage, like Jesus' a few chapters later, is centered on a song.

Christmas is coming. It's hours away at the point when those who go to church at all for the fourth Sunday of Advent as it falls on December 24 will be hearing a sermon on these texts. Christmas is coming, and I know it's a Big Deal in its own right. But in my estimation, anyone who misses observing the fourth Sunday of Advent misses out in a big way -- misses out on the moment in Luke's gospel in which we truly see hope born as two poor women dance and sing.

It isn't Christmas, but this is Advent, and in this very moment, we see born among us the hope for which the whole world hasn't dared hope.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he had filled the hungry with good things,
and sent away the rich empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

What a moment it was when that poor girl who traveled alone burst into song! In that moment, she saw as present and lasting reality not just the miracle of her being received in her village rather than stoned (and surely this is the first miracle of Jesus' birth we celebrate), not just the miracle of a healthy child born healthy and honored even when no one -- no family, and not even an inn -- would take the family in (which is miracle enough to dance), and even beyond the miracles her son would work before his death (which were wonders that set many free).

In this moment -- THIS moment, with none gathered to celebrate and no liturgy beyond a young girl and an old woman leaping for joy with their children to be -- we hear, in the song of the prophet and leader, the single and pregnant teenager, Mary of Nazareth, the end for which the world was made.

It may seem sometimes that "Nothing Ever Happens," but we can be sure that Something is happening -- something beyond speech and remotely hinted at in prophetic song.

It is here! Hope is here. and what a life-changing, world-changing miracle that is: we hope that the mighty who dominate by force will fall to the meek whom they dismissed, the poor know plenty while the rich finally understand what it is to want and need, and the world -- broken, mixed-up, violent, world that sets up gulfs between us and between us and God so vast that it's hard to imagine even angels could cross them -- is made whole at last.

I will celebrate the wonders of Christmas when it comes. But God, please help me to take in the wonder of Mary's vision and Elizabeth's so I can sing and dance with them in what they see and know. Let me do that now, in this moment, and in every moment.

My soul rejoices in anticipation I can feel in my body.

Thanks be to God!

December 20, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Current Events, Eschatology, Luke, Power/Empowerment, Prophets, Redemption, Revelation, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

Luke 3:7-18 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday's gospel is in many respects about conversion -- who needs it, what it looks like, and why do it -- and what it meant to John the Baptizer. It's what John was best known for. His nickname of "the Baptizer" came from a remarkable idea he had: namely, that everyone needs to be baptized.

It wasn't at all remarkable that he baptized people; most Jewish movements did. Baptism was one of the things that a person had to undergo to convert to Judaism. What was wild in John's ministry was that he said that Jews were just as much in need of his baptism as anyone else would be. That's what he was teaching when he said, "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham," and it's got a number of potentially radical implications.

The first is that bloodlines have absolutely no relevance in God's mission. God is not going to be confined by our boundaries between one family and another or one nation and another, however important we might think they are. This is not the order of the world as we've run it when we've managed to talk ourselves into thinking we're in charge, and it challenges us to re-imagine what the world looks like as God's work among us is realized.

Take a look, for example, at this report from Oxfam on how corporations from the world's wealthiest nations are leveraging their power in their home countries to negotiate international trade agreements that are even more to their advantage, putting farmers, fishers, and others in poorer countries out of business. Consider for a moment how the wealth of the three richest FAMILIES in the world exceeds the gross domestic product of the poorest 48 COUNTRIES in the world. We have ordered the world such that accidents of birth -- in which country or which family a child is born -- often determine whether that child will live to see adulthood. Do we think that our country, our family is so much more highly esteemed in God's eyes than others' are? Or are we willing to "bear fruits worthy of repentance"? God doesn't want our liberal guilt or our good intentions; God wants us to love the world's children as we love our own children.

That will require us to make a choice, and that's the second point I take from John's teaching on conversion. I believe that Christian Baptism does indeed seal and mark a person as Christ's own forever. That doesn't lessen the truth that we are called to a kind of conversion, to a metanoia or repentance, that is a personal choice. We can choose whether to identify Jesus as Lord of our lives, and how we choose to live testifies to what choice we have made on that point. You can choose to Baptize your children, but you can't make the choice for them to follow Christ.

Up to this last point, what I've said about the implications of John's teaching lines of well with what Jesus taught. But Jesus and John didn't agree on everything, or we wouldn't see what we do in Luke 7:18-35, in which messengers from John the Baptizer go to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus is doing enough of what John expected from the coming "mighty one" for John not to have completely abandoned hope in him, but his behavior is raising enough questions that John feels the need to send messengers to ask them.

This Sunday's gospel tells us what John is expecting that Jesus isn't doing. John says that the coming mighty one will baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire," a phrase that we often gloss over, but is worth paying closer attention to. In the Baptizer's usage, "the Holy Spirit and fire" are not two ways of saying the same thing or an extended reference to what will happen at Pentecost.

We can tell that from the rest of what the Baptizer says about the coming one: his "winnowing shovel is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Your translation probably says (as the NRSV does) that it's a "winnowing fork," but this is not supportable; as Robert L. Webb points out, the Greek word is ptuon, which always refers to the winnowing shovel, not the fork.

This actually makes a significant difference in how we read the Baptizer's expectations. A winnowing fork is used to separate the wheat from the chaff. A winnowing shovel is what you use after someone else has done their work with the fork and the wheat and chaff are already separated to do what John says the coming one will do: "gather the wheat into his granary," while "the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Jesus is only fulfilling half of what John says the mighty one coming would do: he's baptizing with the Holy Spirit and gathering people for healing, good news, and blessing, but the fire to destroy the wicked is nowhere to be seen.

John the Baptizer calls everyone to conversion so they may avoid destruction when the name-taking and butt-kicking starts. Jesus' response of "Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me" (Luke 7:23) to the Baptizer's pleas to bring on the fire of judgment against the wicked challenges John himself to a kind of conversion. In Jesus' ministry, John is invited to rejoice at what God is doing in the world, and to let go of what God is not doing, to release his preconceptions and take in the reality of God's presence and work.

How the Baptizer responded to that invitation isn't recorded. At least some of his followers remained disappointed in Jesus and attached to the Baptizer's idea that God's mighty one wasn't going to issue any more invitations to conversion, but would simply pour out God's blessings on the righteous and rain destruction on the wicked. Movements following the Baptizer and proclaiming such immanent judgment continued for centuries after his death, suggesting that John received Jesus' reply with sadness not unlike that of the rich ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The more we have, the harder it is to give it up, and John the Baptizer had a vast store of hope poured into his expectations of the coming one. He'd sacrificed so much already -- the comforts of home and family, his freedom, and soon his life -- it may be that sacrificing his expectations was one last sacrifice he couldn't make.

Jesus seemed to anticipate that as he said that while "among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God" -- including a prostitutes or tax collector who had received John's Baptism -- is greater than he" (Luke 7:28). And even in saying that, Jesus' ministry issues an invitation in profound continuity with the one John issued to all those who would hear -- an invitation to repentance and conversion.

We need to hear that invitation. It isn't about getting in to God's good graces or avoiding God's judgment -- in Jesus' ministry, God is already extending grace and suspending judgment before we ask. It's about living into the fullness of that grace. We are invited to make our decision to follow Jesus, and that invitation comes not just once for a lifetime but in every moment we live. Jesus is born anew among us whenever two or three gather in his name. Jesus is at work among us wherever the poor, the sick, and the marginalized are received and find healing and power for new life. And when we keep our eyes, ears, mind, and heart open to receive God's good news, we see it finding flesh in our world in places and in ways as surprising and challenging as they are joyous.

Let's not begin to talk to ourselves about our impressive spiritual pedigree when the very one for whom our ancestors longed and hoped is coming again among us. Let's not presume to draw limits around what God can accomplish and with whom. Let's not measure God's good news of peace according to our own preconceptions when the most certain word we have of it is that it "surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). Our conversion didn't end with Baptism; that's just where it began, and it ends only where God's love for us does. In other words, it doesn't end. Expect God's coming; expect the unexpected!

And thanks be to God!

December 14, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Baptism, Christian Formation, Conversion, Discipleship, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Philippians, Prophets, Repentance, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Malachi 3:1-4 - link to NRSV text
Canticle 16 (Song of Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79) - link to BCP text
Luke 3:1-6
- link to NRSV text

How powerful do you think God is, really? Most Christians on some level think the correct answer is "God is omnipotent," and will tell you so if you ask. But a lot of our behavior suggests that we believe something far from that.

I'm thinking of when my brother died, and my family was warned sternly by a number of well-meaning people that if his body were cremated (as he'd wanted), God wouldn't be able to raise him when the eschaton arrived. In my view, if we're talking about raising people from the dead, we're already talking about the realm of impossible by human standards and activity, but all things being possible with God, and I find it hard to imagine that God is wringing hands and saying, "Shoot -- I really wanted to raise that person, but what can I do? The body's been cremated. I'm only God, after all ..."

Or how often do we behave as though the God who made the world can be chased out of a place or situation entirely by the simplest human action -- one unkind thought or impure act, one misstep from a human being, and God suddenly loses power to speak and to redeem?

I've seen people in anguish because they were praying for someone's healing and they believe that only if they can get it right -- if only they could really believe God would heal, if only they hadn't secretly harbored resentment toward the person for whom they were praying, if only they could find the right words, make the right sacrifice, and live in the right way -- then, and only then, can God act. Some go so far as to say that as long as there's anyone who isn't "getting it right," God can't redeem, and therefore that God will at some point have to get rid of those who are "getting it wrong." Views of how much God can redeem and how we should then respond to God's redeeming work on earth varies even within the bible, and views in first-century Palestine ranged even more widely.

The community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, certainly saw God as gracious. At the same time, there were plenty of reasons in their cultural memory to be pessimistic. The community most likely came into being in the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt, in which Jewish fighters were able to triumph over foreign oppressors and cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem that the Seleucid King Antiochus IV had defiled by sacrificing a sow on the altar. The presence of a tiny amount of oil left in the Temple that nonetheless gave light for eight days (long enough to prepare new consecrated oil) is celebrated in the holiday of Hanukkah. Hurrah! Too bad the victors (the Hasmoneans) then went on to crucify by the hundreds fellow Jews they saw as their enemies. Furthermore, the Dead Sea community was none too pleased that the Hasmoneans placed themselves as both king and high priest of Israel -- despite that kings were supposed to be of the line of David and high priests of the line of Zadok, while the Hasmoneans were of neither line. That was just the start of their catalog of disappointments -- a catalog that would make something like Episcopal Bishop John-David Schofield's recent catalog of grievances against the church from which his episcopal orders come look like a song of joy. So this community crafted an identity for itself as a voice preparing a way for God in the wilderness (a la Isaiah 40, which can just as reasonably be interpreted as meaning that the way of the Lord being prepared is in the wilderness as that the wilderness is where the voice is crying; there's no punctuation in the biblical text), keeping pure and living apart from the corruption around them while they waited for God to destroy it.

I'd call that a pretty pessimistic view: the vast majority of people in the world, even people who worship the God of Israel, are "sons of darkness" who should be avoided if at all possible, and who will be destroyed when God brings an end to this chapter of history.

John the Baptizer, whom we meet in Luke 3, is not as pessimistic as that. There's no grammatical clue in the Greek about the Baptizer's interpretation of Isaiah 40, and whether it's about a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord somewhere (possibly somewhere else) or about a voice crying that the way of the Lord is being prepared in the wilderness, but his behavior (if the reports of the canonical gospels are any indication, and I see no reason to doubt them on this point) says enough about it. John goes to the wilderness and cries out, but he bases himself within a day hike of Jerusalem, and he seems to invite all comers to be baptized. Especially if Luke's testimony about him in the rest of chapter 3 is a good summary of things he taught (a point which is disputed, to be fair), he did not on the whole suggest that people ought to leave Jerusalem and set up camp in the wilderness to stay. John baptized them with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, treating Jew and Gentile alike as being in need of conversion, and sending them back to their homes and their work. But he talked of a mighty one to come, using language often used of God rather than any human agent, who would destroy the wicked with fire and baptize those who had received John's baptism with a new baptism of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16 -- more on this next week).

So when God's messenger comes to prepare God's way in the world, where do you think that happens? Who do you think can be part of it? When we say that God is "like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap," as our reading for this week from Malachi says, do we see that as as meaning that God will destroy the people who don't "get it right"? When we say God is coming to redeem, what do we mean? Does anything God made have to be destroyed to complete God's redemption?

Jesus takes an approach that differs markedly from that of John the Baptizer, and even more so from what we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Matthew and Luke put Jesus in the desert for a period toward the beginning of his ministry, where he meets and is baptized by John, but Jesus doesn't stay there. His primary way of ministering doesn't remove himself from the population he's trying to reach and invite them to come to him; rather, it seems more often to go to the villages and towns where the people are, and more often than not, it includes a call to follow him.

What has to change before you meet Jesus? Nothing. He even seems to be completely indiscriminate regarding with whom he'll break bread. God's redeeming work through Jesus can start exactly where you are, and there's no need to try to get it all together and make sure that you're "getting it right" before meeting him. That's a very good thing indeed from my perspective, since I suspect I wouldn't have gotten very far in such an enterprise had I tried to accomplish it without God. And why on earth would I want to? After meeting Jesus, I chose to journey with Jesus, and I can say that for me life is far more joyful, peaceful, and abundant that way. And that was also a huge change. Nothing has to change for us to meet Jesus, for us to start experiencing God's redeeming work. As we experience and engage that work, everything changes: us, our relationships, our priorities, and our world.

Why is that important? In my view, saying that any human action is a necessary precondition of God's redemption puts God in a very small box. Of course we make decisions all the time that hurt or help ourselves and others. Of course our actions are important, and we're all called to a mature walk with Christ in which we're seeking to participate as fully as possible in God's mission. But is God really so powerless as to be finally frustrated in God's purposes because of my mistakes? I doubt it. let me put it this way, in a sentence that y'all have heard from me before:

I don't believe in perfection; I believe in redemption.

God is not sitting around somewhere waiting breathless for us to get everything right so redemption can be made possible. God cannot be shut out of a place by human action. That picture suggests that it's human beings who are really in charge and human sin has the final word that can bind even God. I don't believe that for an instant. I'm with the psalmist:

Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven you are there;
if I make the grave me bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and swell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,"
Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.
(Psalm 139:6-11, BCP)

I believe that God's power to redeem is such that no human misstep or even deliberate human wickedness can have the final word. And like John the Baptizer, Jesus of Nazareth showed what he thought about God's redemption of the world and what needs to happen for us to engage it by how he lived. He showed us just how much he was willing to stake on that, and how much human hatred and destructiveness he could forgive in the way he died. And the God who created and loves the world showed just how powerful God's redemption is, and how far from the final word human destructiveness is: God raised Jesus to life. Even now Jesus is at work among us. And when we confess that Jesus, whom the power of Rome crucified and the power of God raised to unending life, has been appointed by God as the one through whom "every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth," we are confessing also the end for which we were made and which Jesus invites us in each moment, however out of reach we may feel we are:

And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Thanks be to God!

December 7, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Eschatology, Evangelism, Luke, Malachi, Prophets, Redemption, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)