Do you remember that day when we were coming home from school, cutting through the yards down behind the bus stop and all of a sudden Mrs. Johnson came flying out of the house yelling at us because she was sure that we had vandalized her vegetable garden? I mean to say, she lit into us that day. And then, about a block on further, we ran into Kenny and Joe, who were laughing so hard because they were the ones who had smashed her pumpkins, and we got blamed for it. Do you remember how scared we were to go home that day, afraid that she’d already told our parents and we’d get in trouble?
Do you remember you great it was the next day when your big brother, Carl, beat the living daylights out of Kenny and Joe? Wow. I still owe Carl for that one. That was great.
Do you remember last July when you got that speeding ticket? As I recall, you were rushing around trying to get out of a meeting at work in order to get home in time for your daughter’s softball game – I think it was the championships or something like that. They caught you red-handed going 50 in a 35 zone. I remember how you tried to plead your case, but that cop was not having any of it. When you told me that story, I mentioned to you that my neighbor was a police officer and we made a few calls and by the time you got to court, you didn’t have any points or a fine. That was sweet, wasn’t it?
Do you remember the time a bunch of self-righteous arrogant jerks showed up at the church retreat, but the speaker – I think his name was John the Baptist – really let them have it? I mean, those guys were totally out of line. They were so full of themselves, and John – BAM – he just let them have it. It was just delightful to watch when they got what was coming to them!
Don’t you love it when you get to witness power being used to correct an obvious wrong? We hate to see anyone victimized, and it seems so good when a poorly-behaving person “gets what’s coming to him”. Next time you log onto Youtube, just type in “Bully gets owned” – you’ll see more than 70,000 hits. When the “bad guy” finally gets paid back, well, it’s just delicious.
So delicious, in fact, that sometimes we fail to see just who the bad guy is and how the power is directed and what the “fix” could be.
Our Gospel reading for today shows us a group of religious leaders from the first century who knew all the prophecies. They knew that the Messiah was coming, and that he would bring truth and justice. They knew that God’s anointed one would establish God’s intentions in a powerful fashion. Yet too often, they – and we – assumed that those intentions were directed against someone else, rather than toward our own hearts and minds.
Here’s what I mean by that: John, the son of Zechariah, has begun to preach the nearness of God’s intentions for the world. In doing so, he begins with an invitation to repentance. The word that he uses is “metanoeite”, means “change your mind” or “act like things are different”. And the crowds can hear that message. Many people can understand a part, at least, of what he says, and so they open their hearts to the transformative word and their lives are shaped and arranged and re-arranged by God’s spirit.
But the religious leaders assume that God’s word is not spoken towards them, but rather given as a tool that they can employ against someone else. In this view, the Word of God is not an invitation to consider how God is alive and active and moving in my world, calling me to be more like him each day; instead, it’s an instrument with which I am called to shape, to carve, to manipulate you into the person that I think you should be.
The church of Jesus Christ invites us to consider today’s scriptures during the season of Advent so that we might remember that the reign and rule of Christ is a gift – a gift that comes directed towards us – and so that we might remember that anyone who wants to follow Christ does so beginning with repentance. If we want to follow Christ, we have to be willing to leave the path we’re already on. Metanoeite is a word that contains within it a description of what needs to happen: if we are going to follow in that way, we’ve got to be willing to give up on this way. If I’m going to live as though I believe that that is true, then I have to be willing to consider the fact that this may be less than the truth.
Given that realization then, let me invite you to think about something that really angers you. When you look at our world, what do you see and want to scream, “this is evil!”? I know that you are aware of plenty in the world that falls short of God’s intentions as you have come to understand them: it may be racism, it may be animal abuse, it may be economic injustice, it may be abortion… Whatever the issue or concern is that has just come to your mind, let me ask you, for a moment, to not run and grab your favorite Bible verse.
This is what I’m afraid of: I’m afraid that when we confront that thing we understand to be evil that we are so overwhelmed by it that we pick up our scriptures and we start to use them to hack away at that issue, at those who see things differently, or at those who have not recognized the truth in the same way that we have. We use the Word of God as a tool to prop up our own opinions, or we behave as if God needed our support to validate his own cause.
This Advent, ask for the truth of God to come to your life. Ask the spirit of the Lord to show you the path you are on – and the path that you should be on – when it comes to your conduct and outlook on this area of life.
In Advent, we celebrate the fact that God comes near. God chooses to speak. God invites us to hear. So when it comes to consumerism and greed, or our culture’s changing views on sexuality, or the racial divides in our world, let me implore you to begin with an open heart. Where do I stand when it comes to my own greed and acquisitiveness? How do I understand the power of my own sexuality? In what ways am I shaped by the color of my skin?
I need to ask those questions in light of God’s word. I need to know where I am a creature of habit, with biases and fears and insecurities. I need to confess that I am broken in each of these areas, and more. When that happens, then I realize that the Word of God that comes is a gift to a world that is not as it should be, rather than as a threat to be used against those who are different from me.
Look at it this way: Advent points us to a story in which all of the best characters are humble and lowly and tentative. There is an unwed teen mother and her newborn baby; there is the quiet man who has been publicly shamed by the fact that his fiancée is pregnant before their marriage; there are the shepherds who have been told for their entire lives that they are insignificant outcasts. The backdrop for the entire narrative is a backwater country that has been filled with an occupying army and is seething with resentment and oppression. God’s word, in this case, does not come in order to break people. No, in fact the opposite is true: God’s word comes to those who are already broken.
This month, I invite you to join me in asking God to mold our hearts so that we might first hear his word and then shape our lives to it before we go out and pound other people with it. I’m not suggesting that we abandon principles or act as if every proposition is equally valid…but I am suggesting that if we begin the day secure in our own success and confident because of our correctness, then when we look to scripture we’ll be tempted to use it as a weapon, rather than receive it as a gift.
We do that, don’t we? We hold onto our favorite Bible verses and we just let other people have it. Most of us, at least in this room, are probably too polite to do that to strangers. We don’t run down to the bus stop or the Walmart and start beating up people with the Bible. But when it comes to one of those issues that we care about, and we think that we’re going to get into a discussion with someone else here, well, too many Christians are tempted to want to fill our bag with favorite scriptures as if we were collecting rocks to throw at an enemy.
This morning I was struck by the fact that John called the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers. Serpents that are full of poison that can kill. And that image collided with Isaiah’s prophecy of children who play near the homes of venomous snakes. And I was horrified to connect the dots in my head and realize that in many ways, our own religious practice can be toxic to our children. I was horrified to think that in many ways, church can be a place where children are abused in one way or another. The news has been overly full in recent years of accounts wherein some children have suffered physical abuse. But that’s not the only poison in the church, is it? If we make the church a place where we are right and they are wrong; where God might love everyone but we’re clearly his favorites; where hate is taught as a theological virtue…then we are no better than the religious leaders who came out to challenge John.
Each Advent, we deck out the sanctuary in purple and blue not only because those are the colors of royalty, but because those are the colors for reflection and confession. The Kingdom of heaven is near. Thanks be to God for that. How can we shape our hearts and our lives so that we might be appropriate recipients of and ambassadors for that Kingdom where the wolf and the lamb lie down together, and where the poison has no power over the child?
Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near. Change your mind. Act like things are already different.
We need you so desperately, O God:
we need to accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect.
Too often, we choose flickering candles and bulbs over your true light:
we choose to hide who we truly are;
both the sins that shame us,
and the potential that frightens us.
Too often, we choose quick fixes over your true justice:
we choose to be right rather than righteous,
in our countries, our communities, and our covenants.
Too often, we choose cheap thrills over your true joy:
we choose to fill our lives with what we can own or ingest,
we choose safety over surprise.
Too often, we choose our schemes over your plan:
we reject leaps of faith in favor of small, secure steps,
we reject selfless giving in favor of our own fiscal prudence.
We need you so desperately, O God.
We need your light, your justice, your joy, your plan.
Hear us, forgive us, and help us accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect. Amen.