Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What can we say December 8? Advent 2

   Check out my general blog, “God Became Small: Preaching Advent,” which reflects on the season and also has a load of illustrative material that might fit in any of the four Sundays. For my tastes, the Advent readings start a bit slowly. So John the Baptist? I’d just as soon have him in Advent 1! But we’re fine.

   Isaiah 11:1-10 is properly Advent-ish, prophetic, yet feeling Christmas-y enough! Just the animals are interesting: Isaiah’s vision of a fulfilled, holy future involves not just the people but lambs, leopards, lions, even asps. I love the way C.S. Lewis, in his allegorically-minded children’s books like The Lion, Witch & the Wardrobe, engages creatures like beavers and lions. God’s purposes are for more than people. It’s all of creation God comes to redeem, symbolically if unwittingly captured in manger scenes with cattle and lambs (and lobsters, if you’re into Love Actually).

   Even Isaiah’s way of speaking of the king, the coming king, the ultimate king – as a shoot, a branch? Nature imagery? And originally heard and copied by people who lived with shoots and branches, who worked the earth to survive.

   Can’t the preacher appeal to everyone’s (not matter their political/ideological inclination) craving for a leader who is wise, who fears the Lord, whose knowledge is constructive?

   And don’t neglect the Hebrew nuance of “with righteousness he shall judge the poor.” Here, "judge" is the same root as mishpat, that marvelous Hebrew word meaning not that the good are rewarded and the bad punished, but justice as in the society where the neediest, the most marginalized are cared for. That’s what God’s king, the ideal king, labors for – and it’s the dream at each new king’s coronation (which must have been the original function of Isaiah 11).

   Romans 15:4-13 conveys to us basic admonitions we’re no good at: Welcome one another (which we do just fine if we know one another, like one another, and think alike!), and Live in harmony (again, easy if we share political ideology – but weirdly daunting, as we share the only thing that matters, being created by God, saved by Christ, and set into a unified Church by the Spirit!).

   I think of the hymn, “Help Us Accept Each Other” – and also Paul Tillich’s famous sermon, “You Are Accepted.”  --- In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; it changes guilt into confidence and courage. There is something triumphant in the word grace: in spite of the abounding of sin grace abounds much more… Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted! If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

   How amazing is it that verse 9 suggests that we glorify God – why? “For his mercy.” Indeed. Pope Francis proclaimed a “year of mercy.” Every year should be the year of mercy. It’s the only way for Christians to be, to respond to God, to think about God – and the source of joy. Ever notice how judgmental, condemning people never smile and laugh?

   Yet we attend to N.T. Wright’s thought: “We should not play down the political significance of this passage. The present disunity of the worldwide church has multiplied precisely in the historical period when “religion” has been carefully separated off from “politics” and kept in a sealed upper chamber where it cannot interfere with real life. Churches have often gone along with this… But the price of this freedom is that it leaves Caesar enthroned… A church that acquiesces in its own marginalization is never likely to comment on or engage with ruling powers. A church that all too obviously embodies the social, ethnic, cultural and political divisions of its surrounding world is no real challenge to the Caesars of this world.”

   Paul’s plea for “a common mind”: the Greek homathumadon occurs frequently in Acts 2-4 – meaning literally to be “of one mouth.” How do we, in such a divided culture, speak of one mouth? How do we, in such divided denominations like United Methodism, adhere to our Lord’s way to “speak of one mouth”?

    Ben Witherington notices a parallel is what André Trocmé achieved as the Huguenot pastor in Le Chambon in Frances – refusing to ostracize the Jews: “We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.” Le Chambon proved to be the safest place in Europe for Jews during World War II. A small village of 3,000 saved more than 5,000 Jewish refugees. Is my city, my town, my church, the safest place – in my county? My state? My country?

    And you have to love Witherington’s summary statement: “Graciously, God’s commitment to risk-taking, costly love transcended the otherness between Creator and created as he set about restoring the relational nature of creation itself… God is essentially hospitable, welcoming all who are willing to come.”

   Matthew 3:1-12. How Advent-ish is this? John the Baptist!! Years ago, I heard a great sermon suggesting you never see John the Baptist on any Christmas cards – and yet he’s the pivotal way in to all the Bible’s Christmas stories! A Church member heard me say this and devised for me history’s first (only?) John the Baptist Christmas Card!  It really is a season of “confessing sins” (a superlatively Advent-ish thing to do). Maybe we’d prefer not to be dubbed “You brood of vipers!” – but is this the case? “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” – and “Do not presume…” How much presumption is there in the Christian religion – and especially at Christmas!
   I always wonder if Shel Silverstein’s children’s book might, oddly, help us think about the ax being at the root of the tree. Do you know The Giving Tree (which works well at Christmas with a cut tree in your house, right?)? The tree provides shade and apples to a young boy, until he grows up and drifts away – only to return in need of wood for a house, then wood for a boat to go far away, and then for simply a stump on which to sit: a hard journey indeed – for the boy and for the tree!

  Trees amaze. Richard Powers's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory, is about nine quirky misfits who eventually unite to protect trees - which are enormously important in the environment and the economy! 
J.R.R. Tolkien loved trees as a child, and as he wrote The Lord of the Rings, especially with his Ents who spoke slowly "because anything worth saying was worth saying slowly, and anything worth hearing was worth hearing slowly." His grief was heightened by the ravaging of forests for the big ironworks and war munition manufacturing in Birmingham - mirrored in Isengard, Saruman's domain and factory of evil.

  Trees matter in Scripture - in today's readings, in Psalm 1 ("like a tree planted by the water"), in Jesus' apprenticeship with is dad as a woodworker, and even in the cross itself (Nikos Kazantzakis, in The Last Temptation of Christ, envisioned Jesus being forced to craft crosses for the Romans!).

   After John’s fuming is done, Luke reports that “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” We sure believe in preaching as Good News – but clearly, for John the Baptist and Luke, the “good news” isn’t something sunny, positive, cheerful, or happy. It’s about vipers and axes, giving away one coat if you have two (so isn’t a closet purge in order?).
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 You might appreciate my little Advent book, Why This Jubilee? - with its many preachable stories and images from the things we sing about Bethlehem, Mary, shepherds, magi and the coming Christ child.

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