Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Sunday in Advent 2009: The Voice in the Wilderness



Zephaniah 3:14-20
3:14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

3:15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

3:16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

3:17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing

3:18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

3:19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

3:20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:2-6
12:2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

12:3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

12:4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.

12:5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.

12:6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Philippians 4:4-7
4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

4:5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

4:6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Luke 3:7-18
3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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.

3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

3:10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"

3:11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"

3:13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

3:14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:17 His winnowing fork 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."

3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


"And the crowds asked him, 'What then should we do?' In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, 'Teacher, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.'"

I should tell you this is one of my favorite passages, because it gives me Biblical warrant to get all self-righteous on everybody else about how they should behave, when I don't do any of it myself, but I don't have to, because I can just quote John the Baptist. I share food with my friends at Christmas, but I don't go out on the street and give it away to people with no food. I have at least four winter coats in my closet, in a climate where I hardly need one more than a few times a year, but I haven't so much as given any of them away to a resale shop. I don't extort money from anyone, but I'm about as satisfied with my wages as the next guy, which is to say: not at all.

But enough about me: let's talk about you.

I don't get off the hook that easily, do I?

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
I love Isaiah's words but, like most of us, I'm waiting for that day to do the rejoicing. I'm waiting, in fact, for someone else to do the rejoicing for me. I'm waiting for something to make me rejoice. I'm waiting to trust and not be afraid because the last few years especially have been hard ones for someone who thought he'd be a laborer in the vineyard. But enough about me; let's talk about you.

Let's talk about the covenant between me and you. It's what John is talking about. It's all that John is talking about. Jesus will ask, later: "Why did you go into the wilderness? To see a reed bending in the wind?" No; they went to hear about the requirements of the covenant, to find out how they should live. And John told them. Imagine the energy of the man, that people would go out to the wilderness to find him, and would listen, and even Roman soldiers would ask what they should do because they wanted to respond to him. And John didn't give them any doctrinal answer at all. He gave them the answer of St. Nicholas. He gave them the answers of Basil and Ambrose, four centuries later. He gave them the answers of Jesus, of whom he was the herald. Your neighbor is anyone who needs what you have, and you can spare. Your sister or brother is anyone you can help. He gave them the answer of Jacob Marley, 18 centuries later: "Mankind is your business!"

This is where that chain begins. With this energetic prophet in the wilderness drawing people out to see him because what he says, who he is, what he gives or demands or presents, draws them like honey draws flies, like a Christmas tree draws presents, like Christmas carols draw our memories. The covenant between us is not law or culture or tradition. It is not a creature of law, like a contract, or even comparable to a contract. It is not social or even moral or ethical. It simply is. And the coming wrath is not the terrible judgment of a vengeful God, fed up with creatures who ignore and disobey His Almighty Will: it is the consequence of our own actions and inactions and unrighteousness. It is the results of our own mistakes. What then should we do? Take better care of each other.

John never says "Fear God, and keep God's commandments," though that would be wise, and in keeping with the priestly traditions of his father. He doesn't even try to convert the Roman soldiers to Judaism. They ask what to do, he tells them. It applies to all people. The vision here is the one from Isaiah, from Micah, from the prophets: that all the people would come to the place where God dwells, because there would be justice and righteousness for all. There, the fortunes would be restored, and it would be as on the day of a festival. And from what? The consequences of our actions. The creation of the covenant by giving our second one to one who has none, or giving our food to those who are hungry, and treating everyone fairly and equally.

But enough about you; let's talk about me.

When we put this in terms of "me," then it's all about personal satisfaction. If you put this in terms of a single person, it's all about the limitations and the boundaries and the limits and how much I can, or cannot, do. It's all about my ability to alleviate the suffering of the poor, or to warm a heart, or to bring a smile, or to please a child. Christmas is a sad season for the poor, and when it's all about me, it's up to me to make Christmas happier for someone who is poor, to share my abundance with them. And if that doesn't work, well...what then?

But if Christmas is about us. and the Christchild in our midst, the little baby in the stable the angels invite us to come and visit, how does that make things different? If Christmas is about you, and you, and not about me, how does that change my expectations? And if it is for you and you and even you, not about gifts and material things, but about what you need, about what every person needs, how does that change the season?

If we hear the voice crying in the wilderness, what do we hear it saying? And if we hear what the voice is saying, what does it mean to us? To carry on as we have always done, and be blessed in whatever we were doing? Or to do something completely different? To come to the wilderness, where the shepherds are, where the prophets are, where the angels sing? To come back to the city, and see the child, and realize: enough about me, let's think about you. And if we all did that?

What then?

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