Saturday, December 7, 2013

Reflections for the Second Sunday of Advent

There is an extremely common Christian misperception that has been repeated over and over again so many times that people sometimes assume it must be true. In fact, when a second-century theologian named Marcion began saying it, the Church rightly declared him to be a heretic, which is simply to say he was wrong. That word - heretic - is a loaded one I know. (So, too, orthodoxy.) But that is another post, for another time...

The point is not that heretics ought to be killed but that heretics shouldn't claim their ideas are "Christian." In the case of Marcion, the Church got it right, but the ideas didn't go away. Simply put: Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was a god of judgment and the God of the New Testament was a god of mercy. If he had had his way, we would not claim the Old Testament to be “the Word of the Lord.” The Christian Bible would have ended up as Luke and some Pauline letters. Unfortunately, if you did a poll in my denomination on how often the Old Testament reading is preached on in it's own right (not as prelude to the Gospel but truly as "the Word of the Lord / Thanks be to God!") I think you'd find that we act as if Marcion got it right. (Most congregations still stand up and process the gospel book out to further make the point that this is the time to start paying attention because this is what the sermon is going to be on!) 

Yet the core testimony of Israel, in what Christians usually call the Old Testament, is that YHWH is the maker of heaven and earth and that creation is good; and that very same God is a God of steadfast love and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. These twin claims are repeated over and over again, because over and over again it is Israel’s experience that that when they fall short of the mark and fail to hold up their end of the bargain, God responds with amazing grace.

So let me be clear: I’m not saying that there is no violence and judgment in the Old Testament or that God is not sometimes portrayed anthropomorphically as getting impatient, hurt, and even angry. I think we do drive God to vertigo sometimes. What I am saying is that these things are in the New Testament as well, and the reason for that is that both Testaments are not about a fantasy world, but real life. And real life is messy and our relationship with the Divine is, well...complicated.  

Still, the core testimony of both Old and New Testaments is of one God who is steadfast and merciful: the one whom Israel called Creator of heaven and earth and that Jesus called Abba. The Nicene Creed gets this right, of course, and sets the contours of orthodoxy over and against our Marcionite tendencies: We believe in one God…We believe that the Abba (the Father Almighty) is the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. Which is to simply to say that we believe the Creator we meet in Genesis 1 is the very same God who is “with the Word” in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.  

Some of us (especially those of us raised in more Protestant traditions) were taught to contrast the “law” of the Old Testament with the “grace” in the New Testament. We have some un-learning to do when we approach the Scriptures, because only in un-learning that false dichotomy do we begin to truly embrace the Old Testament in all of its richness. After all, what we call the Old Testament was the only Bible that Mary and Joseph and Jesus ever knew. Jesus learned to call God “Abba” from the Law and the Prophets, and the Writings. They found grace and comfort and strength there in the Psalms: the Lord is my shepherd...So it does us some good every now and again to be reminded that Jesus did not carry around a leather-bound King James Bible that had all of his lines written out in red. (And that he did not have the 1928 Prayerbook in the other hand!)

All of Holy Scripture was written for our learning, and both Testaments are meant to point us to the living Word—to Jesus the Christ.  The Bible is one drama, told in two acts. 

Advent is as good a time to remember this as any, because in Advent we seem to get readings intended to invert our Marcionite tendencies. For two weeks in a row now, we have heard extraordinarily “good news” from the prophet Isaiah (which some Christian Biblical scholars have nicknamed “the fifth gospel”) and, as it happens, both weeks the gospel readings have had a much sharper edge to them: winnowing forks and axes and judgment and wrath to come. If we insist on "grace" verses "judgment" then I ask: where is the grace? Where is the judgment? Now a larger point is that these are two sides to one coin but my point related to the two testaments is that to hold onto our Marcionite tendencies we very often deny huge parts of both testaments to make it work. And the truth is, it doesn't work. 

The vision given to the prophets, including Isaiah, is of God’s shalom: of a peace that passes all understanding. It’s not just an inward spiritual peace, but a yearning for the restoration of all creation and a healing of the nations. Last week we heard in the second chapter of Isaiah about how swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. This language inspires hope—not passive, wishful thinking but hope that unleashes energy that allows us to roll up our sleeves and to do the work God has given us to do. This week we hear once again from Isaiah, this time from the eleventh chapter. Now he speaks of the peaceable kingdom, of predators and prey living together in shalom, of something that sounds a lot like a restoration of the Garden of Eden, God's original creative intent. 

So if you want to look for differences between the two Testaments, that difference is not about the nature of God. God is one. 

But there is an important difference worth noting and it has to do with verb tenses. In the larger sense, it has to do with how we tell time. Isaiah lived in very difficult times: a time of war and rumors of war. In the eleventh chapter, he is looking toward the dawn of a new day. But he sees that future on the distant horizon. He looks to a day when the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the leopard with the kid. But all of his verbs are future tense, and given the realities of his day that is understandable. That day does not seem like it will be anytime soon:

  • A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow;
  • …by righteousness he shall judge the poor;
  • …the wolf shall live with the lamb;
  • …the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
  • …a little child shall lead them;  
  • …they shall not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain…

Someday, but not yet. It was the same with last weekend’s reading from Isaiah: “in days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established…” In those days, people will study war no more. (Isaiah 2:1-5) Someday; but not yet.  In the meantime, we live in the “real” world that seems bent on destroying itself, sometimes even in the name of God. In the meantime there is Realpolitik –  in the China Sea, in the Middle East, in Washington, DC.   

Notice, however, what happens when John the Baptist arrives on the scene in the New Testament: he proclaims that a new day is about to dawn. John declares that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He insists that “the time is at hand.” No longer is it a distant future. There is a sense of urgency in John’s message, because the time is Now. 

And then notice what happens when Jesus comes on the scene. All the verbs become present tense:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, for theirs IS the kingdom of heaven; (Matthew 5:1-12)
  • When Jesus walks into the synagogue one Sabbath day to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, about good news being brought to the poor and release to the captives, about recovery of sight to the blind and the oppressed going free his commentary is simple: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)
  • St. Paul picks up this same theme in his letter to the Church in Corinth: he also quotes from Isaiah and then says, “NOW is the acceptable time; NOW is the day of salvation.” (II Corinthians 6:2)
What has happened? One might be tempted to think that the world somehow changed overnight when Jesus stepped on the world stage, that in first-century Rome all of a sudden there was a regime change and no more chariots were built; instead there was a lasting peace dividend and swords were beaten into plowshares. But of course we know better than that. The world was probably not much better or worse in the time of Jesus than it was in the time of Isaiah, and probably not much better or worse today than it was in either of those two times. 

So it’s tempting to make it all spiritual: since we can’t ever have peace on earth, we can have it in our hearts. Since we can’t have true community on earth, at least someday we’ll all die and go to heaven. But this, too, is in the spirit of Marcion. This too, discounts the entire witness of the Old Testament; not to mention the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: thy Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven. God’s shalom is cosmic and material; not merely spiritual.

So what then? Jesus teaches us to live today as if the Kingdom of God is already here. To live today into our calling as Baptized people by becoming  salt and light and yeast that not only bear witness to the world but that begin to transform the world by making it saltier, lighter, and yeastier. We are called to become the change we yearn to see, to become the change that God yearns to see. As we light that second candle for peace, the very next words on our lips need to be: “Lord make us instruments of your peace…”  

To be the Church means to be part of a community that dares to live against the grain, right now, on this December day in 2013. Not someday but now. There in an urgency of Now. In the midst of warring madness we ask God not only to cure that fever, but for the strength and courage to embrace our calling to make peace wherever we are. Not someday, but right Now.  

All of us who gather at tables throughout the week - around coffee tables, boardroom tables, vestry tables, kitchen tables, chemistry lab tables - at all of those tables we can postpone peacemaking until someday, or we can embrace it Now. If we mean to follow Christ, then we will do it Now. 

We begin the long journey as any long journey begins: with small steps. We can move ourselves and others away from fear by building trust. We can begin to live more peacefully now as we faithfully use and claim our power, not as lions who eat lambs, but as people ready to live and act as servant-ministers. We cannot afford to delay until someday; because it is this day that the Lord has made and it is on this day that God means for us to follow Jesus, and it is on this day that we are called to love God and neighbor.

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