That Story Again

Featured Image is the Great Rose Window of Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, by Vada Roseberry

Sermon from The Rev. Mark R Sutherland for the Solemn Mass of the Nativity 2019

Each one of us creates or constructs individual stories to explain our experience of the world. Together as cultures, faith traditions, communities, and nations, we construct our collective stories- stories that tell us about our origins, who we presently are, and why we are here. Both as individuals and as communities our stories mold and shape our perceptions of self and the world. Our stories once brought to life, make claims upon us.

The demands of daily life distract us from an awareness of being shaped by the stories we tell. Gaining a little perspective on our stories allow the swirling snowstorm of ideas and feelings -as in a swirling snow globe to settle. Gaining perspective allows us to perceive our lives to reveal the hidden dissonances between the life actually lived and the stories we continue to tell ourselves about that life.

The Christian story is a drama in two acts. In Advent I’ve been thinking about this with a particular interest. I have found myself -at this relatively advanced stage of my spiritual journey returning with a renewed appreciation for the second act in the Christian faith drama.

By advanced, I don’t mean wise or sophisticated and certainly not proficient – all meanings that often attach to the description of something as advanced. No, what I mean it this. At the age of 64 -going on 65, I’ve been at this faith thing for a little while now. For most of this time I’ve paid scant attention to the second act of the Christian drama – beyond the inattentive repetition of liturgical formulas referring to the Parousia or the second coming of the Lord.

I mention the second act of the drama on the night when we are meant to be completely given over to the celebration of act one, because most of us have forgotten there is a second act – without which – our understanding of the first act remains partial and thus unconvincing because an incomplete story is easily dismissed.

It’s Luke who tells the best story of the birth of Jesus. It’s Francis of Assisi who populates Luke’s story of the birth of the savior with the visual props of the traditional nativity play. We now can’t think of Christmas Eve without the mental images of a ruined stable lean to, bestrewed with straw, with grazing sheep, lowing cattle, incredulous shepherd yokels, and an angel or two singing glory to God in the highest and peace among all people on earth.

As with viewing an old master depiction of the nativity, we have to keep our eyes exclusively focused on this foreground scene in order to avoid having to notice the darkness in the background. Glory to God in heaven is all well and good but the reign of peace on earth is far from having been realized. That’s why keeping the second act of the Christian drama in view is so important. With the birth of Jesus, the story has begun but it’s ending is not yet insight, so don’t be so quick to dismiss it as not true to life. As Sonny Kapoor, proprietor of the Most Exotic and Best Marigold Hotel proclaims it will be OK in the end and if things are not OK it’s because it’s not yet the end.

The Christmas hymn “It came upon the midnight clear”, witnesses that the glorious song of old may well have come upon a midnight clear but the world continues to suffer long. It laments that beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong. As we begin the third decade of the third millennium, waring human kind continues to hear not the angelic tidings of peace on earth and good will among human kind – the song the angels bring.

And so, the nativity of the babe Jesus with all its medieval farmyard trappings has become consigned by most Westerners to the realm of those once upon a time, quaint fairy stories we love to enchant our children with, and which, we adults may still love but can no longer take very seriously as a description of reality.

However, stories are all we have and that as human beings we create meaning from the stories we construct. Contrary to popular perception, meaning is not something lying around waiting to be discovered. It’s only through the construction of stories, that we bring meaning and purpose to life.

As 2019 draws towards its untidy and unsatisfactory end, it’s not the quaint manger scene that communicates meaning. It’s the story we construct from Luke’s depiction of the savior’s birth. The choice of story is always ours.

The enchanted magical realism of the Matthew and Luke stories of Jesus’ birth among angels, shepherds, and wise men may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, buried in these stories lie the tension between safety versus risk that if we listen carefully speak powerfully of our own struggles and anxieties between invulnerability or vulnerability, belonging and rejection, courage and fear.

What stories capable of changing lives might we construct together as we listen carefully in the spaces in between Luke’s descriptions?

The question is not is Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth a true depiction of events, but how are our lives enriched through allowing the priorities of this story to shape our sense of ourselves and the world around us? I believe in the power of the story of the birth of Jesus to change our lives. I believe in this story, not because I mistake it for a literal description of true events, but because to not believe in it impoverishes and limits me. My life is all the richer, my ability to weather the vicissitudes of fate strengthened, because I believe that the Creator has entered into the very structures of the creation to experience it as we do. The universe has a purpose and it is not only that God is actively engaged in bringing that purpose to its fulfilment. That we have a role in furthering this process also through what our Jewish neighbors refer to as Tikkun olam – works of social responsibility that further the divine in breaking of social justice as a sign of the repair of a broken world.

Larger stories reframe our own self-limiting life story. Faith-based stories challenge our awareness of pernicious cultural stories that lay claim on us, competing for our primary allegiance. Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from or no other ways to reframe the stories we have. Luke’s story is our story also and this -maybe is worthy of our closer consideration?

Our Christian story is a drama in two acts. In the birth of Jesus God has inaugurated messianic age in which we live. Keeping act two in mind orients us to the work of the messianic age, i.e. the remaking of a broken world despite the frustrating fact that the in breaking of justice and peace is still in the process of moving towards its final completion.

I love to paraphrase my hero poets. I’ve drawn a lot from T.S Eliot this past Advent so it’s not T.S Eliot this time, but a more contemporary voice of our age, the late John O’Donoghue:

May the stories we choose to live by – enlivening us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, breaking the dead shell of yesterdays, risking being disturbed and changed, giving us courage to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here to live and waste our hearts on fear no more.

Morning Offering

God is God and We are Not

Christmas Eve Sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs  for the First Celebration of the Nativity with Pageant 2019                


Recording over ran. Sermon length around 8 minutes

“Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

What would have happened if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men who visited Jesus? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.

It’s an oldie but a goodie as memes go, but it relies on two erroneous assumptions; first, that the birth of the Messiah was an ordinary occurrence, which it was not. As we’ve heard tonight the Gospels of Luke and Mark tell of an event foretold by prophets and marked by the cosmos—a wandering star, songs of angels, wise ones from far beyond the borders of a tiny Palestinian town. Anything but ordinary, and therefore worthy of extraordinary, if less than practical, attention.

The second and related assumption, or takeaway, is that Christmas is a time when things should go as planned. Lists made, itineraries checked, all in order and on schedule. No glitches. I ask you, when has that ever happened? We have a vision of perfection– Perfect gifts, perfect tree, perfect décor, perfect meals, perfect behavior of children and relatives—we set the bar high, perhaps because our vision is based on commercial culture, or the softened memories of Christmases past, or on the hope that we can create something we wish had been but have never been able to achieve.

But stuff always happens. The tree falls over, the kids fight, the gravy is lumpy, the Christmas cards don’t arrive on time to send them before New Year’s. And in addition to that, the ordinary challenges, crises and aggravations that can confront us any other time of the year just seem worse when they happen at Christmas. At a time when we think we should have things most under control is when things seem to go off the rails.

And that’s the point. The baby born in a stable because there was no room in the inn comes to tell us that we are not in control, as much as we would wish otherwise. A child heralded by stars and angels instead of midwives and housekeepers calls us to expect the unexpected—to make room for something hopeful, if not perfect. A Messiah in swaddling clothes invites us to see things as God sees them—in new and surprising ways.

Look at our pageant tonight. What can be better than a Gabriel with a built in silver halo to remind us that angels come in all guises? (And this one happens to be named Faith) Who better than a young person like Maya or Peyton to show us that no voice is too young (or height too short) to participate in telling the great Story of God’s relationship with Creation? And how wonderful to have a great group of grownups willing to engage playfully in intergenerational storytelling—encouraging us to see Mary and Joseph and the Magi in new ways.

Where Jesus is concerned we need to expect the unexpected, because perfect as we understand it is overrated.  In the Bible the Greek word for perfect is the same as the word for whole or complete. Which flies in the face of the idea that Christmas, or our lives at any other time, should be meeting unrealistic standards that we set for ourselves. God calls us to wholeness, which includes the whole spectrum of what life throws at us. And God invites us to remember, as we contemplate the Holy Family surrounded by shepherds and angels that God is God, and we are not.

A God who desires our wholeness rather than our perfection is a God with skin on, who became flesh and walks the journey with us. A God who desires our wholeness rather than our perfection is a God whose cradle was a feeding trough, whose parents became refugees, and who grew up to dine with tax collectors, touch lepers, defend women from misogyny, heal the sick, stand up to the powerful, and confound everyone’s expectation of what a king should be—even to his death on a cross. A God who challenges us to wholeness asks us to hold ourselves and our expectations lightly—to greet our blessings with a spirit of generosity and gratitude, and to greet our challenges with courage and the willingness to be vulnerable to God’s grace and care.

God is God, and we are not. What we are, is beloved beyond measure by the God who became one with us on that first Christmas night. May that love enfold us, support us, challenge and encourage us this Christmas and in the days to come.

Hope Is All We Have

Featured image is Hope by Ferdinand Feys

A brief recap

And so, we come to the last Sunday in Advent. In this Advent’s preaching, Linda+ and I have taken pains to paint the fuller picture of expectation – of hope – of the tensions experienced in waiting and the easy confusion we make between the act of hoping and the object of our hope.

Hoping is a verb, or as my primary school English teacher Mrs. Doake used to say, a doing word. Hoping is an action we perform and while it has in its sights a particular outcome, T.S. Eliot warned us about conflating the action of hoping with the object hoped for.

It’s a paradox. Hoping always will connect in our minds to a desired outcome, that’s how our minds work. But it’s not the realization of the outcome that matters, it’s the action of open-ended hoping that then enables God to provide the outcome God intends. For the poverty of our imaginations, the risk adverse quality of so much of our hoping – Eliot’s to hope for the wrong thing – cannot begin to comprehend the height, the length, the breadth, the depth that is in the mind of God.  

A member, over lunch this last week said to me: Gee: I was really depressed when I heard you tell us not to have hope. Hope is all I have. I was stunned. Because of course this was not what I intended to convey at all. So, to clarify. Hoping IS ALL WE HAVE. In other words, the courage to have hope, to face life every day with a hopeful attitude IS – ALL WE HAVE. Whether the object – the outcome of our hoping is realizable or not is in a way beside the point. We perform hope – and in the action of hoping, the attitude of being hopeful – the future is brought into the present where things begin to change. To paraphrase Alice Miller, a psychoanalyst and artist and another of my 20th-century heroes We [become] who we have been waiting for.

The birth of Jesus inaugurates the messianic age, but it does not bring it to completion. It is for the messiah’s return that we eagerly await with hope.

The birth of Jesus is act one in a two-act drama. In a few days we will bring all our focus to bear on this first act. While still in Advent however, we need to remind ourselves that the focus of our hope is really on the second act in the drama. The messiah has come, but this is not what we are waiting for. The birth of Jesus inaugurates the messianic age, but it does not bring it to completion. It is for the messiah’s return that we eagerly wait. The nature of his return will be to remake heaven and earth and put right all that which is presently wrong. This is the vision that shapes the action of hoping. We, in the meantime must work tirelessly for the righting of wrong as we prepare for the in-breaking of God’s justice.

Matthew’s Story

And so, we come to the last Sunday in Advent when we hear the crucial beginning to Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus. There are two birth narratives, one in Matthew, the other in Luke. The key difference between them lies not only in the details of how the event is described, but in the attitude and theological worldview of the two Evangelists – a difference that will surface again and again as each constructs his biography of Jesus.

Luke’s story focuses on Mary, her feelings and reactions. Luke describes how God speaks directly to Mary through the Archangel Gabriel who announces to her an event about to happen. Gabriel declares: do not be afraid, Mary; for you will conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The important point here is that in Luke, God has a high view of women. Gabriel comes and announces God’s intention to Mary for her to conceive in the form of an invitation. Nothing more happens until Mary accepts the invitation. Heaven and earth, in breath-taking silence wait – there’s that pesky waiting again. Heaven and earth wait with bated breath until Mary proclaims, I am the servant of the Lord, be to me, as God intends. Invitation accepted. God and Mary are partners in this enterprise.

In Matthew, the same event is quite differently described. Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant. So, the conception has already taken place and Mary seems not to have had any real choice in the matter. She has now been found out – being pregnant out of wedlock now places her in great danger from the self-righteous wrath of the patriarchy – the great men who decreed that a woman found to be in Mary’s predicament must be stoned to death at the door of her house with her Father throwing the first stone. It’s somewhat chilling to be reminded here of the Mosaic sanction for honor killing!

It’s Joseph, not Mary, who is for Matthew the key actor in this story. His is a story of primogeniture – the passing down of legitimacy through the male line. Matthew focuses on Joseph because Matthew’s concern is to refute appearances and to demonstrate Jesus’s legitimacy as a true descendant of David and therefore is the coming one long expected and predicted by the prophet Isaiah: a young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel – God is with us.  

Tradition presents Joseph as a kindly hero, a saintly and gentle man who wants to spare Mary from a fate worse than death. So, he intends to put Mary away quietly – as so many fathers of daughters found to be pregnant out of wedlock have done throughout history. Joseph is but a kindly version of the patriarchal fear of uncontrolled female sexuality; a fear it seems that we in 21st-century America we are still not emancipated from.

But for Mary there is no fate in store for her that could possibly be worse than death. No, the fate worse than death is the potential damage to Joseph’s reputation – to be disgraced and still be alive. Joseph intends to protect his reputation – that is until God intervenes.

God sends an unnamed angel, let’s call him Gabriel, for Gabriel was believed to be God’s messenger angel and Luke names him directly. Gabriel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him Mary’s child is actually God’s child – so don’t be such a klutz, just marry her! Gabriel reminds Joseph that if he has any doubt – to go back and read the prophet Isaiah.

Tradition favors Joseph for making an honest woman of Mary. Making an honest woman is an interesting term, which like the term wedlock – locking down a piece of human property tantalizes to take me in a different direction. But to stick to my theme – a better perspective might be that Joseph redeems himself by marrying Mary. He offers himself as a willing participant in God’s plan for salvation and it’s for that faithfulness that we honor him.

But Matthew can’t quite let up on the patriarchal fixation of women as sexually dangerous. Thus, he has to tell us that Joseph preserves his moral purity by refraining from consummating the marriage until this ambiguous incident is brought to completion with the birth of the child.

Our Story

God is with us in the face of the child separated at the border from her desperate parents who driven by fear of violence and death – like Joseph and Mary are only seeking the relative safety of our Egypt.

Matthew’s narrative strikes current alarm bells in our society. The prophet Isaiah named the child Emmanu-el – God is with us. God is with us in the faces of poor women having been deprived of control over their reproductive rights by holy men, or in the faces of women as the victims of male sexual predation. God is with us in the faces of the children consigned to poverty and the myriad social disadvantages that afflict many single parent families.

Matthew’s narrative continues. After the birth, God warns Joseph to flee with his wife and child -narrowly escaping the wrath of the genocidal Herod, who in a desperate attempt to find Jesus decrees the slaughter of all two-year old boys in the region of Bethlehem. God is with us in the face of the child separated at the border from her desperate parents who driven by fear of violence and death – like Joseph and Mary are only seeking the relative safety of our Egypt. God is with us in the haunted faces of the women and children corralled in the world’s increasingly numerous ghettos: the Syrian province of Idib, Gaza, the Burmese-Bangladesh border, the detention camps ringing the Mediterranean Sea, Xinjiang’s Uighur detention camps – the examples roll on.

The takeaway message on the fourth Sunday in Advent might be this. Hope is all we have but hope is an action that requires the courage to face down despair. For the action of hoping is all we have.

In these days of online retail, you probably don’t go to the mall for much of your Christmas preparations anymore. But were you to – you might hear the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas introduced by Judy Garland in 1944 when it was not yet clear how, or when, the War might end. I’m grateful to Richard Swanson for mentioning this song. The final verse concludes the song with:

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow.
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Hugh Martin Lyrics, Ralph Blane Music.

God is with us means that we have a God who is not simply with us but has promised to muddle through with us. Are we not coming to the end of quite a year for muddling through? God is with us and hope is all we have!

Future Hope and Present Reality

Cover picture by the Brazilian painter Miguel Sebastião

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; ….
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T. S. Eliot, East Coker

Advent’s themes revolve around the tension between two fundamentally competing expectations for the coming of the messiah. East Coker is the second poem in T.S. Eliot’s epic The Four Quartets in which he suggests waiting without hope, because invariably hope will be to hope in the wrong thing. It seems Eliot is getting at the distinction here between the action of hoping and the object of our hope.

On Advent Sunday I spoke about the anxieties surrounding hope. Hope’s risky. You might not get what you risk hoping for. What then?  When our hope seems to lead to disappointment, is it because we have hoped for the wrong thing as T.S Eliot warns? How do we know whether our hope is for the right or wrong thing?

We all have expectations.  Jesus’ fellow Jews had very strong expectations concerning the coming one, the messiah; the age-old, transgenerational hope of the Jewish people. In the 1st-century a small group of Jews came to understand that the coming one – long expected had finally arrived. That in Jesus the messianic age had finally dawned.

However, there was a hitch – how to explain the paradox of a dead messiah? Although there was a wide variety of views among 1st-century Jews as to the messiah’s actual mission, no Jew believed that the essential aspect of the messiah’s mission was to be ignominiously put to death by the foreign oppressors. And so, among the first followers of Jesus the transgenerational expectation became a drama in two acts. In Jesus, God had initiated the messianic age in a first act, yet not completed it  until the second act of the messiah’s return. What had begun with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah would be brought to an end with his return – at which point the transgenerational dream of all Jews would be fulfilled.

Over the centuries, despite paying theological lip service in the creeds- we believe he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and the Eucharistic proclamation –Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again, we, Western mainline, Christians have effectively abandoned any real expectation of the Lord’s return. We no longer live in expectation of Christ’s return – or at least not any time soon. Hence, Advent’s primary focus has come to be on the Incarnation – or act one – Jesus, the coming one. But if we no longer live in expectation of a second act with the Lord’s return –which is the overriding expectation in the New Testament, what, I wonder, have we put in its place?

The early Christian expectation of the Lord’s return as the fulfilment of God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth has been replaced for us by an expectation of joining him in the bliss of eternal life.

The early Christian expectation of the Lord’s return as the fulfilment of God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth has been replaced for us by an expectation of joining him in the bliss of eternal life. We no longer expect the Lord to return to join us on this earth. Instead we expect to be transported out of it. Our expectation is that our biological death will usher us into a new and eternal life with God in heaven. The End. Mission accomplished!

When John the baptizer began his firebrand ministry of preaching a baptism of repentance, many flocked to him because he raised expectations of being the coming one. 1st-century Jews all looked forward with real urgency for the arrival of the coming one. Yet, there was not unsurprisingly, a divergence of expectation concerning the coming one’s exact mission.

Many cherished the age-old prophecies that spoke of the messiah’s arrival to inaugurate the glorious repair and restoration of the creation according to the expectation of the prophet Isaiah in our first reading on Advent III.

Viewed from our contemporary perspective there is a strong environmental element to this expectation: the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, and the desert rejoice and blossom – the burning sands will become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water. This is nothing short of a powerful vision of the re-terraforming -a word much beloved in science fiction -of the earth.

There’s also a strong social justice component to messianic age expectation: the eyes of the blind being opened; the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame leaping like deer, and the tongue of the speechless singing for joy.

However, many Jews smarting under the nation’s humiliation at the hands of the Roman occupation, had a more tribal and political expectation of the coming one’s mission. The messiah would arrive at the head of a powerful Jewish rebellion that would drive out the Romans and restore the fortunes of Israel as a proud and independent nation – an exceptional nation under God.

Again, viewed from our context we can only note the long precedent among certain religious factions to hope for the wrong thing by domesticating the divine vision into a political agenda in support of an anxious tribalism.

We catch a wonderful glimpse of these two conflicting expectations for the messianic age in Matthew’s relating of the incident in 11:2-11. John the baptizer, now in prison, seems to be experiencing a growing doubt and uncertainty concerning Jesus. Languishing in prison and receiving the reports of Jesus activities from his own disciples, did John begin to question his belief in Jesus as the coming one? Could it have been that he had made a mistake?

John thus dispatches his disciples to question Jesus: are you the one or should we expect another? We can speculate about the roots for John’s doubt – as his own previous firebrand tendencies reveal, it’s likely he’s looking for a more muscular messiah. What seems clear for John is that Jesus is not fulfilling expectations!

As we have come to discover, Jesus like a wily politician never answers a direct question. Here, he avoids getting into the nitty gritty of competing messianic expectations – of making a reasoned justification in an attempt to allay John’s doubts. Instead, he simply sends John’s disciples on their way- instructing them to tell John what they see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have good news brought to them.

In this exchange we see which side in the competing expectations about the messiah’s mission, Jesus takes.

In this exchange we see which side in the competing expectations about the messiah’s mission, Jesus takes. His, is not the expectation of a tribal nationalist messiah. In simply reminding John of the prophetic expectations for the messiah by quoting Isaiah, Jesus’ rebuke is clear.  

The 1st-century’s competing messianic expectations encapsulated so clearly in the exchange between Jesus and John are alarmingly alive and kicking today among America’s Christians. White evangelicals -who incidentally expect the Lord’s return by 2050 – passionately embrace John’s desire for a Jesus with a different – more militantly tribal, racially pure, and nationalistic messiahship. Jesus refuses to embrace this kind of messianic mission. From the heady standpoint of a fusion between faith and politics among the 1st-century equivalent of the white evangelical right – the Sadducees, some Pharisees, and the entire Zealot movement -this is the point at which Jesus starts out on the road to ultimate failure.  

This Advent we experience the clash between prophetic and nationalist expectations of the messiah’s rule. Has the messiah come in strength to restore traditional tribal and nationalist ambitions through force of political coercion at home and military power abroad? Or has the messiah, in vulnerability and humility come to announce the prophetic expectation of social justice and environmental protection that signal the kingdom’s inbreaking?

This Advent, do we – Christians of the so-called mainstream, which as a term is now something of a misnomer- continue to ignore the New Testament’s two act messianic expectation in favor of a single act version – to live with our eyes firmly fixed on the reward of heavenly bliss? Our answer to this question will determine which of two very different sets of consequences we choose to understand the work of being Christian in today’s world.  

To return to my earlier question: how do we know whether our hope is for the right or wrong thing? Is our hope placed in the expectation of ultimately escaping our present material reality into heavenly bliss – and in the meantime, turn a blind eye to social injustice and environmental degradation because when the Lord returns he’s going to burn up the world with his heavenly wrath anyway? Or do we place our hope in an expectation of the redeeming of material reality as not only our future hope in God putting what is currently wrong to rights – but also the blueprint for understanding our present responsibilities in real time?

Huge consequences for how to live in the present flow from the expectations for which in Advent we wait in hope. Ah there’s that prickly waiting word again. How will we know whether our hope is for the right or the wrong thing? If it’s hope in the waiting that collapses our future hope into present reality, the real time fruits of our hope will become abundantly clear.

Making Room

A sermon from the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs for Advent 2 Year C  

Isaiah 11:1-10;  Matthew 3: 1-12

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

St. Martin’s had an exciting couple of days this past week. The church was used as a location for a half-day film shoot for a TV show. It was quite an operation; massive amounts of bustling activity throughout the day, all for what will probably be a two-minute cameo by our church in an AMC TV supernatural thriller about a continual showdown between good and evil. 

We got to see how much effort goes into setting a scene—examining the context, understanding the audience, evaluating the resources and people available to tell the story well and effectively. A lot rides on doing it well. In the case of a TV show, it’s ratings and ad revenue. In the case of a Gospel, it’s the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God. No pressure.

Matthew’s chronological context was a few decades after the Resurrection. The sense of the immediacy of Jesus’ expected return had waned, and the nascent Christian community was unsure of what to do next. How were people to wait for the promised Second Coming if it wasn’t imminent? How would Matthew assuage any doubt about Jesus’ identity as Messiah and retain the urgency of the message of the coming Kingdom? Matthew’s project was to tell the story—to set the scene—in such a way that the followers of Jesus did not lose heart as they waited and as they struggled with growing division from the synagogues and persecution from the Empire. Matthew needed to offer them hope in the face of an uncertain future.

So he found his resource— the story of the enslaved Jews liberated by God through Moses and led to the Promised Land. In his Gospel he portrayed Jesus as the New Moses, sent to liberate the people of God from enslavement to sin and to lead them into the promised Kingdom of God. Matthew established his main character in the scene—John the Baptizer—dressed to evoke Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah predicted by the prophets. The focus would be offstage as John pointed toward Jesus, the greater One whose sandals he was not fit to carry. The setting; the Wilderness, at the turning of the Age, with the Day of Judgment on the near horizon. The plot: a showdown between good and evil.

It’s time now to dispense with the theatrical metaphor, because while it was useful for a moment it is important to understand that what we hear in today’s Gospel isn’t celluloid. It isn’t just a story. None of the Gospel is just a story—we wouldn’t be here Sunday after Sunday if that were the case, but today’s lesson for the Second Sunday in Advent is particularly jarring and confrontational, and we don’t have the luxury of leaving its message on the cutting room floor. As difficult as it may be we have to listen to what John has to say. We won’t be able to greet the Christ Child in Bethlehem until we have traveled through the Wilderness and learned what it has to reveal.

For some people, when they think of wilderness, the first thing they envision is literal and physical; a rugged place of wonder and challenge, often encountered alone. Others carry wilderness inside. It may be an arid desert of self-doubt or a tangled jungle of anger and resentment; it may sound like a cacophonous din or icy silence. It may be traveled during the daylight in a slog through unfamiliar existential and spiritual territory. Or it may be a lonely 3:30 a.m. sojourn haunted by fear and uncertainty.

The Biblical Wilderness is an icon for all of this. The Wilderness into which Matthew places John the Baptist is an allusion to the wilderness in which the Jews wandered for years–fractious, stiff-necked and occasionally grateful—lugging massive literal and figurative baggage and oh-so-gradually forming their identity as an imperfect community, ready to enter the Promised Land and establish themselves as the People of Israel. 

Also characteristic of the Wilderness into which Matthew sends John is that it is distinct from the center of power in Jerusalem. It is a marginalized and isolated place, set over and against establishment and empire. John comes to the Wilderness to find and be found by people from all around the surrounding country whose own baggage was the weight of sin, and who yearned for a word of hope; for a sign that God was leading them into a new land of promise—the Kingdom of God. John’s words to them, while jarring to us, were exciting and uplifting even as they were challenging. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. The world, he says, is about to turn on its head. This news was balm for the wounded soul and sustenance for the starving heart.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, interestingly, are silent in this episode. Also interestingly, the word that describes their presence is ambiguous; it can be translated to indicate that they were there either because they were against what John was doing (because baptism was the purview of the Temple), or, as stated in today’s version, that they were there for baptism by John.  Either way, their mere appearance provokes an outburst from John that takes us to the heart of the matter, which is Jesus, salvation and judgment. A showdown between good and evil.

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

What are we to make of this today? We dance around it the way I’ve danced around writing about it all week. We simply can’t tippy-toe past the fact that Advent isn’t about preparation for the Christmas Pageant or longing for the warm glow we get when gazing at the Christ Child in the manger, although that’s part of it. Advent is about acknowledging the wonder of Incarnation and (not ‘or’) yearning for the second coming of Christ and our ultimate facing of judgment before God.

Yes, we’re going there.

John’s apocalyptic language, like all apocalyptic language, is born of conflict between principalities and powers and those who were oppressed by them. The oppressed wait and yearn for divine deliverance, and violent fiery imagery helped bolster their hope that the defeat of evil was imminent and would be decisive. The people who heard the words of John were hopeful, not dreading what was to come. We can’t forget that.  They were ready to be cleansed by the water of baptism so that they would be ready to present themselves to God. They were ready for salvation–for the Messiah. They couldn’t wait for the time of world-turning that John so forcefully proclaimed.

Advent calls us to tap into this yearning. But getting there is a very, very uncomfortable journey. It requires that we come face to face with a very broken world, and with our very broken selves.

A showdown, if you will.

Biblical scholar and storyteller Richard Swanson wrote just a few days ago: “This Advent feels more like a charged season of waiting and expecting than any since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat… John and his preparation for conflict makes more sense this year. And that scares me. “

Bolster Swanson’s observation with the fact that there are those who use the language of final judgment and apocalypse to divide, to threaten and to oppress, under the guise of being oppressed themselves, and it is indeed a scary prospect.

How do we find hope? By declaring that we won’t speak of the judgment of God without speaking about the love of God as well.

God’s judgment is not what history, culture, and yes, parts of the church, have led us to dread. God’s judgment does not involve a set of arbitrary fear-based standards of conformity and morality based in homophobia, racism, sexism or any kind of ism that refuses to acknowledge the diversity of the family of God.  Yearning for Judgment is about the hard painful work of co-creating the Dream of God—doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, and preparing to meet the loving gaze of the God who created us and called us good. It calls us to eagerly anticipate the day when we can finally know that God sees us as we truly are and then scrub and scrape away the baggage —every last thing that has come to separate us from God– that has come to cling to us like barnacles. The barnacles of fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, rejection, self-loathing and greed which, when projected on others, just become layer upon layer of pain and anguish in the world as we find more and more ways to hurt and reject each other; war, poverty, discrimination, cruelty, and the complicity that comes from willing blindness to it all.  Because the very real evil that bedevils us begins with the wildernesses that we carry.

So the winnowing of the chaff that John proclaims, the burning of the unfruitful branches—this happens within us, not between us. Not to destroy, but to cleanse us.  To make room for the Dream of God that Isaiah envisioned, where:

the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isn’t that something to look forward to?

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