Sunday, December 16, 2007

(Advent 3) So what did you expect?

Luke 1:46-55; Matthew 11:2-11; Isaiah 35:1-10

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The third Sunday of Advent is always “Joy Sunday.”
On this day the scriptures declare God’s saving work,
and then both people and creation
practically burst with joy because God saves!
It’s great fun to read texts like these.
A lot easier to read these,
than to read about John the Baptist pointing at people,
and screaming “You brood of vipers!”
Lot easier than reading about two women grinding grain,
and one of them getting snatched away,
and the other left behind.

But today’s readings—who wouldn’t be enthralled by these images?
The desert, Isaiah says, is going to burst forth with flowers,
it’s blooms will be as abundant as the crocus.
The wilderness and dry land
will turn into refreshing springs of water.
Isaiah 35, verses 5 and 6:
The “eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
Who wouldn’t want to say out loud, “Yes, Lord! Bring it on!”

And how heartwarming to hear the song of Mary,
the Magnificat of Luke 1,
as this young woman is overcome with joy, and sings,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.”

We could spend all morning reading and re-reading these texts.
The song of Mary alone has inspired countless hymns and anthems.
The choir sang one of them this morning.
The congregation is going to sing one of them soon.
Between the three hymnals in our pews,
there are too many songs based on the Magnificat,
to sing all of them in one service.

This is all just a little bit strange, if you ask me.
Here we sit (on a cold, wintry morning)
in a large and comfortable church building,
in a prosperous town, in a more prosperous commonwealth,
in one of the most affluent countries in the world,
and we are happily reading and singing, multiple times,
one of the most revolutionary scriptures in the Bible.
And this morning, around the world,
in all the urban centers of wealth and power—
New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Moscow, Rome—
this same text is being read and sung in massive cathedrals,
and countless other houses of worship.

I suspect that on this very day, Advent 3,
dozens of presidents, prime ministers, members of royalty,
CEO’s of global corporations,
are sitting in a church somewhere, with a smile on their face,
while someone is reading or singing these words, and I quote:
“God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

This is the song of a young and frightened girl from a back-woods town
in an out-of-the-way region of a puny little country
occupied by one of the most powerful Empires in human history,
and she is singing about all of that being turned upside-down.
The powerful being brought down.
And the powerless—her people—being elevated.
The hungry being filled,
and the rich going hungry.
She is speaking not only for herself,
having just been given the news
that she would give birth to the Messiah,
but she is speaking for all the little, insignificant people.
She is saying, our time has come.
God has looked on us with favor.
God has intervened and is turning things upside down.
God has brought about a surprising reversal of fortune.

It’s amazing to me—it’s great, but amazing—
how this text holds such a great appeal for all people,
rich and poor alike.
And I don’t think it’s just because the rich and powerful,
did not happen to notice how revolutionary these words are.
They’d have to be woefully unobservant to miss it.
And they didn’t get where they are by being unobservant.
I imagine there is something in the essence of this text
that speaks to a deep and universal human longing.
Human beings, rich and poor alike, want justice to be done.
We haven’t always sorted out what the implications of that might be.
When we seek justice,
we may not be ready for everything that means,
especially if it involves personal sacrifice.
But there is a God-breathed desire in all of us, I believe,
for the right thing to be done.

I think it must be an essential part of being made in God’s image.
God is merciful. And God is holy.
God is loving. And God is just and righteous.
And those divine seeds are planted in us.
But we forget that, and we fail to nourish those seeds,
the more we get enmeshed in the commitments and values
of this world and its fallen systems.
The more entangled we become with the powers—
whether those be the powers of wealth, of social privilege,
of political influence, of military might,
or the powers of spiritual oppression—
the more attached we are to those powers,
the less likely we will be in touch with God’s heart,
God’s desire to bring justice and healing to all.

So maybe that explains why kings and princes and billionaires,
and the likes of us average prosperous Americans,
can still sing the song of Mary.
There is still alive within us, a spark of the divine longing for justice,
even if we’re not quite ready
for all the social implications of this text.
For instance, I’ve heard many Christians make a strong argument
against any kind of economic strategy
based on redistribution of wealth.
But to this day, I’ve never heard a Christian try to make a claim
that the Magnificat is not inspired, holy scripture,
when it talks of wealth being transferred from rich to poor.
So there is a tension there, that I think we have to keep living with.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, when it comes down to practical matters,
almost always leads us to a point of tension.
Tension between the now and the not yet.
Between the vision and the reality.
Between our loyalties to the kingdom of heaven,
and to the kingdom of this world.

That was certainly true during Jesus’ own life and ministry.
Even Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist,
struggled with this tension.
The second gospel reading of the morning, is most fascinating.
Last week’s gospel showed John the Baptist
as a confident and courageous prophet,
convinced about Jesus’ identity as Messiah.
He pointed to Jesus without reservation.
And said, “This is the one.”

In this week’s reading, it’s altogether different.
Things didn’t pan out the way John was expecting.
John himself was in prison with a death sentence.
And cousin Jesus had taken no initiative—none whatsoever—
to deliver his people from Roman oppression.
And with opposition to Jesus growing in the Jewish ranks,
and Rome watching with an eagle eye,
it looked unlikely that Jesus would ever do it.
Maybe John was thinking he got his prophetic wires crossed.
He had stuck out his neck for Jesus,
and now it looked like it was about to get chopped off.
So he sent a delegation of his disciples to Jesus.
To ask him straight up.
“Are you, or aren’t you?”
Tell me, yes or no, if you’re the Messiah.

Jesus gave a simple reply.
“The blind receive their sight.
The lame walk.
The lepers are cleansed.
The deaf hear.
The dead are raised.
The poor have good news brought to them.
So...blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Take offense, at healing the blind and deaf, the lame and lepers?
Actually, yes. All kinds of people were taking offense.
And there’s where the tension lies.
Everyone—from the scribes and Pharisees, to priests and prophets,
to the common men and women on the street—
everyone had their attention on Rome, and it’s easy to see why.
It was because of Rome, that they were suffering so much.
If only someone would come along to fix the Roman problem,
we would be healed as a people.
Most of the “people in the know” rejected Jesus
as a serious candidate for Messiah,
because he was not taking on Rome.
Or if he was, it sure wasn’t obvious.

But you see, the mission of Jesus was first and foremost,
to announce the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
The message of Jesus was justice and healing for all God’s people.
And ever since then, from the days of the Pharisees,
to the present day,
people have tried to narrow down Jesus’ mission
to the part they’re most interested in.
People in Jesus’ day saw their main problem
as the lack of political freedom.
So they saw Jesus as someone to bring salvation
from their national enemy.
Some of us today see the problem primarily
as a need for individual spiritual renewal.
So we focus almost exclusively on Jesus
as my personal and individual Savior.
Some of us see the main problem as the social ills of the world.
So we narrow Jesus’ message to that of social justice,
and transformation of society.
Some of us are focused mainly on personal brokenness,
and then narrow Jesus’ ministry to one of personal healing.

But the message of Jesus was bigger than any of that.
It encompassed all of life.
God’s people had lost their way.
The message of salvation that Jesus brought,
was comprehensive and wholistic.
Jesus went about acting as though
healing people and working for justice,
were one and the same thing.
He didn’t heal people in isolation.
He healed lepers of their skin disease,
and then instructed them to return to the community
that had sent them away.
He cast out demons,
and then encouraged them to find a place of belonging again.
He healed the physically lame,
and then forgave their sins.
Even the moral and spiritual ills that Jesus encountered,
he saw in a larger context.
A woman was caught in adultery and sent to Jesus for his judgement.
The socially accepted punishment was stoning to death.
Jesus identified and acknowledged her moral failing, her sin.
But then he put it in the larger social context,
and her accusers slinked away.
Her life was spared, she was restored to her community,
and she was urged to walk a new path of righteousness.

Wherever Jesus encountered brokenness,
he addressed it.
Whether it was primarily an individual who was affected,
or a segment of the community,
or the whole community.
He was equally moved to compassion,
whether it was a man blind from birth,
or a woman overtaken with a fever,
or a person possessed by an evil spirit,
or children being pushed away by grownups,
or tax collectors who overcharged their own people,
or temple money changers making worship into a business,
or the scribes and Pharisees tending to religious trivia
while neglecting the poor.

In all these situations that Jesus encountered,
it was the same divine impulse that moved him to action.
So when John the Baptist questioned him about his Messiahship,
because he didn’t see any evidence that he was taking on Rome,
Jesus answered, in effect, “So what did you expect?”
People who are broken are being healed.
People who are poor and powerless are hearing good news.
God saves. And I am God’s servant.
What did you expect?

If we believe in a God who saves,
and believe that Jesus came as God in the flesh,
and that by virtue of his life, death, and resurrection,
we still participate the saving mission of Jesus,
then we should expect things in this broken world
to be turned on their head sometimes.
We should come to expect surprising, and impossible,
reversals of fortune.
Blind people who see.
Lame people who leap like a deer.
Spiritually oppressed people who are released.
Despairing people who find joy.
Abused persons who finally discover the full personhood.
Sexual addicts who find love in a community with good boundaries,
where they can begin to heal.
People obsessed and anxious about their wealth
who find surprising freedom in letting go of it.
A nation divided by ethnic hatred,
being healed as they face the truth and seek reconciliation.
A wilderness that blooms like a garden.
A desert that pours forth springs of water.

God is active and at work in the world.
And God’s work is to save.
So what did you expect?

No, this surprising reversal doesn’t happen everywhere and every time.
In fact, it seems it does not happen, more often than it does.
The kingdom of which Isaiah spoke,
and of which Jesus gave witness,
is here now, but not yet completely.
But we can be sure it will continue to come.
Some of it we will see in our lifetime.
Some of it, probably not.
In the meantime, our calling is to live expectantly,
expecting God to save...broken individuals, lost souls,
estranged families, a polluted earth,
a violent society, an unjust nation.
Here and there and everywhere,
God saves.
We can expect it.
Mary was right.

So let us, even from our safe and comfortable position,
sing again the song of Mary.

And we’re going to learn yet another version of it,
one you probably haven’t sung before.
#124 in the new Sing the Story book.

The refrain goes,
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all the tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

—Phil Kniss, December 16, 2007

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