Monday, December 10, 2007

Advent 3 Three Years Ago

Where’s the Messiah When We Need Him

Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist was disappointed with his cousin Jesus. Jesus was not performing as the Messiah.

John had prepared the way for him, predicting his fiery judgment, the purity of his justice, the righteousness of his government, and the defeat of evil. John was expecting a holy revolution in Israel, and a total change in the systems of the world. John had prepared the population, they had repented, they were ready to join up and get going.

And what did Jesus do but talk and teach and do individual works of healing and mercy. John was expecting a new King David, but Jesus just seemed like a glorified social worker, Jesus just let the powers be.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said that he liked Jesus very much, but he did not regard him as the Messiah, because he never accomplished what the Messiah was supposed to do. The prophets had foretold that the Messiah would make a real difference in the world, addressing systems, not just individuals, dealing with empires, not just villages.

Jesus offers his cousin an answer back. He echoes Isaiah’s prophecy about the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the poor. He maintains that what he’s doing is real, though it is different than their expectations. His evidence is minimal. He calculates his evidence to leave a lot of room for reasonable doubt.

If there isn’t any room for doubt, then neither is there room for the development of faith and hope. What Jesus wants is for his followers to develop, for his followers to address the systems of the world, for his followers to move from villages to empires, starting with individuals.

The answer that Jesus offers requires a leap of faith. To accept him as the Messiah requires a jump, a risk, it just might not be true, the evidence will not be overwhelming, you have to take a chance. Notice that Jesus does not reprimand his cousin’s doubt. Your doubt is where you have to start. Where your doubt is, that’s the nursery of your faith. It’s not that Jesus proves his identity, he offers it, and you have to risk the decision of accepting it, and that’s always a running decision.

What troubled John was that Jesus’ miracles were all temporary gifts to individuals, while the permanent problems of society he left untouched. Blindness and leprosy were individual abnormalities, but it was normal to be poor.

Jesus’ answer to his cousin touches the issue between them. The sick get healed, but the poor just get good news. The blind get their sight, but the poor don’t get their money. The dead are raised, but the peasants are not raised from poverty. That would require Jesus dealing with the whole system of the Roman Empire, which is precisely what John the Baptist had been telling the people to expect.

To be fair to Jesus, it really was news. Look, it’s a given in ancient religion that the gods were intimate with those on top: the rulers, the priesthood, the brahmans, the donors, the benefactors, those who can demonstrate by status or success that they are blessed.

And Jesus was telling them that God actually likes to be intimate with the poor, with those who have nothing to donate back. God is so willing to be intimate with those on the bottom that God is willing to live among them precisely in their poverty. Which is one reason that Jesus doesn’t change the situation, for that would say that he really did find them unacceptable as poor. "Don’t fix me, just be with me."

And it was news because it’s a given in natural religion that the law of Karma holds, that people get what they deserve, that if you are poor, you probably deserve it, so just accept your lot. But Jesus is telling them that their poverty is not God’s judgment on them, and it isn’t even God’s idea.

And it’s news because it’s a given in modern economic theory that there’s little you can really do about the poor, that poverty is inevitable, and some Nobel Prize economists have told us that the way to deal with poverty is for the government to increase the wealth of the rich.

So it is real news that God sees things very differently, and just to know that is empowering. Especially when you look at the Torah and you read that God’s idea for Israel was a single economic class, and a system that every seven years returned to the poor a piece of private property, and every fifty years canceled all indebtedness. That was God’s idea. But God will not do it for you. You have to do it for yourself, and not through violent revolution, but through obedience and faith.

Where’s the Messiah when we need him? If you want him to come and change the world, you’ll be disappointed. If you want him to be among us and tell us what God’s will is, and empower us to do God’s will, then the Messiah is right here, inviting us to do our own works of healing and mercy and good news.

His style is not to act triumphantly and dramatically, but organically and quietly, patiently, through very individual acts of personal connection, demonstrating to us the very kinds of things that we can do.

We tend to see time and space as vast and empty. The centuries stretch before us into millennia, and then into eons, and millions of years, while light keeps traveling through the empty reaches of outer space. We see ourselves as individuals, specks of dust, points of light, brief candles, tiny atoms of self-awareness trying to make a little bit of meaning for the short time we exist.

But Jesus didn’t see the world that way, as empty stretches of time and space. He saw it with the eyes of God, as full and rich, where every little person counts, where every tiny thing has meaning as an object of God’s attention and love, and where every little act we do gets its true significance sub specie aeternitatis, that is, under the rubric of eternity. From Jesus’ point of view, to help one person see was to make a permanent change in the universe.

You know, Jesus was his mother’s son. He was the son of his mother as much as his father. You can get an idea of the kind of things that Mary will have taught Jesus from the song she sang to the mother of John the Baptist while Mary was still pregnant with him inside her.

I mean, what is more ordinary than pregnancy, and yet she sings, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my savior. What is more organic and commonplace, and she sings, for he that is mighty has done me great things, and holy is his name. Who is as powerless as pregnant girl, and she sings, he has cast down mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. What is as draining and exhausting and painful at the end, and she sings, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

This season you might be discouraged, and dealing with disappointment and difficulty and emptiness and loss. I have good news for you. You are filled as Mary was filled, the Holy Spirit has conceived inside you something fragile, and organic, and very small, but real, right here in your belly, what has been conceived inside you is not from the world, but that special godly love for the smallest thing, the most organic thing, which the world ignores, but God counts precious, and rejoices in, to give you hope and joy.

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