Thursday, December 12, 2013

December 15, Advent 3, Children of Light 3: From Innocence to Love

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

Why do we get this gospel lesson on December 15? We’re ready for the manger. Why do we get John the Baptist on the day of our Children’s Pageant? We’re on the way to Bethlehem. A better fit with our calendars is the Isaiah lesson, rejoicing at the coming of God. Rejoicing is the proper theme of the Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin verb for “Rejoice.” Gáudete, gáudete, gáudete. Why distract us with John the Baptist?

But the lesson from the Epistle says, Patience. Don’t rush things. James says, Be patient until the coming of the Lord. There is reason to wait. There is reason for the season of penitence, because you can get Jesus wrong. You can welcome Jesus, and delight in his coming, but get him wrong. As John the Baptist did. As you can’t help but do. And that’s okay, it’s to be expected, which is why you should be patient and penitent.

John the Baptist had to be patient but he was not in a penitentiary. Imprisonment in those days was different. It was not the punishment itself, as we do it. It was holding you in custody until your punishment was decided, which could be exile, execution, or exoneration. To delay your decision was in the interest of the sovereign, so that your people might generate, you know, some cash. So you were allowed a good deal of contact with your people. So John was kept up on the news.

John was disappointed with Jesus. You remember from last Sunday what he’d expected from the Messiah. Fire. Wind. A winnowing fork. An ax laid at the roots. Stringent justice. Smashing heads. “So Jesus, no offense, but when are you going ‘to come with vengeance,’ as Isaiah said, ‘with terrible recompense, to come and save us,’ including me? And, no offense, what you’re doing is very good, and keep it up, but maybe should I be expecting someone else?”

Jesus does not defend himself. Nor does he answer directly. “Go back and tell him what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor get good news, and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” That’s a tough response. From John’s point of view, that response just begs the question. John already knows all that. That’s his point. Doing that stuff is fine, but that’s not the job of the Messiah.

The message that Jesus sends back is a challenge: “Look again, my cousin, look again at the same stuff you have been seeing. The problem is not my evidence, but what you want for the solution. The signs are all there, but you want directions to a different place. Step back from it, John. Your issue with me is your expectations. Which means your issue with me is actually yourself.”

John the Baptist had that peculiar problem of the perfectly pure in heart. It’s the problem with innocence, and why you have to get beyond your innocence. I know that last Sunday I told you that the Advent season calls you into your place of innocence, and in that place to find an inner child, who is God as a child, and I told you to take yourself in there, to restore your wonder and to revive your hope. Today I’m complicating that. I’m telling you to get beyond your innocence.

The problem with innocence is indignation. Like John the Baptist’s. You have always done the right thing, the hard thing, all the way, and at great cost to yourself. You gave your life to the job you were given, you never considered your comfort or convenience, you never complained, even in prison you don’t complain, but now your successor is taking the easy way. Your innocence yields to indignation, and impatience, and sometimes even to intolerance.

Jesus was not disappointed in John! He took no offense at his questioning. Because it had not been given to John to see the something new afoot. No one had yet imagined it but Jesus himself, and no one else would see it until after his death and resurrection, the whole new radical way of being the Messiah. So Jesus doesn’t hold it against his cousin that he has not imagined him.

You can love Jesus and want him to come, and still get him wrong. You do it yourself, you can’t help it — your soul is blind and deaf, you are spiritually disabled. So you need his light and his voice. So every year you need to step back and ask yourself what you expect from him. You need to ask yourself what it is about yourself that makes you expect this. Who do you think you are? Where do you get it from, how God should come into your life? Like John the Baptist, “C’mon, Jesus, don’t you owe me something here? Don’t I have a right to some expectations?”

Innocence says this: "Okay, I’m, say, third in line, and I’ll be happy to get whatever is coming to me as third in line." But the Epistle of James says, "Don’t take your turn, wait, be patient, go to the back of the line!" And now innocence has to learn something new: Love for all the others in line ahead of you.

Innocence has to develop into love. Not childlike love, not natural love nor innocent love, but sacrificial love, generous love, love of neighbor as yourself. John the Baptist, you did what you did because you were certain you were right, and you were. But when the Kingdom comes, you will do what you do for love, and not because you’re right. And only by patience will you learn that.

They are saying that it was his twenty-seven years in prison that allowed Nelson Mandela to develop his moral imagination. So that when he came out, he was not indignant nor intolerant, but able to love his enemies. They are rarely saying that his Christian faith had everything to do with that. He had to wait — he waited on God, with patient endurance, with no control, like a farmer waiting for the rain (James).

And so do you, if you want to develop your moral imagination beyond the privilege of innocence into the sacrifice of sympathy. From the burning purity of the desert into the messy swamp of love (Isaiah). Advent calls you to let God lead you on the road from innocence to love.

Isaiah sings about the healing of your disabilities within the larger transformation of creation. There are crocuses and blossoms that need to come to life in you. And though you value a flower for the beauty it gives you right now, from the flower’s point of view, whatever it is, is for the future, for the seed it will generate; a flower is for the future.

You must be eagerly patient in your life for what God is doing with you still, what God in God’s own time is slowly bringing forth to life in you. And it will go beyond what you expect within yourself. If you could expect it, you would not need God to do it. You must admit your moral disability, and it will offend you — it must at first.

What do you want for Christmas? It’s okay to ask that. We are not so indignant for the sacred mystery that we must be intolerant of the secular festivity. But I will ask you this: What do you want from Christmas? What do you want from God’s coming into the world, and into your own life?

Here is a take-home. For this next year, open yourself to one new way to follow Jesus beyond where you are now, and into an area where you have not yet trusted him. Not a New Year’s resolution but an Advent absolution.

You might try it in an area of society, wherein what Jesus says is just too radical: say, about non-violence, or peace, or wealth and poverty. Open yourself to another patient look at that, keep open to it longer than you have before.

You might try it in an area of your inner life. What do you believe God owes you here? In what have you been disappointed when it comes to God? Pick one thing, and enter that place of drought with God, and water it with God’s Word and Spirit and with the love of, say, two fellow members of the community of Jesus.

You might try it with how you budget your time, or in your dealings with your children.

You might open yourself to a new activity, with a work of joy you have not dared yet: learn the trombone, or cook for the poor.

Just one way. Open to God coming into you there. I can tell you this: no matter what you try, it will also mean a growth in love. Your love will increase. Whether you do it in terms of society or your inner life or your active expression, the sign of it will be more love. Because it’s more of Jesus, and when it’s more of Jesus, it’s more of God.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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