Saturday, December 17, 2016

December 18, Advent 4, Violence #4: Jesus

Isaiah 7:10-18, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Let me repeat what the angel said to Joseph in his dream: “Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” So that’s what Jesus is supposed to do–save us from our sins. Is one of those sins violence? Can Jesus save us from the sin of violence?

The general witness of the Bible is that the problem of violence will not finally be solved by us. In some things we may make real progress, but the evolution of humanity is also the evolution of destruction, devastation, deprivation, and depravity. The creation of deserts, the multiplications of Mordors on the landscape for the fossil fuels–violence on the earth.

Now this doesn’t matter, if you believe, as many Christians do, that Jesus saves our souls to free us from this sorry world and send us to eternity in heaven, and we will abandon the earth forever. If this world is just a testing ground for ultimate heaven or hell, then violence is a condition to be escaped and not a problem to be solved, and there is no point in being anti-violent.

But if you believe that “God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved,” if you believe that the Lord Jesus was born into the world to save us in the world, and that he saves us for what he told us to pray for: “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” then the problem of violence must eventually be solved. Which takes more faith than believing that we just escape to heaven, because the solution seems no closer than it ever was. Faith wears out.

No wonder faith is regarded by St. Paul as a kind of obedience. He speaks in our Epistle of “the obedience of faith.” This means that faith is not so much what we favor God with upon our evaluating God to be worthy of our faith, it’s rather that faith is an obligation that we owe to God just by our being human beings, when we recognize our place in the world and acknowledge our condition.

You have faith in God to save you from your sins. You trust God to answer your prayer that God will purify your conscience by God’s daily visitation. You trust that God frees you from the guilt of your sin and liberates you from the power of your sin. This is the offer of the gospel that bears repeating and explaining, but today let me assume it, with regard to the specific sin of violence.

In the first sermon I said that violence is natural and of necessity, and that all nations are violent, even the best of them. I said that following Jesus means choosing against violence. We can choose against what’s natural and of necessity because Jesus calls us to freedom. Not yet in this life freedom from violence, but freedom within it. Freedom from the guilt of our inevitable complicity, and freedom to witness against the violence that includes us. Jesus saves you from your sin of violence by freeing you from the guilt of your participation in it, and liberating you from its dominion so that you can bear witness against it in the great courtroom trial that is the history of the world.

In the second sermon I said that we witness against it in two ways: unmasking and advocating. We unmask the pretensions of violence, that it does not make us great, and as a solution it’s a delusion because if it solves one problem it only makes for more, even if in extremity we have no recourse but to participate in it. Our second witnessing is to advocate for the meek of the earth, using our reputations as good citizens to speak up for the unacknowledged victims of violence, especially when that violence is subtle and institutional and tolerated as a cost of business by otherwise good governments and respectable corporations. We do this despite being regarded as quixotic and naive.

In the third sermon I said that being the witness is not to be jury or the judge, and we have no control of the verdict, which we have to leave to God. But then if the bad guys keep getting away with it, or even the mostly good guys who do not see their complicity in violence keep denying it, we will be tempted by our grievances to bitterness. I said that in order to practice anti-violence we have to cultivate the disciplines of penitence and joy.

All this is what I mean by Jesus saving you from the sin of violence. Not sparing you from its existence but saving you from your guilt in it and liberating you for witness within it. But now I have to say something more. I want to speak to the emotional side of it. I want to speak to the ominous feeling of the violence that threatens us even if we want to live by faith. What about the fear of it?

For this I want to step back and take a look at Joseph in our gospel story, and the choices that he had to make. His choices were not easy. Should he act upon his dream? Should he even believe his dream? If he ignores his dream and keeps to his plan to dismiss Mary quietly, he will save his righteous reputation.

But if he believes his dream and takes her as his wife he takes on her disgrace. He’ll be assumed to have slept with her ahead of time and thus regarded not only as unrighteous but a hypocrite. Or, worse, maybe his fiancé has slept with someone else, and then he’s a cuckold and a fool, or at best, he’ll be regarded as quixotic and naive, just as I said you will be if you choose anti-violence.

It will cost a lot for Joseph to act upon his dream, and he’ll to practice the obedience of faith, for him a new kind of righteousness. I have heard it said by atheists that faith is a refuge for weaklings. Not for Joseph in this case, and not for practitioners of anti-violence.

The obedience of faith calls us into that which we fear. In the dream the angel said, “Joseph, fear not to take Mary as your wife.” The angel has to say it because Joseph will certainly fear.

You know how shaken you feel when you wake up from a powerful dream, even when it’s not a nightmare. I can imagine the poor guy sitting on his bed in the dark before the dawn, the dream all in his head, and he is facing all these new unknowns, so much in his life outside of his control, that he must take and name and raise a child who belongs to God, with a destiny beyond him for which he was now responsible. “Joseph, son of David, fear not!” Oh my God. Every Advent I regain my admiration for this quiet man.

I have been preaching this series on violence in part because I am afraid. I can feel it in my body. I am not the only one. We fear for our nation. We fear the top-down celebration of violence and its increased cultivation. We fear the anger of our longtime victims, and their bitterness. We fear the other nations posturing for war. We fear our violence against our planet and the weather responding in kind. If courage is not the absence of fear but making the awful choice between your fears, then what should you fear most? The violent environment in which you live or the call of the gospel upon your conscience? If we do the right thing, can Jesus save us from our fear? Not completely, the bad guys will always be out there, without consciences or scruples, and gaining power.

I can’t solve the problem, apart from the obedience of faith. I don’t have an antidote to fear, except for this: There’s something in the way our souls are made that we can be quickened by a sign, even in the midst of fearful chaos and disorder. The sign for Joseph was the vision of a mother pregnant with her child. The same sign was offered by Isaiah to King Ahaz when Jerusalem was under siege, surrounded by armies ready to kill them. The sign is the mother with the infant child, even in the midst of all the violence.

This shall be a sign to you. Such vulnerability. Such weakness in military terms, but in biological terms such power, more real power in the body of the mother than in the pretensions of the guys in charge. The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name, God with us. God saves the world from the soft inside and not from the top, and you must receive God in God’s chosen vulnerability.

I cannot solve the problem of violence but I offer you the sign, and that you read in the sign that God does not abandon you, and that God’s presence with you is small and soft and fragile but with the power of life. I cannot prove it for you, I can only invite you to believe it, and even more I invite you to love it, because love is stronger than death, and your love will be stronger than your fear.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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