Sermon–December 13, 2015


Advent 3—Year C

December 13, 2015

William Bradbury

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician of the first order, creating one of the first mechanical calculators. He was also a physicist, and religious philosopher. He died of stomach cancer in 1662 at the age of 38, but 8 years before his death Pascal had a profound mystical experience that changed his life: He wrote a 237 word account of this experience on parchment and sewed it into the lining of his coat. It was discovered after his death. It reads in part:  “In the year of grace, 1654, on Monday, 23rd of November…From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve. Fire! God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
Not of the philosophers and scholars….

God of Jesus Christ….Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy….”

Who is the God of the philosophers that Pascal rejects? This is the god thought up by human reason that imagines we are competent to imagine god. The Deists, among them some of our founding fathers and mothers, imagine god as a watchmaker who builds the world, winds it up, and lets it run undisturbed, while god sits off in eternal distance, never to intervene and never to be touched or moved by what happens here on earth.

This god of the Enlightenment could never show up in a French home one evening and transform a life.

 The God that shows up that night is the God who corners Moses at the burning bush and says: “I have heard the cries of my people suffering under the cruelty of their Egyptian taskmasters. And I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them to a rich and wide land, flowing with milk and honey.”

This God loves creation like a mother who will throw herself into any danger in order to save her children. This God hears our cries and comes to set things right.

In other words, this God has what the Bible calls wrath, or anger, towards injustice, cruelty, and suffering.

God’s wrath is God’s love set against injustice in order to make things right again.

God’s wrath is always in service to God’s love.

The prophet Isaiah puts it this way:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….”

Jesus, at the synagogue in Nazareth, reads this passage and then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus is God with us to set things right. His task is more than forgiveness, because what good is it to forgive people who mistreat a certain race of people, without ending their power to cause more damage?

John the Baptist proclaims that the God who hears the cries of the people is coming to rescue them from their oppressors. This is good news to the least, the lost, the last because it is their cries that God has heard and it is to them God is coming.

To those who gain power and wealth off the suffering of others this is not good news, because it means the gravy train is ending. King Herod Antipas throws John in prison and the Powers crucify Jesus in order to stop this God from changing the status quo and making the last first and the first last.

 The God of the Bible, unlike the God of the Philosophers, experiences outrage at the suffering of the world.

We are now in a time of outrage at the hideous murder of innocents by the death cult called ISIS. To be sure God is also outraged at what they are doing, just as God was outraged at the slaughter of the Jews under Hitler and the slavery of Blacks under our government.

But there is more: Those listening to John the Baptist ask, Teacher, what should we do? John could have answered:  “Get the swords we need to kill the Roman dogs that are oppressing us.”

Reminds me of the day James and John are ticked off that a Samaritan village won’t offer them hospitality as they head to Jerusalem. So they say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? Want us to jump start God’s wrath with a little violence of our own?”

But Jesus turns to them and rebukes them because when victims turn into victimizers there is only more suffering for everybody.

John also could have said: “Lay low, keep your worship private, non-political, and I’ll let you know when God’s wrath is finished.” There are those in churches today who think the Christian faith is a secret affair between “me and God” and has nothing to do with living in the world. The God of the philosophers works just fine for them because then they can continue to live for themselves and not for others.

So if violence and escapism aren’t the way, what is?

John says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none. Whoever has food must do likewise.”

To the tax guys he says, “Don’t fleece the people to fatten your own wallet.” To the soldiers working for King Herod he says, “No blackmail, no prejudice, no cover-up, be satisfied with your pay.”

John, like all the prophets, shares in God’s outrage at the injustice in his world.

We are right to experience outrage at terrorism, but we might ask ourselves why so many only feel outrage at what affects them personally.

Author and preacher Fleming Rutledge asks: “Where’s the outrage?

“Why has the gap between rich and poor become so huge? Why are so many mentally ill people slipping through the crack? Why does gun violence continue to be a hallmark of American culture? Why are so many innocent people put on death row? Why are our prisons filled with such a preponderance of black and Hispanic men? Where’s the outrage? The public is outraged all over cyberspace about all kinds of things that annoy us personally…but outrages in the heart of God go unnoticed and unaddressed.” Ibid 129

John says, “get baptized in Holy Spirit and fire.

Jesus would later say, “take up your cross and follow me.”

God’s way of setting the world right is something we never could imagined.  

As Rutledge says, “By becoming one of the poor who was deprived of his rights, by dying as one of those robbed of justice, God’s Son submitted to the utmost extremity of humiliation entering into total solidarity with those who are without help.”

In other words God intervenes by “interposing himself.” Ibid 132

But here’s the thing: God was in Christ is reconciling the world—and not just the good people who think like us—to himself.

For everyone, as Solzhenitsyn learns in the Soviet Gulag, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Ibid 142

Victim and victimizer meet at the foot of the cross to receive the transforming love of God’s wrath.

In eleven days when we gather around the crib of the Christ Child let’s remember that crib leads directly to cross, and on the cross is  “Emmanuel, God with us”, who hears all cries, and gives us ears that we might hear them too.