Advent 2—Year C–December 9, 2018
Baruch 5:1-9, Canticle 4 or 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
There have been times when I believed the gospel, the Good News, was a series of theological assertions strung together like Christmas tree lights. Other times I’ve believed the good news was like platitudes on a Hallmark Card that we send to our neighbors every Christmas to show what nice and inoffensive people we are. Both understandings make the gospel so small! But when we actually read, say, the Gospel according to Luke, we find first and foremost, that The good news is a universal story of how God enters this world in Jesus in order to set all things right.
We see this clearly today when Luke begins chapter 3 by describing how messed up the world is: he first mentions the vicious and vainglorious Tiberius Caesar and his administrative minions Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and his brothers who implement Rome’s destructive rule. Then he mentions the high priest Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas who are also corrupt, running the temple for their own comfort and working with the Romans to keep their power, which Jesus calls a “den of thieves”. These brutal oppressors were destroying the poor and outcast, denying them peace and justice.
Luke’s good news is the story of how God enters this world in Jesus in order to set these things right.
Therefore this good news is not just about theological beliefs, though they are important, or just about pious platitudes, as true as they may be. It is about Creator God, Israel’s God, coming to set the people free—and not just the people of Israel, for as Luke says, quoting Isaiah, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The problem also isn’t just that Tiberius is a bad leader, which he is, it is that the structure of human civilization is built on violent, selfish, and destructive patterns of behavior. Certainly an enlightened emperor is better than a sadistic one, but the whole system is set up to favor those in power and to subvert justice and peace for the poor. The gospel says God has come in Jesus to make all things new, God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
Then Luke says, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness and John went into the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
But we might well ask how confessing one’s sins at a small river in a hidden corner of the empire could possibly have an impact on the system being run out of the capitals of the world? Why worry about confessing my petty sins when what is needed is more weapons to take out the Romans and their lackeys, so we can take charge ourselves?
We need guns and bombs, not confessions and baptisms.
But strange as it sounds, God has been planning all along to transform the world, not through violence and power, but through a radical transformation of the human heart and the human community. God’s plan is to make it possible for humanity to be peaceful, not violent, to be forgiving, not retaliatory, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. God is initiating this process of transformation and transcendence one human being, one human community at a time. God starts with Israel, so that they can be a light to the nations. Jesus comes as the fully human one, the New Being, with heart and mind in full union with God.
God’s work does not wait until one great end time cataclysm, but in the evolution of human hearts through the impact of the self-sacrificing death and resurrection of Jesus, the human face of God’s love.
Therefore, since every individual is absolutely necessary for God’s story to come true, John calls everyone to repent of their sins, and step into a new life grounded in the forgiveness and acceptance of God.
We may have the correct theology and be cultured, nice people but without ever having let go of our past we will continue to live in prisons of our own making and will be unable to join Jesus in the process of new creation.
Here’s an image that helps me see the importance of repentance:
I’ve mentioned this before I first heard it from poet David Whyte: He says when we’re born we’re given a tiny black bag into which we put our sins, regrets, and grievances. So by the time we’re 40 or 50 we are dragging through life an enormous bag that extends 50 yards behind us.
This is the bag John the Baptist invites us to drop. We drop the bag on one shore, go under the waters as a sign of having now died to our past, and then leave by way of the other shore, free at last, free to follow Jesus into the new way of being human in the world.
It is clear Jesus is more interested in the future than in the past: remember the farming metaphor: he says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” And he says, to the man who wants to leave to go home and bury his father, “let the dead bury their own dead.”
He isn’t telling us not to attend our parents’ funerals. Rather he is telling us we can’t follow Jesus while we are dragging our bag filled with regret and grievance over how we treated our father and how our father treated us.
Ilia Delio puts it this way: “Jesus consistently states that nostalgia or regret will thwart the unfolding reign of God.” The Emergent Christ, page 109
In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, one of the Narnia Chronicles, The dwarfs are unwilling to accept the freedom Aslan offers them. Aslan the Lion says, “They will not let us help them. “They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” The Last Battle
Delio says, “The message of Jesus can be summed up in several key areas: make wholes where there are divisions, forget the past and go forward, allow the Spirit to work in you to create a new future; do these things because God seeks a new presence in the cosmos, a new unity of love, peace, and justice.” The Emergent Christ, Page 110
What if the story of the Kingdom of God is an ongoing historical process that is continuing today? What if we saw signs of the reign of God when Slavery ended and Women were given the right to vote and Gays and Lesbians allowed to marry the one they love?
Signs of the New Creation don’t happen apart from Christ working through women and men who courageously drop their bags and followed Jesus into a new future.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains: “God without us, will not; as we without God, cannot.”
The only remaining issue for each of us is to find and take up our role in the story. What part, at this stage of my life, is Christ asking each one of us to play in God’s evolutionary process of healing the world?
Clearly we are not the hero of the story, for the hero is Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. When we say “Thy Kingdom come”, we are also saying “My Kingdom go.” But there are 10,000 parts left to take. What role is being offered to you now by Christ?