Texts: Zephaniah 3.14-20; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
Like most all of the lections we read during Advent, the Scriptures for today describe two kinds of reality. First they describe the world as it is now, a world dominated by the rich, the unscrupulous and the powerful at the expense of the poor, the principled and the vulnerable. Then they imagine or look forward to a day in which the tables are turned, a day when the poor, the vulnerable and the faithful will rejoice in God’s salvation, while their enemies are done away with forever. In the Luke reading, for example, John the Baptist announces God’s supreme displeasure at the behaviour of the Jewish elites who governed
Judea in the first half of
the 1st century. These royal
and priestly classes had chosen to collaborate with the invading Romans in
order to preserve their status and wealth, even though this meant turning a
blind eye to the way in which the invaders exploited and robbed the ordinary
folk of their very livelihoods. John
castigates them for their poisonous hypocrisy.
Like the prophet Zephaniah before him, John warns that a “day of the
Lord” is at hand, a cataclysmic day in which all their faithless and
self-serving ways would be exposed, while the faithful ones, those who suffer
because of the sins of these elites, would be vindicated forever. I quote:
I baptise you with water; but one is coming after me . . . who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Get the gist? The day of the Lord is like a deluge of fire. The faithful ones are like wheat, preserved from the fire and taken to God’s own heart. But the deceitful ones, who only want to protect themselves, are like the worthless chaff that is thrown into the fire and burned. The outcome of that purgatorial cleansing is beautifully described in the song of praise we heard from the final part of the book of Zephaniah. There the prophet imagines a world in which the remnant of God’s people, the lame and outcast ones who survive the punishment of their oppressors, are gathered to God in such a way that their experience of misery and shame is transformed utterly. The song imagines a future where the people of God will praise God for ever, rejoicing in his love and mercy for all time to come.
It’s a wonderful vision. So wonderful that I sometimes feel that it is all too good to be true! Of course, I have no difficultly with the part of the story that describes the evil and self-serving corruption of the elites. Who could deny it? At this time of year our political leaders come out with platitudes about peace on earth and the importance of defending human rights and democratic freedoms. At the same time, in
Iraq and Afghanistan
soldiers and intelligence officers from the West are bribing, torturing, and
killing local people in order to preserve and promote our economic interests – 100s
of billions of dollars worth of economic interests. Both at home and abroad, political prisoners
are being denied their rights to legal representation and a fair trial, while
the folk who flee these conflicts and come to our shores are being detained for
up to four years while their cases are being examined. Meanwhile, few governments in the history of post-colonial
Australia has done more to erode the rights and hopes of Aboriginal people than
the current government, with its suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in
the Northern Territory and other places.
Hypocrisy like this, naked hypocrisy, makes me feel sick to the
stomach. I feel angry, I feel powerless,
and eventually I succumb to what some are calling “hope-fatigue.” Bono said it all in his memorable song from
Jesus won’t you take the time
to throw this drowning man a line
“Peace on earth.”
I hear it every Christmastime
but hope and history just won’t rhyme,
so what’s it worth,
this “peace on earth”?
The fact that Advent coincides with
summer festival doesn’t help the situation, for me. As a child summer was the time when all our
family friends went to the beach for a holiday.
In summer, we knew that we were poor and that neither our church nor our
community really gave two hoots. I still
feel that. It still hurts. The feeling is compounded by all the rampant
consumption that dominates our cultural landscape at this time of year. Because of what I experienced as a child, I
find it difficult to see anything in all of this consumption apart from a
complete indifference to the suffering of other people. In sub-Saharan Australia Africa
there are kids starving because they don’t have enough to eat. In Indonesia,
Thailand, the Philippines and , kids are being sold into
sex-slavery so that the rest of their families will be able to stay alive. Even here in Columbia , there are thousands and
thousands of families who find it difficult to put a roof over their heads or
pay the grocery bill. Yet, each summer,
middle-class Australians escape to their second or third homes at the beach and
indulge in an exchange of goods which is surplus, entirely surplus, to anything
they might possibility need. Again, I
feel sick to the stomach. I feel overwhelmed
at the enormity of the injustice. In the
middle of all of this nausea I simply find it difficult to believe that a day
of salvation is at hand. Very difficult.
Now, part of my anxiety about all of this is clearly emotional and psychological. It is tied up with my experience of the world, and the narratives I create to account for that experience. But part of the anxiety is also theological, and has more to do with a puzzle which the bible itself sets up, and puts into play. Let me try and spell it out for you. Here, this world: evil, corrupt, rich getting richer, poor getting more miserable. There, world to come: peace, joy, no more bad guys, vindication for all who suffered at their hands. Very great distance from here to there. How is the distance crossed? How do we get from here to there? On this particular point, the “how” bit, the bible doesn’t seem to be very clear, almost as though it doesn’t actually know how. On my worst and most cynical days, this does not inspire confidence!
Of course, the theologians have tried to fill in the gaps in the biblical witness. Theologians like to do that. The evangelicals say that Jesus will return with a whole army of heaven and whip the nasty people’s arses. Then he’ll wave his kingly sceptre and the world will return to an Eden-like state in which we’ll all love each other the way that God loves us. But this theory raises more questions than it solves. Amongst other things, one must ask why Jesus would behave so very differently on his second visit than he did on his first. The first time around he didn’t force anyone to do anything. He invited, he loved, he cajoled and argued forcefully, he exampled a different way to be. But he didn’t compel anyone to do anything. That would have been to override the freedom we have as human being, a freedom apparently so prized by God that he allows us to use that freedom to do evil. Wouldn’t a powerful army of arse-kickers kind’ve undermine that whole God-is-love image, God as the supreme protector of our right to choose?
“Damn right,” say the liberal theologians, “let’s attend more closely to the story as it’s actually told.” That God became a child, one of us. He was born in our midst, full of grace and truth. He went about the place healing, driving out our demons, and teaching us how to love one another. But then the rich elites got hold of him. They tortured him and nailed him to a cross. Sure, there was a resurrection, but it’s all rather mysterious. Now you see him, now you don’t. He lives on in the world as a kind of memory or spirit of the good. Perhaps this suggests that God is like our deepest and best self? God changes the world only when we decide to change the world. God prompts and pricks our conscience, but refuses to do anything other than what we choose to do for ourselves: giving our second coat to someone who needs it, to pick a relevant Scriptural example. But again, I’m really not sure that this theory solves anything much. It makes a mockery, for instance, of all those bible passages which insist that it is not we, ourselves, who make the world’s salvation, but God alone. By grace, the action of God, are we saved through faith, and this is the gift of God, not of human works, lest anyone should boast (Eph 2.8,9). If the liberal theory were correct, then I would personally consider the whole hope-of-salvation thing to be no more than a cruel joke visited upon us by a God who raises our hopes and expectations, but never intends to meet them with anything real.
Well. What’s to be done with all of this? What am I to do with the anxiety of my lived experience? What am I to do with the theological conundrum? When in doubt, I have often considered it wise to take a break from all the anxiety and tell a story. A story takes you out of yourself, and here’s a good one I came across a few years ago.
The time has come for St. Peter's annual three-week vacation, and Jesus volunteers to fill in for him at the Pearly Gates. "It's no big deal," Peter explains. "Sit at the registration desk, and ask each person a little about his or her life. Then send them on to housekeeping to pick up their wings."
On the third day, Jesus looks up to see a bewildered old man standing in front of him.
"I'm a simple carpenter," says the man. "And once I had a son. He was born in a very special way, and was unlike anyone else in this world. He went through a great transformation even though he had holes in his hands and feet. He was taken from me a long time ago, but his spirit lives on forever. All over the world people tell his story."
By this time, Jesus is standing with his arms outstretched. There are tears in his eyes, and he embraces the old man.
"Father," he cries out, "It's been so long!"
The old man squints, stares for a moment, and says, "Pinocchio?"
This story is not an ordinary story. It is a joke. A joke distinguishes itself from a story as such by introducing an unexpected element into what would otherwise be all very familiar. In this story, we expected that the old man would squint and say “Jesus?” We were set up for that by everything that went before—the religious setting, the details about the old man’s son. But the story transcended its own boundaries and became a joke by taking us by surprise, by shocking us with the arrival of something entirely unforeseen. Parables are like that as well. They subvert the rules of the game. And the greatest parable of all is Jesus.
You see, John’s hearers expected that their messiah would come along to whip the Romans with superior military strength. They were wrong. And our own expectations, all these years later, are probably just as misguided. Whether we are evangelicals who expect that Christ will change things one day by the might of his superior power, or whether we are liberals who expect that Christ is so much one of us that he is only able to help those who help themselves, we are probably all mistaken. For the story of Christ is still in motion, and we are not privy to the punch-line. In another part of Luke’s gospel, we are told only that we cannot know what is to happen, or how. For the punch-line is God’s. As Jesus shocked the Greeks with his human weakness, and scandalised the Jews by his failure and cross, so this fool from God will appear a second time. And while we moderns may pretend to have followed the story so far, the joke, the punch-line, will surely leave us all so gob-smacked that the only response available to us will be to be astonished, to laugh, to rejoice.
For that is what we humans do when we are genuinely surprised. We absorb the shock, we adjust our imagination, and then we laugh! Like Sarai at the announcement of her old-age pregnancy with Isaac. Like the Baptist in
’s womb when Mary came near with the
Christ-child. That is why Paul counsels
the Philippians to cease their worrying and rejoice. Stop trying to master it all with your brain,
stop trying to second-guess God, he says.
Instead, surrender your concerns into God’s hands. Relax into that surprising peace which
surpasses all understanding. The peace
that is absurd. The strange peace that
we have cannot have manufactured for ourselves, because it defies every effort
at human reasoning. Elizabeth
On my better days I see that Advent hope is a choice. It’s about believing in the possibility of surprise. It’s about believing that our tragic and repetitive history has an unforeseen and unpredictable punch-line which will fly in the face of everything that either the evidence or our secular reason might cause us to expect. And that’s the hope I encourage from you as well. The hope of a Mary of Nazareth who, in that ancient time of Advent waiting, become a bearer of the impossible to a tired and un-surprisable world. Rejoice, people of God! For while the night may be filled with tears, joy shall indeed come with the morning. How, I have no idea. But I believe it shall come.