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Sunday 5 December 2010

Rejoice! A study in faith's absurdity

Texts:  Isaiah 11.1-10; Ps 72.1-7, 18-19; Rom 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12
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 Matthew 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 Isaiah 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 baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the 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 vision of Isaiah.  There the prophet imagines a world in which the remnant of God’s people, the righteous and the weak, 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 experience reconciliation with their enemies and with God, rejoicing in God’s gift of peace for all time to come:  ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.’

It’s a wonderful vision.  So wonderful that I sometimes feel that it’s 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. Right now, at this moment, Nelson Mandela is being lauded as a champion of such Western values.  At the same time, both at home and abroad, political prisoners are being denied their democratic rights to legal representation and a fair trial. American drones are bombing large populations of non-combatant civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The folk who flee the brutal conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Syria are being detained for up to five years while their cases are being examined.  And our domestic gaols are overwhelmingly populated by two groups of suffering people for whom the wider community seems not to care: Aboriginal people and the mentally ill.  These facts completely undermine the West’s apparent commitment to justice and human dignity.  In the face of such hypocrisy, I feel angry, I feel powerless, and eventually I succumb to what some have called “hope-fatigue.”  Bono – from the rock band U2 - said it all in his memorable song from 2001: 
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 Australia’s 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 the Philippines, right now, there are kids starving because they don’t have enough to eat.  In Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Columbia, kids are being sold into sex-slavery so that the rest of their families will be able to stay alive.  Even here in Australia, 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 this indifference.  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.   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 backsides.  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 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 human freedom we have, apparently so prized by God that he allows us to use that freedom to do evil.  Wouldn’t a powerful army of warrior-angels kind’ve undermine that whole God-is-love image, God as the supreme protector of our responsibility 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 any man should boast (Eph 2.8,9).  If the liberal theory were believed, 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 one day.

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 unforseen.  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 Matthew’s gospel, a part we read last week, 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 Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came near with the Christ-child.  That is why Paul counsels the Romans to cease their sniping at each other and rejoice.  Stop trying to control the outcomes, stop trying to whip your opponents with their lack of understanding, 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.

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 unforseen 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.

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church in December 2004.