November 28, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Across the United States in recent weeks, there have been tidal waves of accusation and blame, counter-accusations and blame, judgments and more judgments from the left and from the right and from all points in between. Political parties are said to have been judged by the voters. Individual politicians are said to have been repudiated and put in their place.
It’s the kind of atmosphere that could well put one in mind of John the Baptist. Surely he’d have a thing or two to say on all this and on the role of the church in these troubled times. The question is, how many congregations this Advent will really make room for John the Baptist’s preparing of the way. In recent years a pre-packaged Advent series called “The Advent Conspiracy” has been making the rounds in some churches. It has the laudable goal of focusing on what’s really important via buying less, giving to charity more, spending time with, instead of spending money on, family. It’s all laudable but seems at times like it could have been spearheaded by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil as much as by anything in the Bible. In any event, John the Baptist does not seem to be on the program calling people to repent so they can truly enter the kingdom of God that Jesus would bring. Would it be too spiritual a thing to call for repentance instead of a general call to follow the love of Jesus? Is John too shrill?
The Church has always traditionally made room for John the Baptist, and for good reason. As Fred Craddock once pointed out, John the Baptist was the most famous preacher of his generation. People walked for miles just to hear this man and to watch his somewhat theatrical way of preaching. He was a sight to see, all right, but it was his message that arrested people’s hearts. Even people who deemed themselves quite devout before they showed up at the Jordan River ended up going home soaking wet having been baptized by John. Even people who had no intention of confessing their sins suddenly found themselves welling up with tears, telling God how sorry they were, and getting dunked into those muddy waters only to emerge spiritually clean and refreshed.
Of course, like all preachers, John didn’t get through to everybody. Some who came to the Jordan with no intention of getting taken in by this man stuck to that determination pretty fiercely. The religious leaders provided John the opportunity to cut loose with his strongest language. “Sneaky snakes!” John fairly howled! “Somebody set the field on fire and out slithered you all! Well, I’m here to tell you that the days of resting on your laurels are over. Don’t whip out your Members Only temple gold card–your theological credentials cut no ice with me! Don’t tell me about your spiritual lineage or that you are Abraham’s children because if God wanted more children of Abraham, he’d turn the stones into a whole bunch of them. But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Your hearts are as dead as stone already. God wants living trees producing juicy spiritual fruit. If I were you, I’d get serious about that because I’m here to lay the groundwork and clear a path for Somebody big and strong who is coming any minute now. He’s coming with a very sharp axe in his hand and he will chop down and burn to ashes dead trees like you all!”
This was amazing stuff. It shook people up. It would shake us up. The Second Sunday in Advent may be a time to ponder all the paradoxes of Advent and Christmas—paradoxes that would shake us all up if only we took the time to note them. Of course, the problem is that many people even in the pews of our churches see no paradoxes at all. Christmas is as straightforward a holiday as they come. Starting the day after Thanksgiving it’s just one long string of “Holly, Jolly, Merry, Merry, Joy, Joy, Joy” as children’s eyes shine and lights twinkle and we stuff ourselves with food. We might get a little sick of the non-stop cheer-fest but we don’t typically regard it as paradoxical or ambiguous.
But that creates a “teachable moment” in the Church as we try to shake people up and wake them up. John the Baptist’s traditionally prominent role in Advent provides wonderful foil to the other trappings of the season (which is why John the Baptist is wholly absent from pop conceptions of the holiday season). John reminds us that repentance is involved in preparing ourselves for the Christ. What’s more, the way things go in at least North America now, we many times need to repent for how we celebrate Christmas itself!! Now there’s a message that will strike many people as at least as strong as “Brood of vipers!”
What if we now are the people who have become stone-cold in our faith on account of our having allowed the secular conception of the holiday to suffocate genuine piety and deep reflection on the meaning of Christ’s advent in our world? What if we are the ones who pay more attention to decorating an expensive spruce tree in our living room but not much attention at all to the living tree of faith that is supposed to produce the true fruits of repentance? In Advent, do tinsel and shiny ornaments eclipse for us the Fruit of the Spirit? Are we more interested in the still-life golden angel that sits atop our Christmas tree than in living angels who may be God’s messengers to call us to repentance?
Nobody wants John the Baptist at their holiday party. He’s one messy guest. And so shrill, too. You can’t even get through the first verse of “The Little Drummer Boy” before John is telling you to confess your sins for the umpteenth time (John would scare that poor little drummer kid silly, which may be just as well as that is surely one song that would make John gag!).
John is the kind of Advent guest that forces you to wonder either what in the world is wrong with HIM or what in the world is wrong with YOU.
One hope we still have room for John in our congregations at Advent. His is a voice calling out—a voice we need to hear.
Matthew 3 confronts us with a textual hiccup common to the gospels and its appropriation of Isaiah 40:3. Most translations of Matthew 3:3 have it as “A voice of one crying in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But many translations of the original text in Isaiah has it this way: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord.’” So which is it? Is the crier in the desert or is the message about the coming Lord dealing with his arrival in a desert place? Conceivably we can see this as a both/and: the reason the crier is calling out in the desert is because it is in the desert where the Lord will come (as indeed happens in Matthew 3 when Jesus shows up in the midst of the desert and departs to that same place after his baptism as well). Either way or both ways the idea is the same: the highway to God’s salvation begins in the place of death and chaos because that is where that message is needed the most.
In her wonderful children’s picture book We Were There: A Nativity Story, Eve Bunting (illustrator: Wendell Minor) turns Christmas upside down for us in ways that are revealing. (http://www.amazon.com/We-Were-There-Nativity-Story/dp/0395822653#reader_0395822653 ).
The simple story shows us first a slithering snake, then a warty toad, a scary scorpion, a shiny cockroach, a swooping bat, a hairy spider, and a furry rat all on a journey. Each creature introduces itself and then concludes with the words “I will be there.”
As the book ends we are shown more common nativity creatures: fuzzy lambs, doe-eyed donkeys, gentle cows. But as those traditional figures in the stable stand around the manger in which the Babe has been laid by his mother Mary, we see in the corner, unnoticed, that small gathering of the snake, toad, scorpion, cockroach, bat, spider, and rat.
Bunting has found a lyric way to remind us that the coming of the Christ is not all about the traditional and cozy trappings in which we have for too long ensconced the Christmas story but that this is a story for all creatures and that Jesus came to embrace and renew the good, the bad, the ugly; the expected and the unexpected.
A simple children’s story like this reminds us of the paradoxes and unexpected twists of the season, rather the way John the Baptist can shake things up for us if only we take time to listen to his message.
(Note: My thanks to children’s author and Calvin College Professor of English, Gary Schmidt, for putting me on to the Bunting book some years back).
Author: Doug Bratt
Some people claim the theologian Karl Barth said that modern Christians should always have an open Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. It’s advice that remains as good today as when Barth first offered it. So those who preach and teach this Sunday’s Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints might take the time to share how that philosophy manifests itself out in our own work and ministries.
Of course, we first pay prayerful, careful and thoughtful attention to the Scriptures we preach and teach. We let the Holy Spirit sink them deep into our very bones and soul. We live with the Scriptures we preach and teach so that the Holy Spirit may speak through our efforts to speak of them.
However, thoughtful preachers and teachers turn next to the media. We look at the day’s headlines and read some of its stories. As I write this, some of those headlines read, “Minnesota Officer Faces Manslaughter Charges in Shooting,” and “Airstrikes on Aleppo Resume as Russia Begins New Offensive in Syria.” Isaiah 11’s preachers and teachers will want to add more contemporary headlines.
For Christians Advent is, as John Buchanan notes, “a season of dramatic contrasts” between society’s Christmas’ bright lights and Advent’s quiet, poignant hymns about things like lonely exile. Contrasts between our culture’s mad dash to finish everything by December 24 and Advent’s invitation to wait quietly for Christ’s return.
Perhaps, however, nowhere is the Advent contrast sharper than between Isaiah 11 and our newspapers’ headlines. The Advent contrast may be sharpest between Isaiah’s vision of peace and the reality of the world in which we live.
This week’s Old Testament lesson speaks of peace on earth, while soldiers stand in harm’s way in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The angels sing about goodwill among people, while Palestinians and Israelis fight each other. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, while gangs make our community’s streets dangerous.
Isaiah 11 describes a peaceable kingdom that’s so lovely that it almost makes us weep with longing for it. It’s, in fact, so lovely that it captivated the imagination of the nineteenth century American painter, Edward Hicks who painted more than 60 slightly different interpretations of it and was working on another when he died.
Hicks interpreted Isaiah’s lovely word picture of predators and prey living in peaceful harmony. The wolf lives with the lamb. Leopards lie down with goats. Calves and lions lie together. And a little child leads all of them. It’s no wonder, as someone has noted, that in Hick’s picture, the animals’ eyes are wide open, as though perpetually amazed.
God created you and me to live in peace with God, each other and the rest of his creation. The Lord meant for the foundations of peace – righteousness and justice – to fill God’s whole creation. God even calls his God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 11 reminds us that while we live in a violent world, God will not rest until peace captures the hearts and minds of all people and nations. God won’t stop making peace until all predators and prey, as well as all enemies live together in peace.
But in the meantime there is Iraq and Afghanistan, ISIS and Boko Haram. In the meantime internal strife threatens to destroy countries like Ukraine and South Sudan. In the meantime political turmoil roils countries as diverse as the United States, South Korea and Columbia.
It’s a landscape even the hopeful prophet Isaiah would have recognized. His prophecy begins with a scene of horrible desolation, perhaps of a battlefield. Isaiah’s Israel has no buildings left standing. Her enemies have stripped her fields bare.
So we can almost picture the tears welling up in Isaiah’s eyes. Rubble and rebellion surround him. The stark contrast between God’s peace and the tragic reality of human history seem to almost overwhelm the prophet. After all, in a world meant for life, he sees much death.
So where does the prophet’s hope for peace lie? In the midst of the violence that plagues the nations, our communities and, outside of God’s redeeming grace, our own hearts, from where will our own peace come?
From a poignant symbol of death and devastation, says Isaiah. For centuries Israel had placed her hopes in David’s family dynasty. God had, after all, promised David that his family tree would flourish, that one of his descendants would always sit on Israel’s throne.
As Isaiah writes our text, however, that promise looks shaky at best. The once towering, leafy family tree of David’s dynasty is dying. Armies and empires have essentially reduced it to a dead stump.
God, however, directs Isaiah’s eyes to a tiny, green branch growing out of that lifeless, rotting stump. God gives the prophet a vision of great life and hope. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. From his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
If God hadn’t revealed it in his word, we’d hardly believe it. A tender, green shoot sprouting out of a dead stump? Life springing out of death and desolation? A king coming out of David’s withering family?
Perhaps even more amazingly, however, this is no ordinary king who sprouts out of the stump that is David’s dying dynasty. Isaiah promises the Spirit of the Lord will so fill this King that he’ll delight not, first, to do not his will, but the Lord’s.
So this King won’t listen to his cronies and make judgments based on what’s politically popular. He’ll actually hear the cries of the poor and take up the cause of the meek whom the powerful so cruelly oppress.
Most kings wear swords or some other signs of royal power around their waists. Isaiah promises this shoot from Jesse’s stump will wear righteousness and faithfulness. And under this king’s reign, God promises, such peace will flower that former enemies, predators and prey alike, will live together with people in peace and safety.
Now, of course, Christians believe that shoot from Jesse’s stump, the great King Isaiah describes, is our Lord Jesus Christ. From the bleeding, dead stump of his crucifixion grows a tender shoot of resurrection life and power.
Yet what has really changed since that Son of David returned to the heavenly realm? Teenagers in our communities are killing each other in record numbers. Politicians bicker apparently endlessly over things like stadiums and roads. Even some Christians perpetuate the segregation that has always plagued America’s churches.
So what has changed? Isaiah’s vision of a stump is a good place to begin our search. After all, God’s work often seems to begin among the stumps of human failure and rebellion. After all, it begins in a garden human rebellion soiled. It continues in a flood, with Noah and the animals bobbing atop its watery grave. It continues with a childless couple named Abram and Sarah, with Isaac, the child of promise. It continues with a little girl and her fiancé, with the child Jesus.
Through the life, death and resurrection of that Jesus, whose birth we remember and whose return we anticipate, we catch glimpses of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom already now. Yet did the tender shoot Christ’s coming really change anything?
At the United States’ churches’ best, we don’t have to look much farther than the places in which we worship and serve. There the descendants of slaves sing with descendants of slave owners. The descendants of those who passed Jim Crow laws worship with descendants of Jim Crow’s victims there. Descendants of those who had to ride the back of our busses lead worship with descendants of those who shoved them to the back of those busses.
We’ve been in enough churches to know that they sometimes sound more like lion’s dens than the peaceable kingdom. I’ve seen a few leopards chase some goats around our Sunday School rooms and hallways. Our churches’ little children aren’t always the leaders. Sometimes the snakes still lash out at them.
If, however, you look closely, you’ll see a small glimpse of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom in some of our churches. In a world where wolves still eat lambs, at our communion tables we catch glimpses of wolves eating with lambs.
In a world where bears still regularly devour cattle, in our church committees you catch glimpses of bears and wolves working together. And, best of all, they’re lead by the little Child of Bethlehem, Jesus the Christ.
God’s not yet finished making all things new. So there’s still plenty of work to do, both in the Church and across God’s kingdom and world. You and I still must work to live at peace in our homes and families, listening and forgiving, bending and embracing. We still need to work for peace and reconciliation in our workplaces and neighborhoods, refusing to speak harsh or condemning words.
We still work for peace among the nations, praying for it daily, and calling our leaders to work for it constantly. We also see what God has made as living under our care as caretakers of God’s good creation.
Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom isn’t, after all, just a quaint old picture or a lovely Christmas card. It’s a picture of the future that God repeatedly says he has planned for his creation. That picture of the peaceable kingdom is a future that shapes the way we view the various stumps of our own lives. It also shapes the way we think about a treat each other and the world around us even now.
In the face of sin and among the stumps of our own lives, we cling to the vision of the way God created things to be, to Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom. The Baby of Bethlehem is a sign that God will keep his promise to usher in a new creation where peace will reign.
In his article, “Pray and Vote” in the June 14, 2003 issue of The Christian Century, Garret Keizer writes, ‘Even before the invasion of Iraq had begun, the cry went forth through and from the churches: Pray! Pray for the soldiers, pray for the civilians, pray for peace. So I preached, and so I did.
I wonder, though, if God didn’t answer our petitions with one of his own: Vote! Polls indicate that something like 96 percent of Americans say that they believe in a supreme being. More than 70 percent say that they pray at least once a week. Yet less than half of the nation’s registered voters participated in the  presidential election. Millions of others were not even registered.
It follows that among those praying now are a fair number who didn’t vote then, which strikes me as a bit like praying for employment without bothering to apply for a job. . . We simply have better things to do. For instance, we have to say our prayers. We have to continue our “faith journeys.” . . . The right of political self-determination is indeed a talent entrusted to our care, and prayer alone does not count as an exercise of faithful stewardship. Perhaps the most extreme form of taking the Lord’s name in vain is to say “God bless America” without a disciplined willingness to bless it ourselves.’
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Author: Stan Mast
I have given invocations at many events over the years—civic dinners with important speakers, the dedication of public and private buildings, the launching of significant social justice initiatives, even the inauguration of a local judge. But I’ve never given the invocation at the swearing in of a President. That is essentially what we have in Psalm 72, though it is not a prayer for a leader elected by the people and limited by other branches of government; it is a prayer for an absolute King appointed by God to represent God’s Kingdom on earth.
The superscription identifies it as “Of Solomon,” which could mean “For Solomon.” The last verse of this Psalm seems to identify it as the prayer of David, though many scholars think that those words are more of a reference to the entire Book II of the Psalter. But if we take the Psalm at its simplest meaning, it is a prayer by King David for his son, Solomon, as Solomon begins his reign over Israel. This interpretation is supported I Kings 3:3-14, where God offers Solomon anything he wants as he is about to be inaugurated. Solomon asks for the wisdom to lead his people with justice, which, obviously, echoes the prayer of Psalm 72.
Indeed, that prayer for justice and righteousness is the heart of Psalm 72. As the King is about to take his throne, what the Psalm asks for is not power, but justice and righteousness. And not just any justice and righteousness. “Endow the King with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.” The King of Israel was supposed to reign as God’s designated representative, so that Israel could enjoy the Kingdom of God on earth. Thus, he needed what could only come from God, namely, God’s own justice and righteousness. If Israel, or any nation for that matter, is to reflect the reign of God on earth, its highest leader needs this gift from God, because no one has it naturally. Which, of course, is why so many leaders fail and why so many nations fall. Could there be a more important prayer for this moment is history, when the world is inundated with unrighteousness and injustice?
Some scholars say that what follows in Psalm 72 is a series of wishes for the king. Others see these verses as a job description for the king. I want to read it as a lovely dream, a divinely inspired version of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This is what Israel or any nation would look like if the prayer of verse 1 is answered. This is every citizen’s dream for his or her nation. This is God’s dream for his Kingdom on earth, so that it is like God’s Kingdom in heaven.
When the Leader is endowed with God’s justice and righteousness, that Leader “will judge God’s people with righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.” Such a leader will always do the right thing. In our current political climate, that’s hard to imagine. But the Psalmist takes the dream even further. Not only will this leader do the right thing, he will even do the right thing for the afflicted. The Hebrew word there refers to the poor, the marginalized, the victims of injustice in any form. These are the people who get the short end of the stick again and again in most societies. But the leader who has God’s justice and righteousness will see to it that the least, the last and the lost receive perfect justice. Those on the margins will be at the center of God’s kingdom, even on earth.
In verses 3 and 4 the Psalmist spells out what that will mean for the nation in very practical terms. It will mean both prosperity and social justice. In our current political scene, those are opposites over which politicians argue. You have to choose one or the other. You can’t have both. You are pro-growth or pro-poor, pro-business or pro-equality. When God’s justice and righteousness rule the heart of the King, it will be both/and, not either/or.
Now, we must be careful here. The word translated “prosperity” in verse 3 is “shalom,” which refers not first or mainly to material prosperity, but to a wealth of well-being and contentment. Everything will be right, everyone will have what they need, and everyone will be content. No one will be left out, because the Leader, imbued with God’s justice and righteousness, “will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy.” But it will not be well with everyone, because this leader “will crush the oppressors.”
In verses 5 we pray that this King will endure “as long as the Sun, as long as the Moon, through all generations.” That’s a completely understandable prayer. Who would want such a leader to go out of office? No one would ask for term limits on his reign. No one would want this King’s administration to go out of power. May you reign forever, O King!
In verse 6 we hear a lovely simile describing the effects of the reign of such a king. He is “like the rain falling a mown field, like showers watering the earth.” How refreshing it would be to have such a leader. It would rejuvenate an entire nation. “In his days the righteous will flourish; prosperity (shalom, again) will abound till the moon is no more.” Here is a picture of flourishing that is both moral/spiritual and physical/financial. Who wouldn’t want such a King? Who wouldn’t want to live in such a land?
But it is an impossible dream, isn’t it, given the current state of our leadership and our country (whatever country you live in). This is a hopeless prayer. It was never answered in Israel. Even wise Solomon who started so well ended up a sinful old fool with a thousand “wives” and a broken family. No Israelite king ever ruled in such a perfect way. So the prophets denounced Israel’s failed kings in places like Jeremiah 22:3-3, 13, 18. The Kingdom of God on earth was divided, splintered, kidnapped, and ruined. This is a hopeless prayer.
Unless we hear it as an Advent prayer, a prayer of hope that the King, the Son of David, will come one day in righteousness and justice to establish God’s kingdom in all its glory. The prophets who spoke judgment on Israel’s unrighteous kings also spoke of the hope that one day God would send a King who would be the perfect answer to the prayer of Psalm 72. (Cf. Isaiah 9:7, 11:4-5, Jeremiah 23:5-6, 33:15-16.) Those words of hope hung in the air for centuries as God’s earthly kingdom bore no resemblance to its heavenly model.
Then an angel descended to a poor maiden with this impossible dream. “You will be with child and give birth to a son…. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” Nine months later, the air over Bethlehem exploded with the light of a heavenly host who announced that a king had been born in the city of David, “Christ the Lord.” They sang, “Glory, glory, glory” and “Shalom, shalom, shalom.” Kings came from the East to find the One born King of the Jews. His constant message was “the Kingdom of God has come; it is near you.” The Palm Sunday crowd shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” And the sign on his cross said, mockingly, but truly, “The King of the Jews.” One greater than Solomon had come and he is our wisdom and our righteousness (I Cor. 1:24 and 30).
The King for which Israel prayed (and for which we all pray) has come. All the things predicated of his reign in Psalm 72 are happening even now. But not yet completely or perfectly. Thus, we must pray this prayer daily. “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly. Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” It will happen. God will answer.
In the meantime, we must pray this prayer for our human leaders. The political process alone cannot give us such a King. Only God can. Such a king is a pure gift. So as we struggle along through our present political quagmire, let us pray for “the King and all those in authority (I Tim. 2:1-4).“ And let us be loyal subjects of the King who work for righteousness and justice, for prosperity and for the non-prosperous in our society. In this season of Advent, let us be workers and prayers who look to God alone for the solution to our world’s ills.
Let us do this working and praying with the last words of Psalm 72 in our hearts and on our lips. It is easy to get caught up in the political process or to despair of any solution when that process inevitably fails. So let us remember to sing with ancient Israel, the angels of heaven, and the church of all ages: “Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvelous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen.”
Now that the elections are now over, the frequency and necessity of “fact checking” after the Presidential debates might be a good counter example of what we need in a “King.” When you can’t trust the righteousness of a candidate, it is hard to believe that the presidency of such a candidate will be characterized by justice. Such campaign shenanigans make us long for the Coming King who will rule with righteousness and justice.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Acoustics are everything when it comes to how a text is heard but in these days of political turmoil—a roiling pot of many feelings that is bubbling up in also the church—Paul’s call to “accept one another” for the sake of God’s greater glory is bracing. Right now a lot of people I know—including the one I see in the mirror each morning—are having a hard time accepting other people across the rhetorical, political, and social divides running through the land and through the church. As I write this, the U.S. Thanksgiving is 6 days away and I know as a fact that there is high anxiety among many families as to how this will go.
But that only means we need to pay more attention in this Advent Season to what Paul is saying. It is not totally clear what may have prompted these words. But clearly something was rocking the boat in Rome. So Paul appeals to the fundamental core of the Gospel to call people back to their Christian senses. Jesus himself, Paul says, came to earth to endure the punishments and guilt and insults that properly fall on us sinful people, not on God’s Son, the sinless one. But he endured it to create a new day in which we can accept one another.
Paul has another tactic here: the Christians in Rome were mostly Gentiles. They were not Jews, had not been among God’s chosen people originally. But now they had been welcomed through Paul’s preaching because that’s just how it goes in Christ: in baptism we become all one people no matter what our ethnicity, gender, background, or heritage. “This is the heartbeat of the Gospel itself” Paul is as much as saying. “This is how you got into the church in the first place. So now that you’re in, don’t live in ways that reject or isolate others because of differences of opinion or something. That just takes a wrecking ball to the very core of the Good News.”
Paul’s language here echoes his more famous passage in Philippians 2 about adopting the mind of Christ but also the mindset of Christ and the trajectory of Christ: from glory to despicable death back to glory again. Jesus did all that for us so we can surely commit any number of mini-sacrifices ourselves in order to get along with others. What kinds of mini-sacrifices? Perhaps sacrificing you need always to get in the last word. Perhaps sacrificing your desire always to be proven right (and thus others proven wrong). Perhaps sacrificing your alleged right always to speak your mind (“Hey, it’s a free country, ain’t it?”) and opting for silence in that it may be the only way literally and metaphorically to keep the peace.
We all have a hard time letting things drop or letting things slide. But what if sometimes it’s the only way to stop something in a congregation from blowing up? What if that is what we need to do in order to stay in a good relationship with someone and so “accept one another” as Paul here advises?
And make no mistake: the stakes here are high. What appears to be on the line is something we rarely tumble to thinking about when we are in danger of not accepting each other: the very glory of God! Whatever else we might think about when conflict arises, God’s glory probably seldom makes the cut. We might worry about our own reputation or even the reputation of the congregation. We might worry about how a controversy will affect giving to the general budget of the church. We might worry people with young children will transfer to the hip church down the block and so create bad momentum for the congregation in its membership numbers. But the glory of God? We too seldom worry about that.
But Paul could see the connection clearly. He stated this in other places, too, including 1 Corinthians when he told the Corinthians to knock off their arguments, bickering, and lawsuits because it was reflecting badly not so much on them but on the Christ who is supposed to shine forth in glory from his people.
“Remember who you are!” Paul said again and again. “You are baptized, you are one in the Lord. Now act like it!” And when you do, you will be filled with the joy and the peace and finally with the hope that God desires for us to experience.
We are entering Advent and the holiday season as a fractured people in the United States and around the world. And we are a fractured church where accepting one another seems a bit harder than it used to be. Of course, accepting one another need not mean tolerating beliefs or actions that are themselves at variance with the Gospel. Threaten the Gospel itself and Paul would see red. But within the normal bounds of the things that tend to make us unaccepting of one another, Paul is clear: God’s glory cannot shine forth from people whose actions betray the very heart of what Christ came to accomplish and the manner by which he accomplished it.
In the church during Advent and at Christmas we sometimes give in to the wider culture’s desire to keep everything upbeat, cheery, merry, and twinkly. It seems like a bad time to address head on the things that are keeping people apart and tearing at our larger unity. Let’s just keep everything all nice and Normal Rockwell like, shall we? But given the reason why Jesus was born into the world—and given the shape and manner of the ministry that birth ultimately led to—we as preachers actually err when we do NOT address head on our lack of acceptance one of another.
Christmas is exactly the time to talk about this. Why else do we think Jesus came to this world in the first place?
Few things move us like unity among people. If a movie or television show wants to tug at our heartstrings, it could hardly improve on the tried-and-true method of climaxing the drama by having estranged people come back together. Do you remember the first Home Alone movie from some years back? McCauley Culkin played Kevin, the little boy accidentally left home alone when his family went to Paris for the Christmas holidays.
There was a minor sub-plot in that film involving Kevin’s spooky neighbor–a gruff old man whom the neighborhood children avoided. But then Kevin and this old man meet up in church during a children’s choir rehearsal a few hours before the Christmas Eve service. The old man’s granddaughter was in the choir but he had to come to the rehearsal to hear her. A falling out with his son years earlier made him an unwelcome presence at the actual church service. Innocently Kevin suggests the old man just call his son, but the man says he’s not sure he dares.
Of course, the man does call, and so the last scene of the movie shows Kevin staring out his living room window, witnessing the old man hugging his son and sweeping his granddaughter up into his arms as they all head toward the man’s house for Christmas dinner. It’s just a small little scene in a silly little movie, and every time I see it I start to blubber! I try to hide it from my wife, but she always knows, rolls her eyes, and so knows again that at bottom, I’m a sap and a sucker for melodrama!
But really, is there anything more beautiful than reunions of family and friends long separated by a chasm of some kind? I am quite certain that some of you are right now wishing to get back together with a son or daughter, a grandchild, an erstwhile best friend. Most of us know people with whom we were once close but now, well, something went wrong. I’d wager that there are any number of people in this congregation who pray daily for a reunion with someone, and a few of us worry that it will never happen before we die.
Unity is mighty important to us. It is to Jesus, too. That’s why he was born among us.