Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Heeding Advent Coach Luke

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday of Advent includes Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

I’ve been talking about Advent as a training season preparing us to welcome the gift of the Christ who comes to us cloaked in humility and paradox. If the evangelist Luke is our coach, whatever is he up to?

Week One of his training regimen had us picture an apocalyptic scene of distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and its waves. On the heels of Superstorm Sandy, with mayhem throughout the Middle East and political gridlock in Washington, this was not hard to visualize, even before Friday’s devastating news from Newtown.

Week Two had Luke setting our sights on a certain moment in history when Tiberius was emperor, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee—a nasty trio we’d all have avoided like a plague of plagues, but representing just the right moment, says Luke, for God to act, and to do so through an unforgettable fellow named John, who emerged from the desert on strategic assignment.

So far, you might wonder what any of Luke’s agenda has to do with Christmas. But wait: isn’t Luke the Gospel writer who gives us most of what we know about the birth and infancy of Jesus? He must know what he’s up to… but what is it?

If we cheated and jumped ahead to next Sunday’s Gospel, would it help? There we’ll find two women and the babies they’re carrying in utero, Mary chambering Jesus in her womb and her relative Elizabeth sheltering John in hers—the same John we meet today, nicknamed the Baptizer for his trademark experience that aligned people with the religious movement he would lead. And when next Sunday comes, we’ll hear Mary sing her song Magnificat, extolling
God for what will come through Jesus her son: scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted. Week four will show the central place children occupy in God’s work of redemption, and the divine importance of parental love.

But first, today’s training drill sets us on the banks of the Jordan River, among the crowds who came to John the Baptizer to make a fresh start of life. Except that he knew the scent of falsehood, and could sense the deceit about which T. S. Eliot would write in “Murder in the Cathedral”, “The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

John was offering a breakthrough experience based on repentance, a change of heart showing itself in countercultural behavior: putting my second coat on someone else’s shoulders, ensuring that no food goes stale or wasted by sharing it with the hungry, finding contentment in what I rightly have, not grasping what belongs to someone else. These are fruits worthy of repentance, he says.

Scanning the crowds, he knew there were some who would make no such commitment. They had come to be baptized the way people line up for flu shots, to avoid what they fear, but at no great cost to them. He minced no words with these folks who feel entitled to safety because they participate in a mass ritual, or because they come fortunately born from a good upright family—or both, as may be the case with how some Episcopalians see themselves.

John says these self-excusing folks are like snakes slithering away from a woodpile when it’s set on fire. And yes, if that’s not hard hitting enough, poisonous snakes, vipers—to make no commitment to change, no commitment to bear fruits worthy of repentance is to poison the community, the Church, and the body politic.

With Luke as our Advent coach, what are we going to recognize at Christmas?

How profoundly important to God is our life in the flesh, our mortal life that is so vulnerable to the violence of the proud and of the poisonous, the tyrannical and the deranged. So vulnerable, yet bearing the divine image, capable of seeing that God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, capable of the call to right ancient wrongs and heal ancient wounds.

We will recognize how profoundly important to God is our life in the flesh, and how uniquely important to us is our life in the Spirit of God. The Spirit that can change hearts to repent, the Spirit that will wipe our slates clean and free human will for a fresh start, the Spirit that will make us wise enough and brave enough to change the disordered society in which you and I live.