Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent 2A sermon: Overwhelmed by hope

Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

During my career as an advocate for victims of violence it became clear to me that the bottom line of my job wasn’t providing counseling or legal assistance, or even obtaining housing or employment for the people I served. The bottom line of my job was providing hope – offering a new way for these people to see themselves, the world, and their future.

I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, ‘Why do you care? Why are you helping me?’ My answer to them was: ‘because you’re breathing.’ My unspoken response was: ‘because I see Christ in you’ and I have promised in my Baptism to “respect the dignity of every human being.’

Yet, for so many of these people, the circumstances of their lives had convinced them that they weren’t worthy of kindness. They often had trouble trusting anyone – even someone offering to help.

Many people who left my shelter to get on with their lives continued to hold the belief that they were worthless, essentially alone, and doomed to a future much like their past. Every once in a while, though, one of them would make a choice for healing and restoration of life – and when that happened, it was powerful.

A transformation happened. It was an interior transformation, but it was something I began to recognize in their eyes, in their posture, in their voice. I knew it when I saw it and I would rejoice knowing that this one was going to make it. It was as if they had been infused with power. They knew where they were going, they knew they wanted to get there – and there was no turning back.

One day, a woman who had been on her own for a few years, came back to the shelter to visit us and to thank us. Things were going really well for her and she shared all of the wonderful details with us! At one point she said, “I used to think that I didn’t deserve anything good in my life. I was so hopeless. I can’t believe I ever thought that way!”

For this woman, it was a simple change in thinking that allowed a new reality to emerge in her life. This kind of change in thinking is what John the Baptist is calling for in the Gospel reading from Matthew.

Repent [he says] for the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the realization of what had been prophesied, he said. And his message must have been pretty effective, because Scripture tells us that people from Jerusalem and all over Judea were going out to him …and they were [being] baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

In order to truly understand this Scriptural text, I think it will help to look at the original Greek of some words that are familiar to us and allow ourselves to receive a greater fullness of their meaning.

Repent: Μετανοεῖτε in the Greek, means to “change your mind for the better,” but it also carries a moral component – recognizing and “abhoring past sins.” This is an ‘I can’t believe I did that…I can’t believe I thought that…’ state of mind. It’s a light-bulb moment, a revelation that leads to a change of life.

Kingdom: βασιλεία in Greek, isn’t a location – it means “the right or authority of the Messiah to rule.”

Heaven: οὐρανῶν, also isn’t a location, it translates as “the universe and all that is seen in it.”

• And finally, the phrase: has come near, ἐγγίζω translates as: “has been joined one to another.”

John is proclaiming that we need to change our minds, change our thinking because the Messiah, who has the right and authority to rule over the universe and all that is seen in it, has come, and in him heaven and earth have been joined one to another.

That is what the Incarnation is all about, and it changes everything.

In verse 6, the people from the city and surrounding areas were going to John to be baptized, which in the Greek means ‘to be made clean by dipping into water.’ Another layer of the meaning of this word is: ‘overwhelmed.’ Listen to how that would sound: ‘the people came to John to be overwhelmed… made clean in the water.’

Verse 6 also says that as they were being baptized, the people were confessing their sins (ἐξομολογέω). This translates as, “…to acknowledge openly and joyfully, to give thanks, to praise.”

No wonder so many people were going out to him! John wasn’t just a religious weirdo dressed in camel’s hair and eating strange food. He was a believer proclaiming a long-awaited truth: that God’s promise of salvation for the world had been fulfilled in the person of the Jesus, the Messiah, who was coming after him to baptize them - to overwhelm them – making them one with the life-giving spirit and presence of God.

Baptism changes everything – how we see ourselves, how we see our world, and how we see our future. And on this Second Sunday of Advent we are called to examine just what that means for us.

In the oracle of the peaceful kingdom found in the reading from Isaiah, the promise of hope is found in the assurance that once God’s chosen one inaugurates the new age of righteousness, peace and harmony will spread until it encompasses all of creation. Advent calls us to discern how this hope will live in and through us in the world today.

Living in a world where we can watch the news 24 hours a day can make this vision of ever-increasing world-wide harmony a little hard to imagine. So - do we believe in the possibility of it? Or do we hold it as a nice concept that makes sense in church, but has little relevance in the real world?

If we believe it, are we willing to work for it?

In the epistle, Paul tells the church in Rome that what was written in Scripture was meant for our encouragement – that we might have hope…that we might live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ. Speaking to a people who were experiencing the growing pangs of increasing diversity as Gentiles of various kinds became included in the church, Paul reminded them: Welcome one another… just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Advent calls us to discern how welcoming we will be as we experience similar growing pangs; incorporating new people, new ideas, new life into our story at Redeemer, Shelby.

Sadly, for some Christians, Scripture isn’t a source of instruction on hospitality, but rather a weapon of coercion and exclusion. How often have we heard the Word of God preached and the News is anything but Good? Even today’s Gospel… how many will zero in on a partial picture that focuses on the language of condemnation – burning in unquenchable fire – rather than on the judgment of God in the context of the Incarnation?

The reason is: fear works as a motivator. You can fill churches with people who are afraid not to be there. But Christ brought us freedom, not fear, and (as I often say) his church shouldn’t be used as ecclesiastical fire insurance.

The Advent invitation given by John the Baptist calls us to something different. It calls us to repent: to change our thinking and allow a new reality to be formed in us.

As we practice our Advent together, let’s look collectively at how our joy might have become dulled and our passion for the amazing good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ might have lost its gusto.

Come to the waters of baptism and be overwhelmed again by hope!

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