Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.
As a pastor and a spiritual director, I have the privilege of being invited into deep conversations with people when their faith is being challenged, or they’re experiencing a “dark night” where they feel no sense of the presence of God in their lives. Some are seeking faithfully to discern God’s path for this moment in their lives. Others are just trying to stay connected.
In all of these conversations, what is foundational is the person’s relationship with God. Who is God to each of these? How do they relate to God and how do they experience God relating to them?
Some of us who grew up in the church learned how to understand and relate to God in certain “acceptable” ways. Others among us either didn’t grow up in the church, or grew up being taught awful, sometimes unfaithful doctrines that continue to affect how we relate to God. Still others have had personal, mystical experiences of God leading to an intimate, convincing relationship with God. Whatever religious doctrines or practices or theology we have, when life is challenging, it’s our belief in and relationship with God that carry us through.
(Photo credit: VM Sherer, "God" by Manuela Rivera Mulvey)
What I’ve noticed is that the challenging moments of our lives often affect our belief in God. I think of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich whose physical challenges led her into an experience of God that completely transformed her believing, and therefore how she related to God, leading her to her famous description of Christ the Mother of Mercy and her equally famous proclamation that “God is not wroth” which she clarifies by saying that wrath is found in humans, but not in God who loves us mercifully, tenderly, and completely.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul is encouraging the members of the new Christian church in Rome to relate to one another differently: to live in peace and harmony. Jews and Gentiles, Roman occupiers and those they occupied are now members of a new community of faith. The Scriptures, he reminds them, foretold that God’s plan of salvation would be revealed through the Jews, but that it would reach all nations and peoples, and habitual enemies would live together in peace.
Looking around then and now, this seems like a dim possibility, but our belief assures us that with God, nothing is impossible. So, Paul exhorts the church in Rome to continue to hope and believe praying this beautiful blessing over them: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Peace in believing…
If we believe that God is just and kind, full of compassion and mercy, that God cares for those who suffer and hears their prayers, that God’s love for us is steadfast and sacrificial, then even when things have gone array, we can have peace in our believing. Even when the world has gone wrong, our belief that God chooses to be in loving, sustaining relationship with us will sustain our hope.
What gets in our way is sin, but that’s one of those words… How do we understand it?
I offer you what German-American theologian Paul Tillich wrote just after WWII came to an end. Tillich describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation, which is caused by the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, distorts all of our relationships. It is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that our relationships are restored and we are returned to righteousness, that is, to right relationship. (Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Whipf and Stock Pub., 1948)
And the people were flocking to John to hear his teaching. They wanted what he was offering – a new way of being in relationship with God and each other.
Even the religious authorities were coming, but when they arrive, John doesn’t mince words with them. Why was he so caustic with them? We can’t be sure if the Pharisees and Sadducees came to observe what John was doing in order to prepare an “official response” or if they were, like many others, coming to him drawn by the message of this new way of being. My guess is, it was probably a bit of both.
John’s prophetic teachings used apocalyptic language familiar to the listeners of the day. We have taken them to be punitive, but they really are promising and uplifting. Otherwise, why would so many flock to hear him?
The scariest thing John says in this gospel is probably this: “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.” So let’s look at that more deeply.
The Messiah is coming. The winnowing fork enables him to separate fruit that is ready to be used, from the chaff. Chaff is a natural by-product of the process, and of itself isn’t bad. It just isn’t useful in its present form so it is burned.
The habitual association with hellfire and eternal punishment often clouds our thinking on this, but John says the chaff will be burned in “unquenchable fire.”
We sin. That doesn’t make us bad – just human. Advent calls us to own that and repent, trusting that God loves us and stands ready to restore us to right relationship. When we choose to repent, we may find ourselves “struck by grace,” as Tillich says, “the way St. Paul was on the road to Damascus, knowing deeply the truth that God loves us with an incomprehensible love...”
Repentance opens the way for all of our relationships to be changed, empowered by the grace of God’s unquenchable love. Trusting in the steadfast love of God who is always faithful, we can choose to repent in the way John the Baptist taught and change the way we’re in relationship with God and with one another.
Then we can live together in peace, and we will have within ourselves peace in our believing. Amen.