Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given on December 11th, 2016 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent(A): Isaiah 58:1-10, Psalm 146-4-9, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11)
Advent is about the coming of God and in Isaiah today we hear what this means. It is the time when the desert shall rejoice and blossom with joy and singing. It is the time when the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leap like a dear, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. It is the time when the outcasts shall come home with joy upon their heads and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
But our brother Matthew, the author of the gospel we have begun reading this Advent, has a problem. There are folks who think that the coming of God happens simply by people believing something. There are folks who think that to prepare for God by following in the way of Jesus, all you need to do is participate in church services and perform miracles of healing.
In a very different way, we see Matthew trying to tackle some of the same problems Paul was tacking several decades earlier.
Matthew’s whole gospel is a fiery assault on what he sees as the hypocrisy of the idea that you can be a Christian without doing the kinds of things that Jesus did: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, reaching out to those in prison, overthrowing injustice, working for social equality. In a nation where so much of Christianity has been co-opted and used to justify the very domination system, with all its injustice and neglect, that Jesus gave his life to challenge, I find Matthew’s gospel like a cool drink of water in a hot and dry dessert. But to hear Matthew’s gospel in this way you need to get rid of the domination lens through which we’ve been taught to read this gospel and instead hear Matthew as a brother desperately trying to get people to hear the Good News as something other than simple superstition.
Last week we heard Matthew’s fire coming through the mouth of John the Baptist. John is going after those who think that because they are ethnically Jewish and uphold the traditions of the past, as both the Pharisees and the Sadducees do, that they are somehow okay. John’s words set them straight on this: “You brood of vipers– who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves we have Abraham as our ancestor, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is laying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Luke’s version of this text helps to articulate what John means by bearing fruit that befits repentance: Let the one who has two coats share with the one who has none. Let the one who has food share with the one who has none. Tax collectors –stop stealing from people. Soldiers–stop robbing people through coercion and the threat of violence. The fruit is all about actions. It is the brass tacks kind of stuff that needs to happen if everyone is going to be able to experience the reign of love.
On the surface we hear a message aimed at Jews calling them to wake up from their complacency and arrogance and turn back to the faith of the prophets, but beneath that surface I believe what we are hearing is a message addressed to Christians who are doing something similar. While they may not be thinking that being ethnically Jewish makes them part of God’s in-group–they are thinking that because they have affirmed a belief in Christianity that they are now part of it. To them, Matthew is saying: “Hold on–not so fast. The gospel of Jesus is not just about words and beliefs–it is about deeds and actions. It’s not just about proclaiming the reign of love–it’s about doing the work of love. The kingdom of God is not just about an afterlife–it is about how you are living and what you are doing here and now to love and care for others.”
We hear Paul speak directly about these problems in his letters to the church in Corinth. Communion was meant to be an enactment of God’s feast of love for all, so it was held by having big meals together. But in the church at Corinth, by the time the poorer workers arrive from working in the fields all the food has been eaten by the wealthy and those who didn’t have to work such long hours. Paul says that this transforms the Eucharist thanksgiving feast, into a kind of anti-communion that heaps burning coals on those who participate in it.
The congregation in Corinth prided itself on all the miracles they were able to perform in Jesus’ name. Later in Matthew’s Gospel we will hear Jesus denounce such Christians saying: “I don’t know you. For when I was hungry you didn’t feed me, when I was thirty you gave me nothing to drink, when I was naked you didn’t clothe me, when I was in prison you didn’t visit me.” When those Christians cry out, “Lord when did we fail to do these things for you” Jesus responds, “when you didn’t do these things for the least of my sisters and brothers you didn’t do them for me.”
When I was lost in a Catholic Charismatic Christian community that passage helped to wake me up. One of its leaders had told me that doing the work of justice was like being a garbage collector in the Kingdom of God. Coming across that passage I thought, “Well, I’d rather be true to what I know, and if that means I’m a garbage collector in the kingdom of God–so be it.”
Matthew’s gospel is a hell of a message in a country where so many Christians imagine Christianity is simply about caring for your own family, or the people in your own church, or the people in your own community.
Matthew’s message rains salt and fire on those who have gotten lost in religious babel, who have come to believe that religion is about power and glory and wealth and status. Contradicting this, Matthew says the faith of Jesus the Messiah is a faith in a God who operates in human history, who works through people, to bring about the reign of love on earth here and now. It’s not a faith that’s going to make you wealthy. It’s a faith that will lead you to be persecuted as you stand up for the oppressed and against injustice, as you challenge those, like King Herod and those like him, whose wealth and power and privilege comes at the expense of others and who will do everything to violently defend them.
If you believe that radical social inequality causes all kinds of terrible suffering, leading up to the destruction of those civilizations that practice it- you may begin to be able to hear John the Baptist’s and Matthew’s harsh words in a different light.
This last week I read an article about the work of an historian who says that, in general, in human history, we have not moved towards greater social equality except through total disaster. For example, the collapse of the Roman empire and the plagues that came with it, the bubonic plague during the middle ages, and the aftermath of World War II all marked periods where we saw society move towards greater social equality.
Do we have to wait for that kind of disaster, or is there another way? For Matthew and John there is another way, but it can’t be just a matter of thinking or talking in certain ways, or believing certain things, it’s got to be a matter of doing the work of justice and the deeds of love.
Jesus ended up looking and sounding nothing like the messiah John was expecting. John seems to have been expecting the kind of Messiah who would ride in on a white horse with a big sword to slay the wicked. Thus it is not surprising, as we hear today, that John would send some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the messiah or whether they are to await another.
And Jesus‘ response is powerful. He doesn’t hold himself up, he instead points to the fruit of his work: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are experiencing the good news.” John would have recognized these from the writings of the prophet Isaiah as signs of the reign of God.
Jesus then ends with talking to the crowds about John. He says, John was a real prophet (not a court prophet) as seen in his willingness to rough it in the wilderness and his steadfastly speaking out despite all the threats he faced. John is even more than a prophet for he’s helped to usher in the new age. Then in words that are confusing, mysterious, challenging and exciting, Jesus concludes: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist: yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
In a world that was all about lineage Jesus follows John in proclaiming, God doesn’t really give a hoot about lineage. Matthew affirms this message in the beginning of his gospel when he goes out of his way to point out Joseph’s royal lineage only then to say, but Jesus wasn’t really Joseph’s biological son. In other words, Jesus is a good example of how God can raise children out of the stones themselves.
Jesus is holding up John as a prophet who cried out for justice, but appears to be saying there was also something missing in John’s proclamation. Was it that the kind of language where John compares people to dead trees that need to be burned was lacking in love? I don’t know, but that certainly seems to be the case. Jesus holds up John as a prophet of repentance, but repentance is apparently not the same thing as entering the reign of God. Something more is needed.
Lastly, Jesus challenges John’s disciples to look around them and see how the poor, the handicapped, the sick, the lost, all those who have been viewed as less than, are coming back to life. This means that when Jesus turns towards these same crowds and says to them that any of them can be greater than John, he is holding up a vision of the last having becoming first, those who had seen themselves as lost and forsaken being able to be, like John, ambassadors of God and somehow even greater than John.
God’s kingdom, power, and glory have nothing to do with wealth. They have nothing to do with status, but they are as real as the glory you see in the evening sunset, or the millions of stars you can see in the Milky Way, or in a person who has been dead and who has come back to life through realizing who they are and what they are and where and how they can make a difference in this world.
And if we are willing God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen.
Image courtesy Eustaquio Santimano via Flickr.