Benediction Online

Sunday, December 16, 2012

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but we are still in Advent. We are still in the season of preparation. Last week, Betty brought in a painting of the nativity and I asked her to put it away until Christmas Eve, because the church’s rhythm is different from the world’s. In the midst of all the excitement and preparation for a one day bonanza, we are called to wait and prepare our hearts in quiet anticipation of the coming of the Christ. We are living a paradox.

A paradox. Paradox is something that seems contradictory. The spiritual life is full of paradox. That’s not easy for us because we want things to be clear, we want to know the rules so that we can obey them and get it right. But it isn’t that simple. The Jews of Jesus’ time tried to live a rule-based religion of ethics and they found it nigh impossible.

There’s a paradox in today’s readings. From Zephaniah we have a wonderful prophecy of healing and homecoming:
“I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you”
And Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always…
But then we have John the Baptizer preaching thunder and brimstone, “one who is more powerful than I is coming…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

On the one hand tidings of comfort and joy, on the other hand a reminder of the consequences of turning away from God.

We are living today with the deep grief of the paradox in our culture. On the one hand we are in the season of celebration, of giving and goodwill when we especially focus on small children and their joy. And on the other hand we have seen a young man intentionally mow down twenty small children and their teachers, bringing tragedy and heartbreak that will continue for a lifetime. As a nation we are creating inspiring leaders, social activists and people of goodwill, and at the very same time we are creating young people who destroy and kill innocent children. We talk peace and brotherhood and at the same time we refuse to ratify international treaties. The bright lights of American society have a dark underbelly.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. But how can we celebrate the coming of a God who allows these things to happen? If God is all-compassionate and all-powerful, why didn’t She intervene to stop this happening?

Why doesn’t God stop the killing in Syria, the terror in Iraq, the fighting in the Congo, the taking of children as soldiers in northern Uganda?

It’s a paradox.

For us to turn to God and know the co-creative relationship of his adopted sons and daughters, there has to be an alternative. The alternative is that we go our own way. For countless generations, the majority of people have gone their own way, and in the process we have created a society that has moved further and further from God’s paths. Humans have contributed to a sin matrix which keeps us trapped in cycles of violence and despair. Every individual one of us is connected to every other one, and we contribute to the sin matrix and are shaped by it. 

The only way out is through the path that Jesus took. The path of loving non-violence. Non-violence in our words and thoughts as well as our actions. The only way we can get free is though enrolling in the reign of God and accessing the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us and release us. That is why Paul tells us to rejoice – because we are free from the sin matrix.

But being personally free is not enough. It’s a paradox. We can only live out that freedom as we work to bring freedom to others. John the Baptizer told his listeners to live ethically and lovingly. The new way is not one of rules and regulations. It is Santa Claus who keeps a list of good and bad behavior, not God. God looks on the heart. God sees the anger and the bitterness, the things we hold on to and fail to forgive. God sees the self-righteousness and pride. Even as we seek to transform our hearts into the Christ-like consciousness that is our birth-right as the daughters and sons of God; even as we seek to transform ourselves, we are called to live lives of service to others. If we are freed from the sin matrix through the power of Christ but hold on to that as a personal entitlement then we are not in fact free.

The hope that we hold is that all creation will be freed from sin. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – we are getting ready for a celebration of love and giving, a celebration based on the self-giving of God to us. At the same time, we are preparing for the liberation of all creation in the second coming of the Christ. At that time Christ will come with “His winnowing fork… in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." The chaff is the sin, the pain and darkness, all the strands we hold of other’s guilt, all the anger and the recrimination. Our hope is that all of that will be burned away. All the things that led up to this week’s tragedy in Sandy Hook and that lead to wars and hunger and homelessness will be burned away and the goodness and love will be all that remain.

Will this happen suddenly one day? Or will it happen incrementally as more and more of us enroll in the reign of God and choose to live our lives in service to the Holy Spirit and to each other?

I don’t know.

I do know that just as there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents and leaves the sin matrix, so there is deep grief in the heart of God over this senseless tragedy. God is incarnate in those who took great risks to save the lives of the children, in those who are supporting the grief-stricken. God is incarnate in those who have now been galvanized to work for gun control and changes in video game law.

Even in the darkest places God is becoming incarnate. We are God-with-flesh-on for one another. It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Soon the bells will start,
And the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing, Right within your heart.


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