Preparing for a Christ Who Suffers With Us

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, and Luke 3:7-18.

There’s a problem with calendars.  Calendars and seasons can fool us into thinking that there is a natural course for things.  One season leads to the next, one day to the next.  Summer fades into fall, which leans into winter, which melts into spring, and so on.  In this hemisphere we expect Easter to be in the spring, and Christmas to be in winter.  But it doesn’t always happen that way, spiritually.  That’s the trouble with calendars and seasons.  They fool us into a false belief in order, control, and predictability. Until life interrupts.

The Church calendar is open to the same problems.  Here, on this day, we would like to be observing Advent, the Third Sunday being a particular day of joy in a season of increasing light, increasing hope, until everything builds to Christmas Eve, when we proclaim God is with us,  Immanuel!  Joy to the world!  

But the world interrupts.  In too many ways, today seems the last few days seem more appropriate to the occasion marked by the Fourth Day of Christmas, the remembrance of Holy Innocents. 

The Feast of the Holy Innocents, on December 28, refers to the slaughter of innocent children carried out by King Herod in his attempt to rid the world of Jesus.  But it has become a day for remembering the innocent victims of every age. The senseless violence of the past few days:  Oregon, Connecticut, Alabama, and a planned act in Oklahoma— put us on equal ground with those in the first century, in every century, who ask “Why.”  Of course, there’s no good answer, no good honest answer.
 
One of the best I’ve heard recently was from a man I know who, when faced with an impossible situation, asked an older woman, “How is this in any way God’s will?”  The wise woman told her friend, “Honey, they’re a lot of wills out there in the world.  And not all of them are God’s.” 

When such things happen, I don’t go first to policy changes, or retribution, or vengeance, or justice. Other people have those jobs and they are doing them.  But my job is to go to God.  And I invite you to go with me this morning. 

Today I go to God following the thinking of a theologian named Jurgen Moltmann.  In 1943, Moltmann was in his hometown of Hamburg, as bombs fell on that city and killed 80,000 people. He lived, but wondered why others didn’t.  He writes that his deepest question was not so much “Why would God allow this?”  The question, for him was not “Why?”  Instead, the question was “Where?”  “Where is God in such suffering?”  Moltmann would go on to become one of the most significant theologians of our era, answering his own question with an understanding that God is in the midst of suffering.  Jesus, our brother, suffers with us.  It’s a little bit like when Catherine of Siena asked God, “My God and Lord, where were you when my heart was plunged into darkness and filth?”  And then, out of the silence, she heard God answer, “My daughter, did you not feel it? I was in your heart?”

And so, on this Third Sunday of Advent, we interrupt the seasonal color of blue or purple with the color of rose, the color of the heart.  It is purplish blue tinged with blood, really.  The passion breaks into our season of hope and expectation, as well, but if we allow it, the passion of Christ (his death and resurrection) will provide a deeper and truer foundation for joy that is to come. 

This is what John the Baptist is talking about in the Gospel from last week and today. He is preparing the way, and if his words seem brash or hard, it’s because he’s trying to help people see that while God brings deliverance and justice and love and acceptance, eternal and everlasting mercy and forgiveness and welcome— God is also with us in the wilderness.  God is with us in the painful times.  God loves us with a passion that is so strong that it becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ who lives and dies and fights and loves and suffers and rises again—WITH US.

In today’s gospel, John works to clear away anything that might obstruct or dampen the way of Jesus.
Those of you who have a long religious tradition, John says, don’t be so quick to think you’ve got a straight route right into heaven.  Don’t rely on your past.  “What then should we do?” the people ask. 

But John keeps preaching.  He says that folks should share with one another.  Don’t hoard up things for yourself.  Give some to those who don’t have enough.  And even the tax collectors ask him, “What then should we do?”  John keeps preaching.  And the soldiers ask, “What should we do?”

Each time, John replies not with some impossible task.  He doesn’t demand that people be heroic in their service.  He’s not calling folks to a life of extremes or even a particularly religious life.  Instead, he says basically—do the right thing.  To the crowds, he says, “If you’ve got extra, share with someone who has none.”  To the tax collectors he says, “Be fair.  Do honest work.”  To the soldiers he says, “don’t be bullies or threaten or extort.”  In other words, “engage in the world around you.”  The way to God is into action, not away from it.  Death would have us retreat, isolate, and turn away from others.  But the life-changing way of Christ points us forward, into the messiness of life with others wherein we will surely come to know the suffering Christ, but we will also meet the risen Christ again and again and again.

John the Baptist also tells us how this is possible when he says to prepare for one who baptizes not with water only, but also “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

Baptism by water is outward, it’s external.  It can make a point, it can change lives.  But John points to a deeply baptism still—a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire, an internal baptism.  This second baptism sometimes comes with the first, and sometimes a few years or many years later.  The second baptism might be loud and everyone might see a difference in your life. Or it might be quiet, silent, almost unnoticeable. 

When we think of the problems in our world—violence, poverty, oppression, inequality—all of them can and should be addressed through outward means—like a baptism with water, we become visible.  We write and email and organize and vote and protest and agitate.  But that’s only part of the battle, because, as that wise grandmother said, “There are a lot of wills out there, but not all are God’s.”  And that means that whether we are aware of it or not, we are engaged in a spiritual battle, as well.  And for that, we need the God of Angel Armies, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Mary and Joseph and Jesus the Christ—we need that internal, deep-down conversion to God’s love and purpose that John calls a baptism with spirit and fire.

Jurgen Moltmann makes the point that “Christ isn’t merely a person. He’s a road too.  And the person who believes in him takes the same road he took.”  “We cannot grasp Christ merely with our heads or our hearts.  We come to understand him through a total, all-embracing practice of living,” of following him.  And the Gospels tell us what that life looks like:  “Go and preach: the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Heal the sick, cleanse lepers cast out demons.” (Matthew 10)

Proclaiming God’s kingdom to the poor means giving back to them the divine dignity of which the violent have robbed them.  Healing the sick means planting the seeds of life in this world of death.  Cleansing lepers means accepting the handicapped who are pushed out of our society. Casting out devils means shaking the idols set up in our national and social life, to which so many of the weak have been sacrificed.  In other words, men and women who take Christ’s road take up the struggle of life against death.  (Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, p. 47)

Last night in the undercroft, 20 or 25 of us did just that. It was the Sunday School’s St. Nicholas party, but it was a lot more than that.  On a day filled with too much bad news, too much sensationalism, too many opinions ranging from quick fixes to despair.  We represented a mixture—racially, economically, socially, politically.  We had heterosexual parents and homosexual parents, single parents and married parents.  We had kids who are advanced for their age and kids who learn, or interact, or speak at their own pace.  And once we were together, we shared a potluck dinner.  The kids wrapped the gifts that you all have bought for the children at Transitional Housing Corporation. The children made little gift bags for our older adults who don’t get out as much.  And then St. Nicholas came.  Our usual St. Nick has the flu, so we were prepared to simply have Marcia or me read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. But someone heard, and urged her husband to step up.  We dressed up Clive Brady and he read the story beautifully. 

Our little gathering was not grand, not fancy, and not earth-moving. But it was our declaration of life.  It was our affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ who is about life and love and joy. 

Too many in our world will feel like today is a combination of Good Friday and Holy Innocents, but we can pray that over time, and with the help and love of others, they may know very deeply and closely the God who suffers with us, Christ our brother who holds us and carries us forward in love, in hope, and even in joy. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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