Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Choosing Sides

Matt. 3:1-12[1]

Our lives are filled with choices. From one perspective, you could say everything we do is a choice. Those everyday, mundane choices don’t seem to faze us much. It’s the Robert Frost, “two-roads-in-a-wood” kind of choices that can stump us. We want to know where each road leads before we make such a momentous decision. Whether we like it or not, the message of Advent presents us with precisely that kind of choice: whether we will align our lives with what God is doing in our world, or whether we will simply go along with the way things are.

We have been talking about Advent as a time of looking forward. In Advent we’re looking forward to something better than the injustice and violence and suffering all around us. We’re looking forward to someone better who will set things right—for everybody. And we talked last week about how that makes a difference in us. When we look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world, we have to take a look at whether the kind of people we choose to be contributes to that coming new world.

This week we are confronted with the fact that this “something better” that we are looking forward to also affects our “everyday” lives. The Psalmist describes the “something better” that God’s agent will bring into this world in very concrete terms. That one will “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy” (Ps. 72:4). Over and over again the Scriptures bear witness to the faith that what God is doing in our world is about mercy that is tangible, compassion in action. It is about creating justice—that way of life that makes it possible for everyone to thrive equally. It is about those who have more than enough sharing with those who don’t have enough. It is about generosity and kindness, not just in spirit but also in practice. Whether we know or not and whether we like it or not, what God is doing in our world affects the choices we make about the way we live our lives everyday.

To some, that may not be good news. Some of us would prefer to keep what God is doing in the world firmly in the realm of “a nice idea that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.” We’d rather not have to make the connection between our faith and our daily lives. I think this kind of “disconnect” is what John the Baptist had in mind with his rather harsh condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Jewish religious leaders. Now, in the first place, we should recognize that not all the Jewish leaders were antagonistic toward Jesus and the early Church. And we should also recognize that not all the Jewish people were hostile toward them. In fact, the crowds who were coming to John to be baptized in preparation for the advent of God’s messenger of justice were almost exclusively Jewish.[2]

But I wonder what these particular Jewish leaders were doing there. Were they like many religious professionals— there to sneer at the “unenlightened masses” who were so easily “led astray” by a religious fanatic like John? Or were they there as “spies”—gathering information to use against John in order to lock him up at the right time? Or did some of them perhaps get caught up in the spirit of the season—the season of anticipating the coming Messiah? Did some of them actually present themselves to John for baptism—perhaps in the expectation that the more people showed up, the sooner the Messiah would come? It’s hard to say exactly what motivated them.

But one thing seems to be clear from John’s response—they really didn’t have a clue what he was about. John was there to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord—which would be a time when wrongs would be righted, and injustices would be corrected. It would be a time when oppression would come to an end and violence would be no more. And what perhaps many of those who showed up for John’s “revival” apparently failed to connect was that the coming of God’s messiah and God’s kingdom and justice meant they would have to change their ways—to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Because they were all part of an unjust system, they would either have to choose to change their ways, or they would have to choose to ignore what God is doing in the world.

Whether we like it or not, the repentance that God’s justice confronts us with is about choosing sides; it’s about where our allegiance lies.[3] That starts with the kind of people we choose to be, but it also extends to what we actually do. Whether we like it or not, the coming of God’s justice and peace into this world presents us with a “road not taken” kind of choice. If our allegiance is with the coming of God’s justice and peace in this world, then we need to face a hard reality: that choice entails choosing not to continue pursuing the selfish ways of this broken world, even when it’s running around pretending to be Christian by celebrating “Christmas.”

Let’s start this year by trying to find ways we can reduce the amount of money we spend on ourselves—and increasing what we give to those who are in need. Let’s start by teaching our children and grandchildren that they can be just as happy with less as they can with excess—in fact, they can be happier! Let’s make the choices that are consistent with looking forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world. Let’s choose to be on the side of that something better that’s coming to us all.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/5/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Ronald J. Allen, “Removing Anti-Jewish Toxins from Advent Preaching,” The Living Pulpit, 6 (Oct-Dec 1997):16-17.

[3] Cf. Thomas G. Long, “Worship on the Wrong Side of the Fault Line,” The Living Pulpit 11 (Jan-Mar 2002): 14-15.

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