Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Looking Forward

Isa. 35:10; Ps. 146; Mt. 11:5; Mt. 1:23[1]

This really is the season of “looking forward.” Whether we like it or not, our whole society revolves around a time of holiday celebration between December 24 and January 1. For many of us, this time of year is a time of looking forward to all that celebrating—the food, the gifts, the friends and family. From the way we act at in December, you’d think that the rest of the year our lives are completely humdrum and devoid of meaning! But that’s not the case at all. It’s simply that we feel the need to gather together and celebrate more keenly than at other times.

While most of us have lives that are pretty full and meaningful all year around, there are many for whom that is not the case. For many people in our world, life is pain, life is loss, life is doing without, life is being forgotten and shunned. Many millions suffer from wars and famines and floods and plagues—as well as from corruption and greed and cruelty. Maybe we should make that many tens of millions, or even many hundreds of millions! And in the midst of all that suffering, the message of Advent calls us to look forward to the time when God will set all of this right. It is the good news that those who suffer “shall obtain joy and gladness and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 35:10)![2]

Well, that sounds pretty good on the surface of things. But if you’re like me you may wonder how this miracle takes place. I think Psalm 146 spells it out pretty clearly: It is when God comes to set things right—to execute justice, to feed the hungry, to set captives free, to lift up the burdened, and watch over the immigrants (Ps. 146:7-9).[3] When God comes to set things right, it means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the “strangers” or resident immigrants have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. God’s work of setting things right consists of concrete steps for those who live on the margins of social power and privilege to make their lot in life better. [4] 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 generosity and kindness, not just in spirit but also in practice.

Now, that may not seem like much comfort—after all, “God” seems profoundly absent in this world—even at this time of year when the most convinced skeptics allow themselves a stray religious feeling. But the good news at the heart of our faith is that in Jesus, God has come into this world and has become “Immanuel”, literally in Hebrew, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). In Jesus, God has begun the work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens.

Jesus himself said this in his answer to John the Baptist’s question whether they should look for somebody else. In reply, he said: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5).[5] That answer would have been an incredibly cruel prank to pull on a man who was basically waiting to be executed if it were not straightforward. I don’t think Jesus was just telling John what he wanted to hear to comfort him in his hour of desperation. I think we would have to say that Jesus believed that was actually the case—that God had begun working in this world to set things right, to bring that “something better” they all had been looking forward to. [6]

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. We are looking forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world. It is not folly to look forward to God’s new world—God’s something better. Looking forward to “peace on earth, and mercy mild” is the heart and soul of our faith. Our faith still rests on the good news that in Jesus the Christ that God has entered this world definitively to set everything right and to make all things new.[7] That in Jesus the Christ God has come into this world and has become “Immanuel,” God with us.[8] And that in and through this marvelous event, “light and life to all he brings.” This hope, this faith, is what gives us energy to sustain our love as we seek to contribute to God’s “something better” by transforming our corner of the world.

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

[2] Gene M. Tucker, “The Book Of Isaiah 1–39,” New Interpreters Bible, VI:283, points out the “dark and troubling realities” behind this text.” He adds, “That fact helps explain the longing, the need for hope, for the end to sighing and sorrow, if not in this world then in the world to come.”

[3] J. Clinton Mccann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1264: these verses portray “a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.” He adds that they constitute “a policy statement for the kingdom of God. The sovereign God stands for and works for justice, not simply as an abstract principle but as an embodied reality—provision for basic human needs, liberation from oppression, empowerment for the disenfranchised and dispossessed.”

[4] Cf. Robert W. Wall, “Where Wisdom is Found,” Christian Ethics 2009, 31: “The care of poor and powerless believers is a hallmark of God’s covenant-keeping people (cf. Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 24:17-21; Psalm 146:9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; Acts 2:45; 4:32-35; 6:1-7; 9:36-42).”

[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, 460.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 95-96: “God’s present, liberating and healing activity points beyond itself to the kingdom of freedom and salvation. But through God’s lordship, the coming kingdom already throws its light ahead of itself into this history of struggle.”

[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, 460-61

[8] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel Of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:138, where he points out that this opening episode in Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear that “for Matthew, the story of Jesus is a way of talking about God. In Jesus and his story, God is with us.”

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