The readings for Sunday, December 4, 2016:
First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13
Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
Today's Gospel continues with the Advent theme of watching, waiting, and listening for the call. Today it's John the Baptist who tells us of what's to come.
The real, living Jesus was not who John's listeners expected. Many of them probably thought that John was talking about himself; after all, first century Palestine was full of self-proclaimed Messiahs, and I expect many of them spoke of themselves in the third person telling (or warning) of the deeds they would do. Many of John's listeners probably had no idea what he was talking about; humans seem incapable of thinking in terms of metaphor and symbol for very long. Many of them probably expected a Messiah that would come in a form they'd recognize: a warrior to save them from the Romans, a temple reformer to get rid of corrupt priests, or maybe someone who would lead them into the wilderness to set up a new community.
Are we not the same way? How many of us read the Bible literally, expecting specific answers to social or political issues that would have been unheard of thousands of years ago when the Scriptures were written? How many of us would welcome salvation when it comes? We go to church, we sit in our pews, we wait for God to appear. We wonder why we don’t feel the presence of God, as we go home to take a nap and gear up for our secular week ahead. We scurry through the rat race of our lives, substituting other things for God. We worship at the churches of Capitalism, buying things at the mall or on the Internet, which means we have to work overtime to pay for those things. We wonder why we feel unfulfilled. To try to fill that emptiness, we do more of the activities that leave us with gaping holes in our Spirit. We hear that voice, the voice of the Spirit--maybe it cries or maybe it whispers. It scares us, so we eat some more or flip through ever more cable stations or go to bed early--because we can't deal with the implications.
John warns what happens to those of us who don't listen: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (verse 12). Some of us don't like this vision of a God with a winnowing fork in hand. How does this mesh with a God of grace and love?
I think of parents, like my cousins and my sister, and this past Thanksgiving when I heard much discussion of bad choices. I was rooting for the next generation to buckle down and eat a slice of pizza so that we could move on to watching a movie--but one of them had to go to bed early because he refused to eat something that had contained pepperoni.
I think of John's fiery language and the idea of winnowing. I think of God as a loving parent, wishing we would do what's good for us. God doesn't have to do much winnowing. Our lifestyles are already punishing us. Many of us are already feeling that unquenchable fire.
The good news is that there is time to change our ways. There is still time to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." (verse 3). Advent, traditionally a time for getting ready, is a good time to think ahead. How could we make the next year to be our best spiritual year ever?
Choose just one simple action, whether it be keeping a prayer journal or making gratitude lists or learning to play or sing sacred music. Choose just one action and attend to it faithfully.
In this way, you will be in a much stronger spiritual place a year from now. You will be bearing fruit. God will call, and you will hear. God won't have to go to such great lengths to get your attention. Your deepest yearnings, the ones you didn't even know you had, will be filled, as you move towards God--and God moves towards you.
feeling the feelings…
4 months ago