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Monday, December 17, 2012

Light in the darkness

Advent 3, Yr. C
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Our readings today feel like they come from two different worlds:
     >John the Baptist addresses the people as a brood of vipers; Zephaniah, as daughter Zion, daughter Jerusalem.
     >John warns of the ax lying at the root of the trees and the wrath to come; Zephaniah proclaims that the Lord has taken away the judgments against the people and will remove disaster from God’s children.
     >John envisions a baptism of fire, while Zephaniah’s hope is our being renewed in God’s love.
     >And at the end, the chaff gets burned with unquenchable fire in John’s scenario, while people get brought home by God in Zephaniah’s.
It seems they couldn’t be more different.
     So whose universe would you rather live in? As for me, I want Zephaniah’s kinder, gentler coming kingdom. My heart longs for joy. Instinctively, I’d rather close my eyes to the consequences of sin, and cover my ears against cries of suffering while I hum tunes in a major key. But the world doesn’t always lean that way, and on Friday we all took a terrible tilt in the direction of darkness. 27 families are in the midst of agonizing grief, a community has been devastated, and the world is in tears and shock at the awful loss of life, especially among the youngest and most innocent.
     Much as we long for it to be otherwise, we know that John is warning a world that we still recognize, one in which a handful of people do big awful things and all of us commit many small wrongs. There are out and out sins of commission and even more sins of omission, because we misuse God’s gift of free will. To his credit, John the Baptist wasn’t afraid to begin naming what we need to do to set things right: share with those in need and care for those on the margins of society. Be grateful for your blessings and not greedy for more, more, more. Deal honestly, respectfully, and peacefully with others, most especially if you’re in a position to get away with dishonesty, disrespect, and violence. Really not that complicated, and yet apparently incredibly hard for any of us to live completely that way.
     The rampage in Connecticut was particularly horrifying in its concentration, but the awful fact is that many more people than that die of violence each day in our world…and far, far more are injured, ostracized, neglected, burdened, and treated as less than their rightful selves as beloved children of God. Until we confront that reality, until we remove the blinders that keep us from seeing all that hurt and sin, until we allow our hearts to break open in sorrow, until we heed the truth of John’s words, we will continue to be helpless and hopeless, in the dark.
     The problem for me is that I want to get to Zephaniah’s world too quickly. I want to skip over the broken part, the pain, the discounting, the violence, and go right to the joy, to the love, to the delight. But the world doesn’t work that way; if we’re to make any difference at all, if we’re to effect any change at all, if we’re to hold out hope, we don’t get to do that. We can’t pass by the hard part and go straight to the glory; Jesus showed us that. Instead, we’re called to open ourselves to the very reality we don’t understand and from which we want to hide. Only by embracing it, by being willing to be close to what’s wrong, can we begin to live as God’s servants, ones who comfort the grieving, who tend to the neglected, who touch the wounds of those who are hurting, who invite home those who are far off, who call for dignity and respect in the face of injustices…and who allow ourselves to be healed and restored in the process.
     We often limit Advent to a time of preparing to celebrate the birth of a baby…one born under unusual and uncomfortable circumstances, but a sweet and precious baby nonetheless. However, that baby wasn’t born to be cute; as God’s love spoken to us, he was a new start to everything changing. That’s the other part of Advent: this is an eschatological last days season, a time of anticipation for the day of Christ’s return, the completion of his work. Those candles [Advent wreath] are about his light coming now and forever into our darkness and fear. We’re not trying to stir up excitement for a holiday; we’re praying for God to stir us up by God’s great power, so that we can offer the world the vision of the day when all of God’s creation rejoices without reservation, when all tears are wiped away, when the kingdom Zephaniah describes is a reality for every person.
     Cry. Rage. Question. Those are all important for us to do. But do. not. lose. sight. of this vision. It is our hope and our strength to believe in its truth. It is the basis for all true rejoicing and peace. We are not the authors of this day—“Surely it is God who saves us”—but we are its scribes, and the world we inhabit now is our tablet. Let us write with tears of mercy shared by God, with tender compassion, with genuine repentance and forgiveness, with ceaseless prayer. Let us write with love that flows from broken hearts, and with peace that passes human understanding. The Lord our God is, has always been, and will be forever in our midst; in times of darkness and confusion, in times of rejoicing and hopefulness, in times both ordinary and extraordinary, may that be the story our lives proclaim.

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