Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 3 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Of course (we will have heard it often) you can’t just choose the bits of the Bible you happen to like, and ignore the rest.

You can’t just read your favourite passages about being kind to people (though there’s a lot of that). Or you might be one of those Christians who like the bits about being prosperous (rather tricky double edged passages, those), or cuddling fluffy kittens (ok, I’m kidding, there’s nothing about fluffy kittens in the Bible). You’ve got to accept the nasty challenging uncomfortable bits as well.

All well and good. Except – this is exactly what Jesus seems to be doing today. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus quotes the Bible, but leaves out the bits that don’t seem to fit his message.

The occasion is a question from John the Baptist. Last week, we met him in the wilderness, baptising people for repentance, being rather rude to the religious authorities, and full of warnings of fiery wrath. “The axe is laid at the root of the trees”, he said. “Every tree… that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John warns of the coming Messiah, who will burn the chaff “in unquenchable fire”.

It’s clear that John is expecting something quite violent. The Messiah is coming to punish wrongdoers.

In today’s Gospel reading some time has passed. Jesus has embarked on his ministry, and meanwhile John has been thrown into prison. And he sends to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Why ask the question? Well, Jesus has been going round preaching the Kingdom, but there is as yet no sign of any vengeance. John is wondering if he Jesus really can be the Messiah, as he doesn’t seem to be sticking to the script.

Jesus doesn’t reply yes or no. He simply says to tell John what the messengers see and hear.  And this is where he quotes the Bible:
“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.”

That is actually a compilation of five passages from Isaiah about the coming of the Messiah. But Jesus doesn’t quote everything that Isaiah says.
We heard one of the five passages this morning, Isaiah 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” But Isaiah also says what Jesus does not say: “Here is your God, he will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” And there’s something like that in all five of the texts that Jesus refers to[1], both a promise of restoration and a promise of vengeance.

Jesus clearly understands what John’s question is about. By leaving out those verses, by speaking of blessing but not of judgement, Jesus is saying to John that, yes, things are not turning out as he expected.

John expects wrath. As we saw last week, wrath is about desire that cannot be satisfied, and so generates a vicious spiral of rage: we cannot have what we desire, and that feeds our desire even more.

What Jesus exposes in the Gospels is that wrath is something we do to ourselves. Jesus shows us what God is like. God is love, self-giving, overflowing, utterly alive. God’s desire is to give himself. What Jesus wants us to do is to imitate the self-giving desire of God, instead of the insatiable, death dealing desires that humans imitate from one another. Wrath is not inflicted on us by an avenging deity for resisting his will. It simply describes what turning away from God’s life-giving desire does to us, what it is like to choose our own death-bound desires instead.

The parable of the sheep and the goats shows us that the judgement Jesus brings is not the revenge of the Son of God, but everything appearing as it really is in God’s light, measured by how we respond to God’s love shown to us in his Son. “Whatever you did to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”

Jesus is the Word of God through whom the world was made, the ultimate measure and judgement of what the world chooses to be. All our contingent actions, for or against the poor, the outcast, the marginalised, all the ways in which we love or choose not to love, all these turn out to be referred as their ultimate end to Jesus – whether we are conscious of this or not.

The judgement of Jesus therefore does not inflict wrath, but brings it to light. Wrath names the distance between what we are and what we should be, and when Jesus is revealed to us we cannot but experience that distance as both a pain and a longing in ourselves.

Both a pain and a longing. Judgement shows us what we are, in order that we might become what we should be. The purpose of God’s judgement is always salvation. So when Jesus quotes only the bits of the Bible about God restoring things as they should be, he is not ignoring the parts about judgement. But he is correcting John the Baptist’s misunderstanding. Judgement is not God’s revenge, but is rather our opportunity to be brought back to where God would have us be.

Someone asked me the other week whether we still believe in hell. Well the Catholic Faith tells us that hell exists, but we don’t have to believe that there is anyone in it. And if there is anyone in it, it is only their own will that is keeping them there. Hell is a choice, rather than a place. It is possible to reject God with the full and deliberate consent of our mind and will, even to eternity, if we so choose. Love must be free, in order to be love. And God respects our freedom, because his desire is for us to live in love. But we know that his reach is further than we can imagine, and his power greater than we can comprehend.

In Advent traditionally we reflect on the “four last things” – death, judgement, heaven and hell. They are bound together, facets of the great resolution when all things are brought into the light of Christ. In Jesus, God has come near in judgement, but to save us. His judgement exposes the truth about ourselves, but reveals to us as well his own loving self-giving desire. Judgement makes salvation possible, turning us in repentance from our death-bound desires to God.

The Kingdom of Heaven, into which he invites us, is nothing less than everything restored as it should be. Hell is simply what it is to continue, freely, to choose our own death-bound desires instead. And the death of the body is when all our veils and illusions are stripped away and we see ourselves and all our actions as they really are in relation to their ultimate object, which is Christ.

The call of Advent then, as we heard on its first Sunday, is to awake. To become conscious and mindful of Christ. He is the coming Redeemer who restores all things. He is the Saviour who proclaims the forgiveness of sins. He is the ultimate object of all our choices and actions, in whose light we are judged. Therefore: repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

[1] The references are: Isaiah 29:18 (“vengeance” verse 20); 35:5-6 (“vengeance” verse 4); 42:8, 17 (“vengeance” verse 13); 26:19 (“vengeance” verse 21); and 61:1 (“vengeance” part of verse 2).

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