St Barnabas Norwich, VT
Isaiah 35; James 5; Matthew 11:2-11
Sermon by Burton Cooper
Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear.
Here is your God. He will come with vengeance,
With terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
The lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.
I hear these words of the prophet Isaiah, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, these words written two thousand seven hundred years ago, this vision of a world without suffering, without evil, thanks to the looked-for intervening of a God who is not only merciful and just but powerful --- God will come and save you, says Isaiah --- (these words, this vision, this hope) finds its echo throughout the writings of those ancient Israelite prophets, and we heard it again in this morning’s psalm affirming a God who gives justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, sets the prisoner free, opens the eyes of the blind, loves the righteous, cares for the stranger.” And the Collect this morning, the wonderfully named “STIR UP” collect, (I love that name, STIR UP), picks up the same theme, with its imploring words, “Stir up your power O Lord, and with great might come among us; let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.” Whenever I hear this plea to God to “stir up your power,” I recall rather ruefully the words from the 44th psalm, “Awake O Lord, why do you sleep, why do you ignore our affliction and oppression,” as if the only way to understand why this righteous God does nothing about all the suffering and injustice in the world is that God must be asleep … and needs us to awaken him. Back in the rousing 1960’s and early 70’s, when, amongst other goings on, theological ideas were exploding in seemingly thousands of directions, there was even advanced a cousin to this notion of God asleep, the notion of the absent God, that God had withdrawn from human affairs, taking a leave of absence, so to speak, so that history now was history without God, and that explains the horrendous extent of horrors that human beings inflicted upon each other in the twentieth century --- from Auschwitz to the Gulags to Pol Pot’s “Killing Fields,” and much more. Those years, the sixties and seventies, were also the years that a number of professionally educated theologians gave up altogether on God, with the then famous Death of God Theology, a theology which itself died or at least died out within a decade or so. All this ferment, and more, had a decidedly negative effect upon the church, especially the church in Europe, but also in the liberal churches in this country. I remember the time of my sabbatical year in England, in the late seventies, renting a cottage in the village of Wooton, when Blanche and I would go sunday mornings to the village church with our two younger children, Hope and Samuel, and our college age children, Stephen and Elizabeth, along with Earl, Elizabeth’s then boyfriend, now her husband, who had followed her to England and was living with us, how our family, when we walked through the church’s doors, more than doubled the size of the congregation.
The philosopher Whitehead told us decades ago, even before all this theological and ecclesiastical uproar, that any simple explanation of Christian faith is shipwrecked upon the problem of evil. In a way, that statement has always been true, as the ancient Book of Job suggests, but today it is harder than ever to miss that truth --- for today, a simple explanation of Christian faith just doesn’t work for so many of us. Of course, Christian faith never was simple. And I’m not thinking so much of the early church’s formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, steeped as it is in the Greek philosophical terminology of the ancient world, but of something much more basic to our faith, something that the nineteenth century theologian Kierkegaard pointed to when he addressed the then complacent, established, triumphant Danish Church, with these words, “Our Lord Jesus Christ was nothing,” says Kierkegaard. “Oh, remember that Christendom.” What words to say to a prospering, established church. Our Lord Jesus Christ was nothing. Remember that Christendom. Somehow it’s hard to remember that, or even want to remember that, let alone to draw the puzzling, complicated meaning consequent to that. But this morning, in this 2016th season of Advent, this season of expectation of the coming of the Christ, let us remember, let our minds dwell upon, this truth: that Christ comes to us not as a hero or as a king or as any kind of triumphant figure, but comes to us as a person of a low, humble social station, one who walked from village to village with a handful of followers, one who talked not to the high and mighty but to the poor and the sick, the blind and the lame, to the possessed, to prostitutes, to despised tax collectors, to scorned Samaritans, to a woman caught in adultery, to a woman who likened herself to a dog taking crumbs from the table ... and Christ showed compassion, respect, to them all, drawing no class or ethnic distinctions, Christ himself being a person whose birth is remembered as occurring in a manger --- can we get lower than that --- and who died as a criminal, publicly, cruelly, mockingly, as one whose last words reported from his lips, words of despair from an old Israelite psalm, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” Is it any wonder that Reinhold Niebuhr said, “The Christ who came was not the Christ expected” --- not the triumphant, monarchial Christ expected, not by a long shot. It is this Christ, this unexpected Christ, this Christ who in Kierkegaard’s words was nothing, a failure by any worldly standard of success; it is this Christ whose coming we joyously celebrate every advent season; this Christ is the one who, in faith, we say --- no, we confess --- as our Lord, as our Lord! Not a light thing to confess. It’s wondrous that we do so. Perhaps I should also say it’s wonderful that we do so. For the life of this Christ is a life of going out to others compassionately, observantly, with concern for their well being, with respect for their person, with intelligent understanding, with a sense of justice yet driven by mercy and forgiveness, thinking of every person as a child of God, so that all of us, at least through Christ’s eyes, become brothers and sisters to each other, all valuable. What then shall we call the spirit that informs the life of this Christ? Shall we not call it love. And when we do so, have we not led ourselves to the gospel of Christ, the great good news that we joyously celebrate, not simply that Jesus was a loving person, we hardly need to invoke revelation for that, but that the spirit that drove Jesus, the spirit of love, the spirit that makes Jesus the Christ, that spirit is God’s spirit, that God is love; that is the great revelation, the one that requires our leap of faith, that God is love; and Jesus’ life reveals to us the nature and working of that love, the big one being that God accepts sinners, that our sinning does not keep us apart from God, and also that the poor and the weak are as important to God as the wealthy and powerful, so that the gospel becomes gospel to us in freeing us from having to justify ourselves before God, before others, before ourself; becomes gospel to us in freeing us from those dark condemning moments of the soul when we see ourselves, know ourselves, despite all the good we have done, as still wanting in goodness; becomes gospel to us in freeing us from those dark moments when we feel our lives as insufficiently purposeful, insufficiently meaningful; freeing us of course in order to be more present to the neighbor; freeing us to become part of the fellowship of Christ, a confessing community consciously seeking to open herself to the spirit of Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, when we think this way about the gospel, when we think that it is love that defines the heart and soul and essence of God, so that when we think of the power of God we think of it as the power of love, not as the power of a Caesar, not as the power of an absolute king, but as the power of love, then we no longer need worry, to come back to Whitehead’s words, that faith will be shipwrecked by the problem of evil. For love neither coerces nor controls the loved one; for the power of love is to draw us to herself, to beckon us, to lure us, to call us forward; and further, love, by its very nature, leaves the loved one in freedom, our glorious, tragic human freedom, whose use sometimes lifts us up as high and as light as the angels and other times drops us into the lowness and darkness of hell. When then we hear such biblical passages as we heard this morning, that God gives justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, lifts up the lowly, strikes down the wicked, think of such passages as jarring us into the sense of the wrongness of the way the world is, with all its inequalities and injustices, not simply ethically wrong but cosmologically, ontologically, metaphysically wrong; wrong because the ground of this world, the reason why there is a world at all, that ground is love, the ground of all that has being is love, and our work, our life, is to set ourselves against injustice, against hate, against division, and towards love, always towards love, no matter whether things are going well or going poorly. Always? Will there never be an end to injustices of one sort or another. What then of our hope that what is unjust will finally be righted? Is it an illusion? What a question. To answer it, I can only turn to Paul to find words that help me and perhaps can help you. I mean the words found in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, those deep, deep words: “Nothing,” Paul says, “nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Praise God, our creator, for this great mercy.
Praise Christ, our lord.