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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=96


 

Advent II, Year C (December 6, 2015)                           St James', Peace River

I have some good news, and I have some bad news. I don't know if you've ever had that feeling about the message God has for us, but I certainly have. It's Good News, all right – the best news ever, the news that the world isn't just the way it is, but was meant for something better, the news that God is at work right here to show us and invite us and lead us on the way to that better world. But it's also bad news, for a whole host of reasons – because God's plan confronts our plans, and cuts across them, and shows us where we, personally, are going wrong, and so on.

That was never so clear as when John the Baptist was preaching. You can imagine him saying, “I have some good news and some bad news.” And the crowd might call out, “So, what's the good news?” And John would answer, “God is coming!” Then they say, “OK, so what's the bad news?” And he replies, “God is coming!” I think the reason I like John so much is that he never wavers on both sides of that equation. He is bursting to get out the fullness of God's promise of a new world in God's kingdom – but he is also brutally honest about how that creates an urgent need for us to change our ways – and then again, he is full of hope for the possibility that people can actually do that, with God's help.

The people who responded to John, in their different ways, did so fully conscious of both sides of his message. Think of the thousands who flocked out of Jerusalem to see what he was doing, to listen to what he was saying, and then to join in, getting baptized in the Jordan, washed clean of the past and ready to embrace God's future. They were excited about something, and yet the also seemed to be “convicted”, struck to the heart about how wrong their way of life was up to that point. Even tax collectors and soldiers, making their way in the world through fraud and violence, would ask John, “What should we do?” - knowing that it would mean trying to figure out how to live differently, and yet truly wanting to see a new way open up in front of them.

Then of course there were the thousands who did not flock out of Jerusalem, who tried to ignore John, or looked down on the great unwashed who surrounded him, or actively worked to end his career. I expect many of them also knew exactly what John was offering – a revolution, a world where religious practice and mutual obligations would be taken seriously, a kingdom in which they would not be in charge. Good news when considered in the abstract, but bad news for them if it ever became a reality.

And it's that picture of the kingdom which comes back to haunt us, generation after generation. In principle, there's no doubt that God's promise is good news – a different kind of kingdom, a world founded on the bases of truth, justice, peace and mutual respect, as all our relationships with the people around us are reshaped by the relationship each of us has with God. But getting from here to there is the challenge few of us want to face.

There are always some for whom this world is organized so little in their interest, that any alternative would be happier – the gospel is surely there for the poor and the oppressed! And there are always some who come to recognize what misery they have created for themselves, and truly welcome the invitation to put it all behind them and begin again. But then there are the rest of us, who see the cost of transformation before we ever see its reward – for us, the kingdom of God is at best like major surgery, which terrifies us even though we know it's for our good, and which we might choose to put off as long as we could.

But that leaves us with a quandary when it comes to sharing the good news of God's promise and God's kingdom. We can look inside ourselves and see our resistance to it warring against our own hope for change. But then we look around us and see people who desperately need to hear the possibilities. We still live in a world where violence gets its way, and both perpetrators and victims suffer the consequences. We still live in a world where wealth, power and privilege are taken for granted, despite the unfairness of how they are distributed. We still live in a world where human beings choose to do wrong so much that we box ourselves in, and where we need to know the possibility of forgiveness and absolution in order to begin again. Perhaps it's even easier to see those needs in others than in ourselves, but how are we to offer God's promise when we're not even sure how we feel about it?

It struck me that there is a perfect analogy for this whole process in the season we're in right now. This may seem kind of trivial by comparison, but it has some depth to it. Just as John said, “Christ is coming,”  right now we're in the position of saying “Christmas is coming.” And that's both good news and bad news. In the abstract, it's all good – a festive season of peace on earth and good will among all people. But in reality, if you knocked on a hundred doors and said, “Christmas is just 18 sleeps away”, I wonder in what proportion you'd be invited in for a drink, versus having them slammed in your face!

I can think of three kinds of reasons why the imminent arrival of Christmas might feel like bad news. Number one is outright evil – the Grinch or the Scrooge feeling that hates joy, and love, and sharing, and all the good things that Christmas represents. In a way this is the easiest one to deal with, because from outside there is nothing much you can do for that person, except to keep offering an alternative. If and when they ever see what a new life might mean for them – they do all the work! With the zeal of the convert, they embrace every aspect of the new and better way, choosing to put behind them the deadly effects of their old ways. Nothing is so heart-warming as to see Scrooge or Grinch the morning after...

Number two is ignorance, and its associate, exclusion. There are people around us who really don't know the first thing about Christmas, who have never been invited into its wonder, joy, and awe. They are missing out on so much, and they don't even know it – or perhaps they do know it, just a little, as they see how others celebrate, and puzzle over why they just don't get it. There are other kinds of exclusion, too, as people feel left out of the celebration due to poverty, bereavement, or isolation. When we stop to think about people in any of these circumstances – and I hope we do! - we know what we want. We want them to have Christmas too. We want it to be good news for them, as it should and can be for everyone. It may take some work, it may take some sharing of our own stories, our own selves, our own material resources, but we can do it – we can share the good news with people who have been shut out.

It's the number three reason for Christmas being bad news that's the hardest one to work through: misplaced priorities. I think you know what I mean. When we stop and think about it, that negative reaction inside that says, “Oh no, Christmas is almost here!” tells us that something is wrong. It tells us that something else has become too important – that we've allowed other things to crowd out the vital news that God is coming near to us; or perhaps that we have such a fixed idea of what we need to do to celebrate the season “properly” that it becomes too much, and we forget to simply accept the gift of God's grace and presence.

It is a challenge to let go of those other priorities, and sometimes it takes a crisis to shake us up; but praying that we don't all have to face a crisis – we can help ourselves and one another, simply by telling the story again, and listening to it, and acting it out not just in worship but in life. The story of God coming into the world has a power in itself to reshape our priorities, because it is a story of God coming not in overwhelming power but in solidarity with us, not to cut us loose in judgement, but to make it possible for us to be transformed, into the people of the kingdom of heaven.

We can be the way for that story to be retold and re-enacted, not just to us, not just to our fellow Christmas-celebrators, but to everyone whose life yearns for the coming of God's kingdom. We can be God's message of good news of great joy, and even God's message of bad news if it is the means of transformation and salvation. But perhaps the only way we can be the message is if we hear it ourselves, knowing that God's coming to us will tear down some of our most cherished self-conceptions, but also knowing that God's coming is an open door to be the different people, and the different world, that we most want to be.