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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Comfort the Afflicted; Afflict the Comfortable

Matthew 3:1-12
            You brood of vipers! It’s not every day you hear a greeting like that, but if you did, I wonder how many of you would flock to hear the preacher who belted out those words, the next week. In our gospel text, John the Baptist indeed blurted out those words, directed at the Pharisees and Sadducees.  He was one of those preachers - the kind who doesn’t mince words. He told it like it was, or at least, like he saw it.
            Perhaps John went to the preaching school with the motto, “comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable.” I’m told that this is what all good preachers do. And I confess that all too often I feel unequal to the challenge.
You see, it’s tempting to make the Gospel good news of grace into a one-dimensional message of comfort and reassurance. We all need comfort and reassurance, and when we look at our lives, at the world around us, it seems we need buckets of it.
When we acknowledge the depth of our own brokenness, when we witness the heinous things human beings say and do to one another, we want a word of comfort. As we absorb our losses and pain, we need the comfort and consolation that comes from God. Comforting the afflicted I can do, and I have the good news of the gospel on my side.
But afflict the comfortable? That, I confess I struggle with.
But when John the Baptist burst onto the scene of 1st century Palestine, he didn’t have my problem. While pointing to the one who is coming, he indeed afflicted the comfortable;
He challenged those who depended on their own righteousness more than they depended on God. The Pharisees fell into that category. They felt they were specially endowed and privileged by virtue of their ancestry. They followed the Laws of Moses, they claimed the patriarch Abraham as their ancestor, and therefore they claimed righteousness as their own.
The problem is, while they claimed to follow the law, they failed to bear the fruit worthy of repentance. In other words, they talked the talk but often failed to walk the walk. They neglected the relational part of the life of the faithful; to live with love, mercy, and compassion for the poor at the core of their being.
All too frequently they ignored the plight of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, they persecuted the foreigner, and the immigrant and they assumed their own importance. They turned a blind eye and became indifferent to the needs of those around them, and in Matthew’s gospel these are the one we consider the least, the last, the lost, the little and the lifeless. They forgot about addressing the injustice around them and caring for those who were disadvantaged and vulnerable. Instead, they stewed in the juices of their own well-being.
Then along came John the Baptist, and he preached a call for repentance out there in the wilderness; and this repentance involves a reorienting of one’s heart, way of thinking, and action. Real repentance, the kind of which John spoke and Jesus taught, brings us in line with godly living, and godly living bears fruit for the kingdom of God. This kind of repentance and attention to the circumstances of those around you, matters deeply to God.
            Repentance in this gospel is about such godly living. We get a glimpse of what that might look like when we consider the characteristics of those Jesus calls “blessed” in the Sermon on the Mount which follows soon after this passage in the Gospel of Matthew.
The Sermon on the Mount describes how God blesses the poor, the humble, those who mourn, those who thirst for justice, those who are meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness sake. Indeed, not only are they – all those - the blessed ones, according to Jesus, but throughout this Gospel they are the ones with whom Jesus hangs out. This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Christ, the least are raised up, because their lives, their welfare, and their personhood matter.
As John stands in the wilderness, he preaches the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near, and he bids those who have come out to hear this news to prepare themselves, to prepare their hearts, to receive the one who bears this kingdom to the world. John points to the good news. He points to the one who will deliver and embody kingdom life, Jesus, Our Savior.
It is for this reason that in pieces of art, John the Baptist is almost always painted pointing to Jesus. When Lukas Cranach the Elder painted Martin Luther, he substituted Luther in that pose, with Luther in the pulpit, pointing to Christ on the cross in the tradition of John the Baptist. Pointing toward Jesus, John the Baptist shines the light on the one God sends into the world to redeem it, the one who comes into the world to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  
As we come to the manger, we must remember the cross. For it is on the cross that God demonstrates for us how much it matters that Jesus came for the sake of the least in the kingdom.
Late Yale Divinity School preaching professor William Muehl told this story to illustrate what Christ bringing this kingdom into being means:
“One December afternoon…a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the “surprise,” the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The “surprise” flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash.
The child…began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, “Now, that’s all right son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.”
But the boy’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.” And she wept with her son.”[1]
            In Jesus, God becomes the one who, rather than patting us on our head to console us, joins us in our suffering, as did that mother,  because the pain in this world, our pain, does matter – it matters a great deal.
            Our lives do matter to God. Christ’s coming does matter. How we prepare for him does matter. Repentance, that is, opening our hearts, making adjustments to our lives, bringing our lives into communion with God’s purposes in God’s kingdom come, does matter.
John’s cry of repentance is the call to turn away from our indifference to engage, at a life-changing level. The coming kingdom reorders our relationships and priorities. John’s words are words a challenge to us all. Do we care enough to change our lives and the world in which we live?
Do we love enough to get angry about the suffering and plight of other human beings and to declare that broken dreams and broken lives do matter, they matter very much? Are our hearts aligned with God’s enough to declare that this is true for every child of God, even if we’ve never met them?God cares.
That’s why divine wrath, axes, and fire are good news. God loves enough to get angry. The good news is that God is not indifferent. God is not indifferent to creation, nor to the evil and suffering in this world. God is not indifferent to God’s people. God is not indifferent to your life or my life.
God’s concern and love for creation are the source of God’s anger. Anger is not the opposite of love. Indifference is the opposite of love. The last thing we need is more indifference. The last thing we need is to hear from another that our very existence doesn’t matter. And God forbid that we should ever say or act as if another’s very existence is of no consequence to us.
            So, that’s what we’re about this season of Advent.  Our Advent worship, Advent hymns, Advent expectations, and Advent comforts bring us the reminder that John the Baptist makes so clear. We need to prepare. Our Advent activities, prayers and behaviors point to Christ’s coming. They help us focus. They bring about a different emphasis to our lives. They help us open our hearts and prepare room not only for the Christ child to enter in, but for the comfort of all God’s people.
            Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable. Prepare for the one who comes, the one who will make all things new, who will bring about newly formed hearts, who will call us to new understandings to reorient ourselves, to turn from our former ways to change our attitude and perceptions.
            Repentance is about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image, and it is a transformation worth preparing for.  
            And so, John’s wilderness sermon points beyond him and toward God and what God is doing. John the Baptist points to Jesus. Advent points to Jesus’ coming. The texts point to the reality that Jesus is bringing a changed way of living, thinking, understanding, operating.
How do we, in our lives today, do the same? How do our lives point to God and what God, in love for humankind and all of creation, is doing? How does it make a difference?
Whatever our message, our lives, our witness might be, it must point to Jesus. We do not point to the church, but to the gospel. We do not point to what we are doing but to what God is able to do through and despite us.
Our lives must point ever and always to Jesus. Today, as we lit the second candle of the Advent wreath, we sang, “Christ be our light, Shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness….Make us your own, your holy people, light for the world to see….Christ be our light!” May it be so, that in true repentance, our lives might reflect the light and love of God in Christ Jesus, not only in this holy season, but throughout our year and our lives.

[1] William Muehl, Why Preach? Why Listen? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 82.

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