OUR GOD IS ACTIVE!
So often we think of our “faith” as something quiet, passive, hidden away, private. We think of God as being in charge of “spiritual matters” rather than concrete, real things. Religious people are stereotyped as thoughtful people of little action, who never tell jokes nor dance.
In the lessons for 3 Advent we learn of a different understanding of God. For Isaiah, writing in the 700s BC proclaiming the wrath of God to a people who did not trust God, but trusted alliances, government (king) and armies instead, for a few brief chapters he presents a vision of what will happen after they are punished, go into exile, and God rebuilds their nation. This is an active, concrete, powerful God:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. .... They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are 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 shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Isaiah 35:1-10
Matthew, in the Gospel for the same day, presents a story around John the Baptizer (a chief character of the Advent Season). John is in prison, but he sends his followers to ask Jesus who he is, is he the Messiah. Jesus does not respond with a yes or no, with a sermon or a reference to something from the past. Jesus tells John’s disciples to look at his actions, what he does:
"Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
One of the first things Jesus does in his journey on earth is to Call disciples – to gather followers. They are changed not with writing about him, not with talking about him, not with bowing down to him – they are changed with doing exactly what he does – to preach the Good News to the poor, and the heal people.
We are Jesus today. The Church is Jesus’ Disciples – followers. We are called not just to worship and share the Sacraments, but to do the deeds that he did. Hence we feed the poor, we visit the sick, we assist our neighbors. In addition, since this is a complex world, we encourage our government to care for each other – to house the homeless, to help those down on their luck, to care for the sick and chronically ill. When our government fails, we step in ourselves – and when government enters a field, we gracious bow out and do other things. From Old Testament times, prophets instructed people to care for the widows and orphans, the poor and sick, travelers and foreigners – so we, hearing the call of the prophets, do the same, and insist our government does the same.
Christmas is not just a time for Santa and for gifts. It’s not just for children. Christmas is God doing something real and concrete for the world he created – entering it, suffering in and for it, dying for us on the cross. At Christmas time, in addition to giving gifts to our family and friends, why not take care of God’s people in some extra way. Come on the 15th to John’s Place Homeless Shelter (see Lydia and sign up on the list in the lobby for what you can bring), drop a pair of sox in our collection box in our lobby, bring some food to a neighbor just out of the hospital, drive a friend to a doctor’s appointment.
THE SHEPHERD AND THE VINE
On the fourth, fifth and sixth Sundays of Easter we read from the fourth gospel, that one of John.
The community out of which this Gospel book comes disliked and feared the general world and its people. They saw it as darkness, devoid of goodness and light. They got by in the world by assembling weekly as the Baptized community which had the light, truth and joy of Jesus.
They used several different metaphors to describe their life in Christ. They described Jesus as the way, truth and light. They described him as the Word of God, become flesh and dwelling with us on earth. They described Christ as the true light of God, the one who knows God and can teach us about God as God really is. They enjoyed the presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord with them as they gathered to be renewed.
On these Sundays we read first about Jesus in a Shepherd motif. Jesus was the Good Shepherd, not a hired hand who might flee when a wolf came. Jesus was the door to the sheepfold, and his sheep recognized his voice and came only when he called them each by name. Yes, they saw themselves as lowly, needy sheep. They admitted they were in danger in the world, except for their shepherd.
Today that might be outlandish language – almost insulting. We are the masters of our own destiny. We have tremendous technical, medical, and educational powers. We live in a democracy where we control everything. Most don’t even need religion any more.
But, stop for a moment and think. Recessions hit every so many years and wipe out so much of our resources, disease is possible at any time, hurricanes and earthquakes strike and render us helpless. Congress is stymied by endless partisan wrangling. Our politicians spend more time hurling mud at each other than solving the problems of infant mortality, poverty, unemployment, and income inequity. Not completely, but to a certain extend we are still sheep in need of a shepherd. We are still wandering aimlessly throughout many of our days.
When I first registered for City College of New York in 1960 we were all notified to assemble alphabetically in, of all places, Shepherd Hall, for matriculation. I had to look up that word in the dictionary (registration for a degree). All was mayhem: tables for every department, a catalogue and schedule in hand – IBM punch cards for every person and course - standing on endless lines to register for a course, get the appropriate cards, then, when another course conflicted with it, getting back on the line and turning in the cards in hope of trading for others at a non-conflicting time. We were all the cream of our High School crops, but we were like sheep going to slaughter. The process took the better part of an entire day. I’m sure computers have been refined and make it all easier today – but every time I think of John’s community feeling so lost and so alone; my mind goes back to September 1960 and Shepherd Hall.
After the metaphor of Jesus as a shepherd, John’s gospel presents the theme of Jesus the vine and we the branches, with God as the vintner. This motif points to the organic unity of the community gathered with their shepherd, Jesus, protecting them from the darkness of the world.
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