Prophetic Hope often requires Patience

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

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

Two individuals have been making headlines over the last few weeks – two men to be precise, two men who desire change, to shake up the status quo.

Julian Assange, computer-hacker and founder of WikiLeaks languishes in a British jail cell awaiting arraignment on charges involving a sex-sting, charges he claims are fabricated to get him off the world stage.  Assange and WikiLeaks are responsible for creating chaos in the cause of free-speech and government transparency.  He is being equated with Guy Fawkes, among other historical figures, who sought to change the political landscape through rather bold and revolutionary tactics, in Assange’s case what some would call cyber-terrorism and others would call cyber-heroism.

Assange has gained the status of a rock-star.  While on the run, he used highly sophisticated tactics to avoid detection.  Meanwhile he has released thousands of pages of highly-classified documents on what he describes as a crusade for truth.  Governments all over the world have been shocked by his actions, and he has been denounced by nearly every national leader.

Why does he do it?  “We have a duty to get the truth out to the world,” he claims, shedding light on what he considers some of the darkest secrets of the powerful, challenging their power with often embarrassing revelations.  Some call him a revolutionary, forcing change through sophisticated truth-telling, while others call him dangerous and disturbed.

Contrast Julian Assange with Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese author and dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this week.  He was one of the central figures behind the Tianamen Square pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989.  He has spoken out for basic human rights and freedom of speech in China, causes that have landed him in Chinese prisons for the last twenty years.  Recently his wife has gone missing and the Nobel Prize committee had to award his prize in absentia.

No one is calling Liu a rockstar, and his tactics for peace are, when compared with Assange, rather old fashioned and non-violent.  And yet supporters of both men claim that they are working for a better world.

Advent is a time when we, as Christians, turn our gaze to the future and expectantly hope for change.  We look for the coming of the Messiah, both in human form, born as a child in Bethlehem, but also as a returning king, coming back to bring justice and peace.

A few days ago I had a wonderful and challenging discussion with a fellow member of the clergy who confessed that he considered most of the prophetic writings such as we hear this morning as purely symbolic and not meant to be taken as literal in any sense, and yet I told him that I still hang on to my hope that there is more going on here than mere literary imagery.

Our dialogue certainly got me thinking.  Yes, I do believe that world peace is coming.  Not only do I believe it is possible, I believe it is our destiny as Children of God.

A great deal of this discussion is tied to another major debate and age-old debate that ministers, theologians and even lay people often engage in:  What exactly was Jesus doing when he ministered here on earth, when he died on the cross, etc.?  In more sophisticated language, what is our understanding of the concept of the Atonement?

Why did Jesus die on the cross?  Our Eucharistic language tells us many reasons – Jesus was the offering for our sin.  Jesus was sent by God to call us back from our rebellion.  Jesus is God’s perfect gift of love.  Jesus is the ultimate example of obedience.

Truly I find profound beauty in all of the various views of the atonement, beauty that drives me to worship.  I hear truth in all of these understandings of the saving work of Christ, but one of the most beautiful and, yes, elegant theories I have encountered is also one of the oldest.  First proposed by Irenaeus of Lyon in the 2nd Century it is the theory of Recapitulation.

Irenaeus suggested that the life and death of Jesus as the Messiah, the Second Adam, provided an answer, a rejoinder as it were, to the life and death of the first Adam, the husband of Eve. Jesus’ life of obedience and his radical obedience to God’s will, even to death on a cross, “undid” the disobedience of Adam.

The theory of recapitulation was extended to other persons and events in often elaborate parallelisms — the obedience of the virgin Mary answering the disobedience of Eve, the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel being “undone” at the day of Pentecost when God’s word was heard again in all languages, and so forth.

This view anticipates symmetry in the course of human history.  We have been given, in the person of Jesus, a second chance.  The curse of sin and death is being undone, the future of the human race is getting brighter.

This view has not always fared well among audiences who encountered it during times of great hardship in human history.  During war and conflict, I’m sure many Christians have instinctively latched on to the more apocalyptic visions and prophecies, those of Jesus returning as a conqueror.  In times of violence, answering with violence even divine violence often seems the best remedy.

I’m not sure how many Christians today actually place any real credence in Irenaeus’ theory.  Surely it would be quite difficult to witness the events of September 11th or April 16th and still hold the belief that things are getting better, that we are progressing on our way back to Eden.

And yet I find the concept compelling and I find the hope it contains reassuring.  We as a human family will one day return to peace.   But our return may be a gradual progress rather than a sudden apocalypse.

Who cannot take comfort in the words of Isaiah in today’s reading — these beautiful images of peace, of restoration.  The thirsty ground shall rejoice and shall sing.  There will be streams in the desert.  Sorrow and sighing will flee away.  God’s people will be safe from predators, and they will travel by roads that God has made.  Do we not all long for the realization of such a vision?

It is easy to lose hope, to wonder if this is just symbolism.  But Advent is a time for hope.  Advent is a time to hope for the impossible, to long for an end to the curse, a return to Eden.

And then the various theories of the atonement and the disparate views of restoration capture my imagination once again.  There are those who believe that Jesus will return with great fanfare and triumph — a dramatic end to the story, full of special effects and plenty of action.  This is the Jesus favored by the “Left-Behind” series – Jesus as a returning warrior king, more of a rock star than a humble teacher.

But then I turn again to a theory like Recapitulation.  I don’t see a dramatic ending or special effects.  Rather I see a gradual restoration — a movement toward peace — the road in the wilderness that returns to Eden.  This view demands that we as Christians live responsible lives.  While some spend their lives and energy winning as many souls as possible for Jesus, others find their calling to be feeding the hungry and protecting the natural realm.

I think of the theologians of the 19th Century, believers in what was called the Social Gospel, who began to conceive that perhaps it was up to us to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.   We must not sit on our hands and simply wait for Jesus to return — we must work.  We must fight for the good.  We must combat injustice.  We as Christians must be the agents of change on this earth — the vanguard of the coming kingdom of God.

How do peace and justice become a reality?  Is it all God’s doing?  Do we make it happen?  Should we combat injustice and cruelty with violence or non-violence?  Is God calling us to take up the sword of righteousness or to beat that sword into a plowshare?

The answers are not quick or easy, and yet, in the midst of Advent, reading these visions of peace, we persist in our hope.

“Be patient,” the epistle reading tells us today.  Like a farmer must be patient — we cannot rush a growing plant.  We must strengthen our hearts and steel our nerve.  We must resolve to keep working and to do so with patience.  As a good example of this, we are pointed to the prophets.  The prophets rarely saw the complete fulfillment of their words.  Their words and lives were defined by hope.

And who do we read about in the Gospel lesson — the one who has been called the last of the prophets — John the Baptist.  John is losing patience.

He has been imprisoned by Herod.  So he sends word to Jesus — are you the messiah or should we look for someone else?  The messiah had been prophesied to be a victorious figure, restoring the land of Israel to its former glory.  Many expected the messiah would be a powerful, militant leader.

And what was Jesus doing?  His work to this point in the gospel story didn’t quite seem to meet that job description.  Jesus was curing the sick, embracing those who had been outcast, proclaiming good news to the poor.  I can imagine John sitting in prison growing rather impatient for the revolution to start.

Perhaps this impatience fueled his question — “Weren’t you also supposed to be setting captives free, Jesus?  How about a little action here?”  Using today’s illustrations, John seems to be saying, “Jesus, how about being a little less like Liu Xiaobo and a little more like Julian Assange.  Shake things up, Jesus!  Now!”

But in Advent, we learn patience, we learn to wait, with Mary, with Israel, we wait expectantly for the coming change God has promised us, ready to participate when the time comes.

Call me naïve, but I still believe that peace and justice are our destiny as children of God.  They are our destination on the road of this life, the road back to Eden.  It is in this time of Advent that we take a moment to look at our feet and to consider where we are on that road.  It is this time when we ask ourselves, what am I doing either to help or to hinder that journey?

Is there a happy ending to the human story?  Do we truly believe that God’s road is the way to peace?  Have we lost faith that our individual lives can make a difference?  Do we need to seek patience along with a vision for peace?  In these last two weeks of Advent we invite you to reflect on these questions.

Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear:

Arise, thou Son so longed for, above this darkened sphere!

With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see

The day of earth’s redemption, and ever be with thee!





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