Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Saint Mary the Virgin, Falmouth, Maine
December 5, 2010
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-8, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
The images that swirl around our readings this morning are images of the wilderness, of fierce landscapes. I don’t know what constitutes a wilderness for you. Perhaps you think of the vast and trackless woods of northern Maine. Perhaps you think of arid and windswept deserts. Perhaps you think of dense and tangled tropical jungles. Whatever comes to mind, it is not the landscape that matters. What matters is that wilderness is liminal space, border space, space where one crosses the threshold from ordinary life to a place of encounter with the depths of oneself. We send young people on Outward Bound wilderness experiences so that the may confront their fears and discover new depths of skill and self-confidence. In religious terms, the wilderness is the place of vision quests, of encounters with wild spirits – the threshold we cross to encounter God. And therefore the wilderness has a spiritual dimension. It may be the frantic and lonely life of a crowded American city. It may be the emptiness of a suffering human heart.
The God that Jesus met in the wilderness, the God that John the Baptist came out of the wilderness to proclaim, is a God intent on overthrowing the world as it is. Advent reminds us that our God is fierce. God loves us deeply. But God does not love us alone. God loves everything God has made: the flowers of the field, the beasts and the birds and the fishes, and every other human being. God loves each of us with a boundless love. And just so God also loves Afghanis and Pakistanis and Zimbabweans and Palestinians. The Book of Genesis records that God saw all that God had made and, behold, it was very good. As Desmond Tutu is fond of saying, “All means all.” And, therefore, God despises what we do to the earth and to one another. God’s judgment, as pronounced by the prophets and by John the Baptist, is another expression of God’s love. It is what makes the encounter with God a wilderness experience, an experience apart from the normality of our daily lives.
There is no contradiction between God’s love and God’s judgment. The paradox of God is that his love is a judgment against all that is unloving. Our hope for a better world, our longing after a world of harmony or reconciliation, is a judgment on this world and on the ways we treat one another.
The great reformer, Martin Luther, discovered the principle that became the hallmark of the Reformation in his studies of the Epistle to the Romans. And what he discovered is that the love of God is not, can not be, earned. It is freely given. We are not right with God because we are good or because we do good works. We are loved by God before we do anything – just as we are. We are loved by God because God chooses us to love us. And the only response we can make is to live in God’s love, to trust in God’s love, and to join God in overthrowing the things that God hates.
We get two visions of the judgment of God in our lessons. The first from Isaiah is the peaceable kingdom, where lion and lamb lie down together, where children and snakes play together. For us that seems a dream, a fantasy, but it is, in fact, a judgment on life lived by tooth and claw. In the natural order, we creatures compete for the things that make for life. We struggle to get what we need and want. Sometimes we eat one another in the quest for survival.
But in God’s economy there is enough for all and more. Biting and clawing give way to rest and play. It is a vision of a wilderness where we find our truest and deepest selves: alive in God and at peace with one another. Whether we’re lions or lambs we are loved by God and need not fear one another.
The other manifestation of judgment is found in the words of John the Baptist. The coming one is not sweet Jesus, but Christ the ax man. The coming one will cut down the dead and rotten wood. The coming one will separate the kernels of wheat from the dead chaff. And woe to those who think themselves righteousness, who do not recognize themselves as taking part in the life of tooth and claw. Our pretense makes us hypocrites and prevents us from seeing any need to change. We must not pretend we are righteous. We must not deny our sin. Because God loves us in our sin, our weakness, our unloveableness, and calls us into his peaceable kingdom.
The sudden death of our beloved James makes us deeply aware of the dislocations of life in this world. The cancer that stole James from is a form of the risks we take in living in the world of fang and claw. Life is uncertain, life is short, and whether death takes us in the form of illness or accident or too many years, none of us escapes. And neither are any of us as good as we think we are. We misuse our freedom. We mistreat one another. And God wants to overthrow all of that. God wants us to recognize our need and our complicity and our longing and to seek God’s kingdom.
The Good News for us is that God never gives up. God meets us in the fierce landscapes of our lives and invites us to discover our true selves. God meets us in love and calls us to a new landscape of peace and freedom.
May the wilderness of these days be the occasion for us to re-discover God’s love for us. And may we share that love with one another.