Sunday, December 7, 2014

Advent Reflection 2015: Week Two

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

“I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)” (Luke 7:28-30)

John the Baptizer offended people with his message. Calling people a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7) doesn’t seem like the best way to build a following of happy customers. But the imagery was apt: If the ongoing sin of the people of Israel was going to bring God’s wrath to bear on the nation, then they would flee like snakes trying to escape a fire. People were apparently concerned about the situation, and came to John to seek a remedy.

Rather than demand that people become more rigorously religious, John called them to ethical behavior. He told them that their ethnic identity as children of Abraham was insufficient; how they lived out their calling from God was what really mattered.

When Jesus affirms John, he also makes it clear that the Baptizer doesn’t enjoy a place of hierarchical dominance in the kingdom of God. The economy of God’s kingdom values “the least” in ways that flies in the face of conventional thinking about human significance.

Luke’s parenthetical addition to Jesus’ words is worth our consideration. He says that when the Pharisees—significant religious leaders in that time—refused John’s baptism, they were actually rejecting “God’s purpose for themselves.” God’s purpose, it seems, was to realign the people according to his desires as reflected in Isaiah 40: To do God’s will and to have his law written on their hearts. Too many of the religious leaders thought they had God’s desires all figured out, and had reframed them according to their own preferences. Luke says that they missed out on a gift that God was presenting to them and (since we know the end of the story) they ended up trying to protect their preferred convictions by seeing to the deaths of both John and Jesus (yes, Herod imprisoned John and had him executed. But we don’t hear about any Pharisees coming to John’s defense).

In this Advent season, as we consider again how the coming of Jesus challenged the conventions of both government and religion, it might be good for us to reflect on how our convictions are often formed by culture, politics, family traditions, and even church experiences. Do we express those convictions in ways that reflect the heart of God? Could some of our convictions be misplaced? Would it be heretical to challenge some of our most cherished beliefs (heresy shouldn’t be defined as telling me something I didn’t already know)?

Every so often we might stop and reflect on these things. Perhaps God is always presenting us with the gift of repentance—to turn from one way of ordering our lives in order to embrace another way that is in touch with God’s purposes and desires.

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