Where It All Begins
If you ask enough people the same question, eventually you will find someone who agrees
with you, thus making it unnecessary to do any more thinking or to change your mind. I have heard that there are people who, when told by their doctor that they need to change their lifestyles, instead, change doctors. A recent survey of Americans found that when a person finds a conflict between what they want to believe, for example, about current issues, or politics or economics and what their church is teaching, the majority will change churches. We are living in the age of “suits me” religion.
The problem with this approach, however, is obvious. It only works for a while. It’s like Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme; at some point it all collapses. Even if you find a doctor who lets you indulge, eventually you get sick. Hearing only what suits you may feel good today, but may leave you unprepared for tomorrow.
How Should We Live?
How should we live? What should we believe? What kinds of practices and policies should we support? The answer to these questions requires an approach that will determine the outcome. Is our approach short-term or long term?
In the short term, we could keep the Ponzi scheme going a bit longer, keep changing doctors and churches to keep the mandates manageable. This is called denial. And it works. For awhile. Ask anyone who has become addicted. Ask anyone with big credit card debt.
Alternatively, we could take a long-term approach. This is the outcomes-based approach. It insists on facing the truth squarely, even the “inconvenient truths” (and yes, I did use that term advisedly, precisely because it is an example). The long term, outcomes approach says, “I’ve lived long enough to know that following the path of least resistance may be a good rule for hot-air furnaces, it’s the path to tragedy for people.”
Beginning with the Truth
For people of faith, for Christians, it all begins with a sober assessment of where we are. It all begins for us with a moment of clarity, a time of brutal honesty that drops all pretenses and excuses. It’s like the moment after the stress-test when the doctor comes in, and say, “OK, now its urgent.”
We begin with the fact that things as they are are not OK, and the moment is critical. We
begin with the understanding that God is not OK with the status quo, and it is time to do something about it.
The church year begins with Advent, not with Christmas. Christmas is the solution; we begin by first facing the truth that there is a problem. We do not begin with the shepherds on the hillside “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Rather we begin out in the wilderness with John in his rustic prophet costume, calling for a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of direction; that is, calling for repentance. Things as they are, are not OK, but are about to change.
John’s message was simple:
2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Repent of what? Change your mind about what? Where did John come up with his assessment that things were not OK and his concept of what they should be?
Help from the Prophets
The answer is that John was steeped in the traditions of Torah, the Hebrew scriptures or, as we say, the Old Testament. He had absorbed the message of the prophets, those “servants of the Lord” who used their Spirit-inspired imaginations to assert an alternative reality.
The prophets, like Isaiah, diagnosed the disease of their communities and called for change. As they did, they pictured a world set right again. They imagined the world, not as it was, but as it was meant to be. John’s assessment of the not OK state of his world came by way of contrast with the prophetic imagination. This is advent on which we make the same, unflinching sober assessment as well.
So, to the prophet Isaiah: how should the world be?
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
It is not hard to discern the meaning of these imaginative metaphors. A world without violence and bloodshed is the vision. It is a vision of a world in which no one is hurt and nothing is destroyed.
The Spirit-infused King will come
How could this completely alternative reality ever be actualized? When a new shoot starts to grow out of the stump of a tree cut down long ago, a new day will dawn. The tree is the family line of King David, cut off down to a small stump years ago. The prophet imagines a new green shoot emerging as a fresh branch from the stump: a new king from the old family line of Jesse, father of David.
Listen to the prophet’s vision of this new possibility:
1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch
shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
The question is, what difference will it make that this new branch of the old family line of King David will be so infused with God’s Spirit? What will God’s Spirit in this new King do for him? How will the Spirit of God help him?
3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
His perspective will be God’s perspective. He will not use merely human judgment as he looks at the status quo, but rather out of an intense “fear of the Lord” – utter and profound respect for God’s will and power, he will assess the situation and render judgments.
New Ways of Seeing
He will see that the normal way of looking at the poor and the despised is to dismiss them,
neglect them, or even take advantage of them, but the Spirit of God will give him an entirely alternative view. He will not just listen to what the “good old boys” say, the consensus, majority pronouncements. Rather, because he listens to the Spirit, he will decide with “equity” or “justice” for the “meek” or the ones who have no voice or social power to protect their interests.
His method will not be a new round of violence, but rather the weapons of words that proclaim that a new age of justice and righteousness has come:
“he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
Unlike the status quo in which the strong prevail, in his kingdom, might does not make right: only right is right, measured by faithfulness to the Lord:
5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
John, Jesus, and Us on the Prophetic Trajectory
This is the prophetic vision that inspired John. The difference between this vision and the status quo in his day was huge, and John came to call it “not OK.” John saw a world through the eyes of the Spirit of God said, repentance is required.
Today in Advent we hear John’s call to assess the status quo again. Today we hold up the same standard as John used, only perhaps with even greater clarity and intensity. John proclaimed a time of repentance because the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God was about to burst onto the scene. We are on the other side of that announcement. We understand that Jesus, the Spirit-infused shoot from David’s line has come, and he has announced the dawn of the Kingdom.
We now see even more clearly than John could have because we have heard from the King himself. Isaiah had it right: he did not assess our world according to human eyes and the talk of the day. Rather he used the criteria of justice and righteousness.
In advent, we face the truth about ourselves in a new way: we ask ourselves, “how am I living my life?” Am I led by the Spirit of God? Are my personal decisions and actions consistent with a person who believes that the poor in spirit are blessed? Does my voting record reflect the belief that the meek will inherit the earth? Does my budget show that I believe that being filled comes from hungering and thirsting after righteousness? Would my friends call me a person of mercy or a peacemaker? Have I ever risked ridicule for the sake of the kingdom of God?
We could change the channels until the person on the TV was telling us what we wished were true about the world and what to do about it. The Ponzi scheme could continue a bit longer; we could find a compliant doctor – but we know better. We have heard the call to repent; we have held up the criteria, following the trajectory from the prophets to the Lord Jesus. We will be Spirit-led people of the kingdom of God! No excuses; no reservations.