We began our keeping of Advent last week thinking about God’s faithfulness, about how God keeps God’s covenant promises, even when things seem to spin out of control at times in our lives and in our world. We also considered what our response ought to look like at such times, as those who are named and claimed as the people of God. I’d like to pick up today thinking a bit more about the nature of God and what that means for how we ought to live in the world.
In the first 2 chapters of Malachi the Lord is challenging the people and the priests and the Levites, because, across the board, they had all failed to live as God had called them to live. Time and again the Lord accuses them of thinking that God doesn’t care whether or not they live according to his covenant, and that God doesn’t care how evil they are and how badly they treat one another even as they claim to be seeking for God’s presence and bringing offerings to God.
Which makes me wonder: Is there a worse thing than that to think about God?
Remember, the very nature of God is love. 1 John teaches us that, right? God is love. The very nature of God, the very essence of God’s being, is love. And the antithesis of love is apathy, a complete absence of caring or concern or emotion. One can’t get farther away from the nature of the God of love than to be apathetic. There’s no worse attack one can level on the God of love than to accuse God of not caring how we live in God’s name. This is the situation in Malachi, some 4 to 5 hundred years before the birth of Christ, and you can bet that it didn’t get any better in the meantime…
So now we jump those hundreds of years to the time of Christ, somewhere around the year 30. Luke begins the 3rd chapter of his Gospel by providing some context for what the world was like at this time. It’s the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea. Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great who was king when Jesus was born, is ruler over Galilee. His half-brother Philip is ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias is ruler over Abilene, though, truth be told, Rome rules it all and these 3 are just puppets of Rome. Still, it’s interesting that Luke gives us these details and more. This is the social and political setting, but Luke also gives us the religious setting. Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas are serving as the high priests. And the word of God comes to the son of the priest, Zechariah, to whom Luke’s readers were already introduced in chapter 1. And in telling us that this John has received the word of God, he also tells us that John’s received this word out in the wilderness where he seems content to stay proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
It’s as if Luke is trying to tell us that the coming of this word of God is for, and that it cuts across, every segment and every level and strata of society, from the Emperor, all the way down to an elderly priest’s seer son living a reclusive life out in the Jordanian desert.
It’s a powerful thing to consider. The coming of God’s word affects every part of life and every segment of society. There is no part of society, no position in the Church, no person in political office, no office so high and mighty that the holder of that position is beyond the reach of God or beyond the ability to benefit from remembering the nature of God – that God is love. I mean, just consider the effect it could have on the world if we all used the love of God as the measure of our conduct, as the guiding principle for our decision-making, as the norm around which we shaped our relationships with one another.
What if we really put the loving nature of God right up front and strove to form and shape our lives around that love? What valleys would be filled in? What mountains would be made low? What crooked paths would become straight? What rough ways would be made smooth?
The rapidly expanding divide between the rich and the poor?
How about violence?
Domestic violence which is experienced in some 50% of all households in the US?
The absolute evil behind the 355 mass shootings we’ve experienced so far this year – more than one a day on average – and the absolute disgrace of our society and our political leaders that we can’t take even the smallest of steps toward making us safe from the scourge of gun violence?
How about racism?
The opportunity gap?
The racism inherent in our criminal justice system?
The mass incarceration of young black men?
The injustice of mandatory sentencing?
How about gender inequality?
The imbalance of poverty when gender is accounted for?
The wage gap?
The glass ceiling?
The struggle young girls face when trying to pursue studies in math or science?
How about immigration?
The long-term devastating effects of the Western world’s colonization of Africa?
Global climate change?
Fires and floods?
How about the on-going stigmatization of those who are infected with HIV?
Those living with mental illness?
Those living with physical disabilities?
These and the many other segments of society that live with being stigmatized, simply because they’re different than the majority?
Dear God, help us, this list could go on seemingly forever!…
But here’s what we need to remember in this Advent time – the word of God does come! This is the whole point of Advent, isn’t it? I mean, advent, the word literally means, coming. Advent means coming. This is the season of our waiting for the word of God to come. This is the season of our praying for the word of God to come and take flesh in us, making us the Body of Christ.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul prays for the Church, writing: That your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.
And in describing the coming of God’s messenger as a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap, Malachi writes: he will purify God’s people until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. As if to say: the people will finally realize again, in the day of God’s coming, that God is not apathetic, but that God, indeed, is a God whose righteousness is realized most clearly in lives of love and service as God’s people love God and neighbor in word and in deed.
The point of both, and of John’s preaching of a baptism of repentance, for that matter, is to remind us that God calls God’s people to a particular way of living, that God’s people are to live lives that reflect God’s righteousness and holiness by living ethically, by doing the loving thing, by always putting the needs of the other before our own, by doing all that we can to actively oppose the powers and principalities of this world that thrive on the evils I listed a few minutes ago, in short, to live into the covenant that God made with us in Holy Baptism, not because, by doing so to the best of our ability God will be impressed enough to save us, but because God has already saved us, and there’s nothing else we could possibly do in response but to share that saving love through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God, and for the good of the world that awaits his coming. Amen.