Isaiah 11: 1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
December 5, 2010 – Advent 2
First, I want to thank everyone who participated in our Advent congregational art project by painting a pair of wooden blocks, which have been and will continue to be arranged differently each Sunday in Advent. On each of the blocks are words and images illustrating God’s dream for the kingdom and those things which thwart it. Participants were asked to think of something that needs to change in the world or in the Church or in ourselves and to paint that on one block. On the other block I asked folks to paint what would need to happen in order for that change to take place. For example, ‘greed’ and ‘share’, ‘confusion’ and ‘focus’, ‘war’ and ‘peace’.
As the blocks are arranged in different configurations each week, the pairs we painted are juxtaposed with other words, other images we may not have imagined. Just as in the reading from Isaiah, where we see the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf, the lion and the fatling together, and a little child leading them, so now we see ‘fear’ and ‘give more’; ‘racism’ and ‘let go, let God’; ‘let it go’ and ‘forgive’; ‘gossip’ and ‘respect’; ‘working together’ and ‘homeless'.
And we begin to realize that God’s kingdom is built with not only with the just but with the unjust as well; that in God’s vision of the world, predators, those who tear apart, come together with innocent prey, not to hurt or to destroy but to live in the fullness of the knowledge of God.
In the reading from the gospel of Matthew we see John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea, by the shores of the Jordan, proclaiming a message of repentance. People poured out from the city of Jerusalem and from the Judean countryside and came to John for baptism, to be made whole. They turned not only from their sin but also from the persons and places of power toward someone who by all appearances was homeless, poor, and a bit on the crazy side. John was all these things out of his radical love for the Lord and so that the way of the Lord would be not only obvious but in your face.
Perhaps those who were coming to John had an inkling of some of what was wrong in the world or in their religious structure or in themselves and they recognized that this baptism, this cleansing was something that could make change possible. Certainly the poor were there and those considered easy prey by those in power: widows, orphans, the blind, the lame, the deaf and mute, ordinary folks who had to work hard to earn a living, maybe a few prostitutes and tax collectors—the folks that would soon be Jesus’ closest companions. John being who he was would have attracted the least of God’s people: those who were hungry and thirsty for God’s realm.
But then some Pharisees and Sadducees arrive for baptism as well, those with religious authority whom John viewed as predators, calling them vipers—vicious snakes with long fangs and deadly venom. John had not wasted his breath in warning them that the kingdom of God had come near. John, who was an Essene, one who rejected the religious authorities and the power they held over human souls and lives, knew that God spoke from the wilderness, not from the seat of power.
Pharisees and Sadducees were natural enemies—both spiritually and politically, yet when they had seen the crowds of people heading toward the river they joined forces to protect their status and resist the coming change in Jesus. I’d like to think they might have been motivated by a sense of guilt or shame about their past actions. After all, it was this ragtag prophet leading the people to greater devotion and not them.
But guilt and shame have a way of stopping us from changing. Though there are such things as healthy guilt and shame, more often than not, these feelings can paralyze and wound us to the point that we judge ourselves flawed and defective or it is the world around us that is to blame. Sometimes we can take our guilt too far by taking too much responsibility for others, convinced that we are good only if we can be perfect or perform tasks perfectly.
Strangely enough, the emotion that we need more of, and that John the Baptist is seeking in those Pharisees and Sadducees, is remorse. Remorse is the capability of feeling the pain we have caused others. It is the flip side of empathy, that ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, for predator to know what it is to be prey and vice versa.
Remorse is more than just the consumer regret we hear about. It comes from the Latin remordere which means to torment or to vex, or literally, to bite back. It is as if with our words or actions we sink a predator’s teeth, long fangs into someone, knowingly or unknowingly; yet also bite ourselves at the same time. With remorse the pain we cause another is our pain. When we feel that pain, it is then that we can be made whole, for we realize that we—human beings, animals, plants, the very earth, the whole of creation—are one.
It seems every day we witness those in power as lacking in remorse. To be sure, there is plenty of shaming and fists beating the chest but very little in the way of remorse. As human beings we are pain-avoidant, to the point of often taking little responsibility for the pain we cause. But we know from experience that at some point it will come back to bite us.
The irony is that what appears to block our way to the kingdom of God makes the very pathway to the wholeness God intends for us. Greed, war, guilt, shame show us the need for generosity, peace, forgiveness and respect. The pain of remorse leads to wholeness. In Advent we focus on hope, peace, joy and love, for we know the world and we ourselves can be tempted to believe that despair, strife, sorrow, and hatred are normal and even to be expected.
Where are the places in your own life and in the life of this church where you feel remorseful? With whom do you feel juxtaposed, like polar opposites, oil and water, day and night, where there is unresolved tension and the need for reconciliation? What do you do to cope with pain or to avoid it altogether? How have guilt and shame paralyzed and wounded you in your life and in your life together as the Body of Christ? In what areas of your life and your life as a congregation have you come to expect the worst? What is it that you really hope for?
What would this church, this world, what would you look like if none would hurt nor destroy anymore, if the need for remorse was no more? As God’s Advent rearranges us and puts us with people and situations that seem like natural enemies, like polar opposites, let us watch for the unexpected, for God’s surprising love to lead us to healing and to wholeness. Amen.