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Child of God understands love, compassion, justice

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  • November 30, 2007

Second Sunday of Advent (Year A) Dec. 9 (Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 1515:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12)

The people of the first millennium B.C. were no different than we are. They had seen — and experienced — their share of tragedy, violence, war and natural disaster. They were certain that there was a tragic and dreadful flaw in the world, and they longed for the arrival of someone who would fix everything.

The prophetic vision is beautiful: a time when violence will cease and humans will be in complete harmony with all of creation. Enmity, fear and violence will pass away. The prophecy describes someone bigger than life — someone of sterling integrity, holiness, wisdom, justice and divine anointing. This spirit-filled figure will be immune from all forms of human corruption and manipulation.

But there is still a bit of unredeemed humanity reflected in the text, for part of this messianic figure’s job description is to kill the wicked. When he did arrive on the scene, he refused this part of the role, to the puzzlement and frustration of many. But what will really tip the balance in the healing and restoration of the world is knowledge of the Lord that will fill the whole Earth. This is not knowledge about God, and certainly not religious fanaticism, but a deeper inner awareness, experience and understanding of God. This is needed now more than ever.

A trip through the bookstores is disheartening, for books promoting atheism are selling well. We wonder, however, if anyone can actually “lose” their belief in God. Those who actually know God cannot have their faith taken away. But a faith that is little more than an idea or concept held in the mind is an easy target.

Those who actually know and understand God in this sense find it much harder to hate and kill and are more likely to be active in building a just and peaceful world. Ideologies and “isms” are the last things we need. However, a deep understanding of God that transcends individual religious belief systems is going to determine whether humanity survives.

There is much that we can do to prepare a way for Isaiah’s vision to become reality. Ultimately it is God’s show but it requires our active participation.

Two words — steadfastness and encouragement — tell us so much about God and about our Christian life. Being steadfast and not losing hope is very difficult, especially when we are talking about a whole lifetime. Paul calls God the God of steadfastness and encouragement, signaling that it is God who will make this possible. We are not called to something that is beyond our means unless we are given sufficient grace. Encouragement and steadfastness are also gifts of true community: mutual support and solidarity. When we provide these things for another, we are expressing the presence of God within us.

What would Advent be without John the Baptist? Once again that wild and holy prophet, aflame with a passion for God’s ways, calls people to repentance. His apocalyptic fire and brimstone preaching touched many. But as is often the case with this approach, it motivated many to a very superficial “conversion” that can only be called fire insurance.

Minimalism has always been a human temptation, and fear is not a good motivation for walking in the ways of God. John calls their bluff and insists that only a deep interior conversion — a change in mind and heart — will prepare one to encounter God. John warns them that his baptism of water is nothing compared with the baptism of the Spirit that Jesus will bring.

Making the paths straight before God means getting out of God’s way in every respect.  Some of the bystanders protest that they are sons of Abraham, and this represents the other temptation. That is to rely on membership — religious, ethnic or social — for identity and legitimation. But John brushes this claim aside by pointing out that if mere numbers were all that mattered, God could create members from the very stones.

God never plays a numbers game, and the entire purpose of John’s ministry is to separate those who are sincere in their love of God and their commitment from those who are merely along for the ride. We cannot rest comfortably and complacently within the shelter or comfort zone of any group. Love, compassion and justice are the only identifying marks of a true child of God.

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