“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” That’s from last week’s collect; it’s one of the primary projects of the Advent season.
How does God give us that grace? In many ways, also because there’s such variety in humanity—even in a parish—and what I responded to last year may not match what I respond to today or next year. In last week’s first reading from Isaiah God presents us with a breathtaking vision of the future, and caps it with “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” Let’s drag that future into our present! We encounter other ways in today’s readings, so we have opportunity to notice these, and wonder about how we’re responding.
John the Baptist, for example: repent, flee the wrath to come! If we respond to that, alleluia! But today the guy with the “The End is Near” sign is usually a comic figure and, even if right, is mostly ignored. The more serious problem is that John’s wheat/chaff image tempts us to assume that the wheat and chaff are easily distinguishable, and that God loves the wheat more than the chaff. Once we start wondering about those assumptions, we’re able to wonder what repentance means.
Our first reading from Isaiah pictures a different divine strategy: a righteous ruler in whose presence the wolf and lamb can live together and, yes, the lamb can sleep soundly. Leadership matters, which is why the Book of Common Prayer has a whole series of prayers for our civic leaders. We pray for them whether or not we like them, whether or not we voted for them, because what they do matters. And their actions encourage or discourage us casting away the works of darkness.
We read that Isaiah text because we see in Jesus the primary fulfillment of that prophecy. The King—in the language of today’s psalm—is present. This is what much of the traditional choreography of our worship celebrates. We’re not dealing with an absent Jesus, but with a Jesus who is very much present. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20).
So, does our belief in Jesus’ presence mean this is a place where the wolf and lamb can live together? “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain:” that’s not a bad test for what welcome we’re giving this King. Which brings us to Paul’s words in Romans.
We read from the fifteenth chapter. The entire fourteenth chapter focused on the conflicts caused by different beliefs regarding acceptable foods and the relative importance of particular days. The different beliefs about food probably related both to meat that had been slaughtered/offered in a pagan temple and to the Mosaic law’s distinctions between clean and unclean food. Paul’s bottom line—repeated in today’s reading—“Welcome one another.”
Pulling back the camera, the challenge of Jewish and Gentile Christians living together runs through pretty much the entire New Testament. Do the Gentile Christians have to follow the Mosaic food laws? No. Do the Jewish Christians have to abandon those laws? No. But getting that to work in practice… In the first century the challenge was creating space for the Gentile Christians; before the second century was over the challenge was preserving space for the Jewish Christians (“Are you really a Christian if you turn down a ham sandwich?”). And having usually avoided Paul’s “welcome one another” when it came to Jewish and Gentile Christians, we weren’t well-positioned do deal with all the other issues over which we Christians have split/splintered.
Dealing with our differences: that’s hard work, and for that Paul pulls out the heavy artillery. “For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’” Here, notice, Paul appeals not to Jesus’ presence (like our first reading), but to Jesus’ example. “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” Particularly in Lent we may do the Stations of the Cross. In Paul’s mind, if doing the Stations isn’t molding us to be more welcoming of each other, there’s a major disconnect.
Again, it’s hard work: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.” So, those moments when parish life is difficult: not necessarily a sign that we’re doing something wrong. It could be that we’re doing something right.
Circling back to my opening question (How does God give us that grace?) in today’s readings we’ve already encountered three ways: unwelcome prophets like John the Baptist, Jesus’ presence enabling wolf and lamb to live together, Jesus’ example of not pleasing himself, an example that requires—alas—steadfastness and encouragement. We have time for one more, also in Paul’s letter: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.” Christ has welcomed me. That’s…more than a little surprising. Now, Christ has no interest in me making that the centerpiece of my spirituality. Christ has every interest in my being in touch with that surprise when I’m tempted to withhold welcome.
So, preacher, you’re saying that anything goes? Hardly: there are works of darkness to cast away. The problems arise when I’m too confident in my ability to identify just what those works are (back to the ham sandwiches!) Our history suggests that we’re much more likely to be erecting a wall where Jesus would like a door than vice versa.
Bottom line. “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” God answers that prayer, not in a one-size-fits-all way, but in a generous variety of ways: Jesus’ servants the prophets, Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ example, that “power of the Holy Spirit” to which Paul appeals at the end of our reading. Which of those ways might get some traction with us, individually and collectively, in the coming week?