God of Love, Not Vengeance

 Sermon for December 15, 2013 ||  Advent 3, Year A ||  Isaiah 35: 1-10;  James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11 ||      The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

I wonder if anyone here grew up with scary ideas about God?  It seems a lot of us did.  It is without a doubt the number one reason I hear from people who are either struggling with their faith or have rejected it altogether: The God they grew up with, they tell me, was terrifying–too demanding and angry, too threatening and punishing. And He was everywhere.  He didn’t have to keep a list of who was naughty and nice, He knew. He saw. He saw everything.

This sort of scary image of God is not that far off from what John the Baptist was actually hoping and preparing for in a Messiah. John had expectations of a Messiah very different from the One who appeared; expectations that (much like our ideas about a scary God) were formed as he was growing up, based largely on what he was taught by his parents and his religious tradition.

Like most first century Jews, John was expecting a Messiah who’d come with wrath and righteousness to punish his enemy, a Messiah with an axe in one hand, a winnowing fork in the other, and a penchant for burning things in unquenchable fire. A Messiah of divine judgment and vengeance—who would wipe out the Roman oppressors and vindicate his people.

This was what John had been preparing for.  This was what John was expecting. But boy, was he in for a surprise! Because what he got was Jesus.

It’s no wonder then, that the John the Baptist we met last week who was  thundering warnings in the wilderness, calling the ruling class a “brood of vipers,” and proclaiming “the kingdom of heaven is near,” is this week sitting in a jail cell alone, filled with doubt, and woefully wondering if he’s been wrong all along.

It’s a different kind of wilderness, this prison cell. But a wilderness nonetheless. A wilderness where nothing is certain, and everything John was so sure of has been called into question—his ministry, his ideas about the Messiah, even the purpose of his life.  Had he been wrong all along? John needs to know, especially now that he’s facing the likelihood of his own death. So he sends a few of his disciples to ask Jesus straight up if he’s the Messiah or not, and the enigmatic Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “Take a look around you: What do you see? I’m healing and reconciling, I’m teaching and preaching, I’m demonstrating God’s mercy and compassion…”

The gospel doesn’t tell us just how John took this response, so we’re left to wonder. We’re left to wonder whether he was able to let go of his old ideas or whether he went to his grave forever stuck.  Left to wonder whether he banished the Messiah of vengeance from his mind to welcome the Messiah of Love in his heart, or died plagued by doubt.

The question now is what we will do. Will we look at this Messiah of Love and finally realize he is a reflection of the God that sent him?  Can we accept that God is not a scary God of judgment and vengeance but a divinely loving God of mercy and compassion, healing and reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption—just like Jesus, His incarnation?  Can we let go of our old ideas—ideas formed in childhood–to embrace the good news that our God is, in fact, a loving God? Can we banish that old God of vengeance from our minds to welcome the God of Love in our hearts?

Well, yes, of course we can!  It takes effort, but when human desire and heavenly grace join hands even miracles can happen.  Even the most fragmented of faiths can be healed.

We can begin by hunting for signs of God’s love in the world around us.  Admittedly, this isn’t always easy.  It can be hard to see with Kingdom eyes in a 24-hour news cycle. But we can train ourselves to look for, and to see, God’s loving influence in the world. We can pause to notice when people are kind and when good things happen.  Because since Jesus entered this world, there’s been nothing “random” about acts of kindness, or “senseless” about acts of beauty.  They are signs of God’s love, made visible through us.

We can balance our intake of bad news by finding sources of good news. Did you know there’s a clearinghouse for good, positive news stories called the Good News Network?  It was started by a former television news producer with “a passion to serve humanity by delivering doses of positive news.” A woman who had a conviction that, “good news itself is not in short supply; the advertising of it is.”

The Good News Network isn’t Pollyanna-ish or syrupy either. It merely sifts through stories from all the major news sources and lifts up the positive ones—the other side of reality—that tends to go unnoticed.  The lead stories on the Good News Network as I was writing this were about Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signing an historic agreement to save the Dead Sea; about a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School creating a curriculum teaching kids how to “pay it forward” so she and her students could heal from the shootings by helping others; and a story about the non-profit “Operation Gratitude” assembling it’s one-millionth care package for members of our military overseas—with the help of 4,000 volunteers! Four thousand volunteers!

Stories like these do our souls good and lift our spirits.  Stories like these are evidence of a loving God acting in the world.

But if you really want to see signs of a loving God, look no further than our own church. For the past two weeks a number of parishioners from this church have been giving rides to one of our members who no longer drives so she can visit her husband in the hospital.  Others have been fixing her meals.

On Friday the Watermelon Room was filled with guests of our Soup & Sandwich lunch, enjoying home made soup, cupcakes, Christmas decorations, and flowers—all provided by parishioners and staffed by half a dozen volunteers.

One member of this church has spent the past six months going back and forth to Brooklyn every week to care for an old friend dying of cancer.  Another is volunteering as a hospice visitor.  Still another delivers dog food to elderly pet owners who couldn’t keep their animals without his help. Yet another still is organizing high quality SAT prep classes for kids in our community so kids in less resourced communities can get it at no cost.

Some in this parish drive patients to their doctors appointments, visit the sick and the elderly, do pro-bono legal work, feed the hungry, teach our children,  heal the broken, or help raise funds for non-profit service providers.

Some buy children’s books for the Umana Academy in East Boston, or soap for street kids in Haiti, or Christmas dinners for clients of the Cohasset Food Pantry.

I could go on like this all morning, and I don’t even know the half of what you all do for each other or for others.  What I do know is that you do it because you have great big hearts and because it is your nature to be loving, just like the God in whose image you are made. 

“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus told John’s disciples.  And tell they did.

Now it’s our turn.  So take a look around you:  What do you see? Make an effort to search out the good news to balance the bad.  Take time to notice the signs in your life of an infinitely loving God, a God of mercy and compassion, healing and reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption. Banish the God of vengeance from your minds once and for all and welcome the God of Love in your hearts.

And then go!  Go and tell what you hear and see: that the Kingdom of heaven is near!  Amen.

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