In the Name…
There’s a story that George Washington once asked Benjamin Franklin to come up with a barricade material to protect against British cannon fire. Franklin suggested using Christmas fruitcake as he knew nothing that could penetrate it.
As we move another week closer to Christmas, our Scripture lessons today all reflect something that is unique about our religion in the way it is constantly tied to specific times, places and people in history. We heard Baruch's prophecy of the Hebrews’ return to Jerusalem, St. Paul's hope that the Philippian Christians would impact their community, and, finally, St. Luke's carefully dated notice of the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. What all share is the belief that God works in and through history.
So, how is this unique? Well, if we look at the world’s major religions, Buddhism is, at its core, a message of escape from the world into a "higher” realm in which all individuality is destroyed, while Hinduism likewise maintains that true reality is "spiritual" and whatever we do here – good or evil - is ultimately meaningless. Indeed, most world religions for most of history have shared a disdain, even contempt, for the physical world.
It is only the two Biblical faiths, Judaism and Christianity and their imitators, such as Islam, which believe God is interested in the world. From the first words of Genesis, "In the beginning God created," or Abraham called to leave his home in Haran, or Moses called to lead the people out of Egypt, or God Incarnate in the Person of His Son, Jesus, or John the Baptist, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea”, in the Bible we always deal with a God who cares about the world and what goes on in it and who is, himself, constantly getting involved.
Actually, in view of this, it is ironic that Christianity is often criticized as being, in the words of the Marxist song, all about "pie in the sky, bye and bye." And, while that is certainly true for most religions, in the case of the Biblical faiths, nothing could be farther from the truth. When God calls us to imitate Him, that likeness is not found in terms of what we believe, but in terms of how we act.
When the disciples of John the Baptist went to Jesus to ask him, "are you the one for whom we wait?", Jesus answered them by describing what he was doing - "the lame walk, the blind receive their sight, and the poor have the good news preached to them." And, when Jesus was asked what people were supposed to do if they became his followers, the answer was always in terms of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
So, these are calls to action in the real world in which we live. These are not calls to having an appropriately elevated spirituality. Spirituality has its place and its value, but only if it serves as inspiration to do the work of God in the world.
When St. Paul prays for the congregation at Philippi what he asks is that they will have “produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God." What he is praying for is that not only should they have knowledge and faith, but that they should also use their knowledge and faith to do something about their society. It isn't enough to know the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and whatever else. “The harvest of righteousness" is the rightness of the way in which we live and deal with one another. Or, as we Anglicans say in our Five Marks of Mission, “Transform the unjust structures of society.”
Indeed, the first Christians were called "the followers of the Way" for the simple reason that their faith changed the way they lived so much that they were obviously following something. The call to us is exactly the same. We too are to produce in our lives the same "harvest of righteousness" in the world of our time as they did in theirs.
Now, every Advent, we hear the story of the ministry of John the Baptist – a ministry in which he called people to examine themselves and recognize their sins, their failures, their self-righteousness, and make a new start; not in the abstract, but in the concrete daily acts of their lives. And, every Advent we are called to the same recognition of our sinfulness, our failures, and our self- righteousness. For, only when we recognize the reality of our need for the action and grace of God in our own lives, can we be prepared to understand the reality of Jesus coming into the real world, into flesh exactly like ours.
So, if we're looking for some "spiritual" way that by-passes or devalues the importance of our day by day acts, then we have no business looking forward to the feast of the Incarnation, the feast of the enfleshing of God in a person, at a place, in a time. We live in the world of everyday and we know a God who cares about every day, not only because He created it, but also because he knows that this is the only place we have to know Him, to serve Him, and, as St. Paul says elsewhere, "to work out our salvation in fear and trembling."
God has never waited us for us to be wise enough, or smart enough, or good enough. At all times and in all places, He has come to us as we are, where we are, and being who we are, and he sends us into the world to produce a harvest of righteousness for Him by our actions and deeds of love.
The question for us is, what kind of a harvest do we produce? As St. Benedict says, every time we greet a stranger or a guest we are greeting Christ. Every time we act out of love, concern and responsibility we are acting for Christ. But, every time we act out of fear, self-protection, or self-interest, we are showing the harvest, not of Christ, but of our selves. The kind of harvest we reap is determined by how we act in relation to others.
Our harvest and our faith are in the real world of everyday, just as God's revelation of Himself was and is in the real world of everyday. As we approach the Feast of the Incarnation, we always need to remember that He came to our world, took on our flesh, and calls us to walk His way of service to one another in His name. Let’s make it a harvest we’d like him to see.
In the Name…