‘Finding Hope When All Around Is The Sin Of The World’

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Advent 3A, 2016 Matthew 11: 2-11

‘Finding Hope When All Around Is The Sin Of The World’

It is Advent three already. We are well into serious Advent-come-Christmas stuff now?

John the Baptizer is featured yet again. The Christmas music and advertisements are ramping up towards Christmas but still, our readings have a tinge of challenge in them. Last week we talked about the different approach to communication that John and Jesus gave us, John was change through fear and Jesus change through invitation to love.

I guess one of the responses after last week is yes that sounds good but won’t all our best loving intentions just get swallowed up in the reality we live with. Fear is so ingrained into our way of being that it’s hard to have hope about real change without it. We look at the world scene and we see examples on a huge scale where political will, social encouragement and real systemic change all seem to be in the too hard basket. Britain’s people go against all poles into uncharted restructuring territory, The US goes against even the majority vote and elects a radical President who talked about building walls, immigration preferences and isolationist patriotism. Just rhetoric perhaps so wait and see. I am not anti or pro Trump here, just raising the expectations that were confused. And just this week a stable government loses its popular leader against all expectations. Sure we rushed to explain why and that in itself suggests surprise. The outcome scramble for leadership could be seen to be further example of this unexpected event. My suggestion is that these are all examples of a public perception proven wrong or shown to be wrong. What is going on in the world? What will happen next? Where is the hope of a better future? Or is this just a great pool of media and socially created fear? Am I in fact supporting this fear by just asking the questions?

 

Before I go any further I want to suggest that some people might complain that our New Testament reading is an unwelcome intrusion into the heart-warming story of the baby in the manger. And shouldn’t the church be a refuge from geopolitics? My response is that that complaint misconstrues the Incarnation at a basic level. John and Jesus are speaking to Jews and thus the salvation they are talking about is of the Jews, and the Jews were a subject people within the Roman Empire. If salvation were to come at all, it had to come there, to the Jew first, then also to the Greek. It had to intrude into the dynamics of first-century politics, had to include Augustus Caesar and the Herod’s and Pilate, if it was going to be salvation at all.

This is a clear message that advent isn’t supposed to soothe us. It doesn’t suggest that we should be stoic in the face of the irreparable damage of the world but rather take responsibility for it and engage with it. It doesn’t teach us to be piously hopeless. Leave it to God, or all we can do is pray about it. Advent celebrates the possibility of making things new. Advent does comfort us and it is because it promises final restoration, justice, and peace and not escape from. Advent encourages us to persevere positively in the face of trials and injustice.

Now let’s get to our theme for today which is a question that arises in response to this message. Where can we find hope when all around us things appear to be crumbling? On the surface this doesn’t sound very ‘Christmas’ does it? Then again, it could be said to be exactly what Christmas is about. People looking for a cosmic sign of hope of a better future. The story of the birth of divine insight to offer a way forward. The great theological challenge is the child born with nothing, into nothing bringing the greatest of hope.

 

And here is the big twist to this parable of purpose. Undergirding this suggestion is John D Caputo’s argument for the weakness of God. The child with nothing born into nothing is the expression of God’s vulnerable love and faithful justice in contrast to an almighty warrior or king who massacres all enemies. This seemingly hopeless engagement with the reality of life is symbolized by the child’s entry into the world not as a sorry, spineless response but rather a robust non-foundational, non- fundamentalist approach, bearing testimony to God as a coming event of justice. Like the cross the vulnerable child’s birthing exposes divine weakness and critiques the so-called ‘strong’ proposal’ based on Greek metaphysics. The message of Christmas is that weak theology provides a new basis for us to embrace the paradoxes of life. Or in traditional language; the suffering God is the God we understand intimately. ‘Emmanuel’ God with us.

 

We know that life is a risky business and our world in the last few months has confirmed this. We have been reminded that a globalized world is not just about multinational global companies and global economic interdependence it is also about global social, political and ethical interdependence. We are responsible for each other and to each other on a global scale. Racism, bigotry, exclusive policy affect us all no matter who perpetrates it.

After our service last week some of us were talking and we got around to that inevitable discussion about human sin and what it is and how we talk about it. I have also indicated before that I am not so sure there is any such thing as sin anyway but that has also seemed to be a statement I have yet to do a lot of thinking about. I am not sure I have it sorted within all the rest of the markers in my theological thinking so here goes another exploration.

In an article by Peter Heltzel on J D Caputo’s idea of The Weakness of God he suggests that one of the benefits of Caputo’s theory of God’s weak power is that a weak God is able to respond to the problem of natural and human evil. Caputo’s claim is that God is simply not in a position to intervene in human affairs. Thus God does not prevent evil in advance, nor can God retroactively remove evil after the fact. This means that in his view the human community must take responsibility for gratuitous suffering in the world. This also is an argument that the weakness of God is a more compelling basis for an ethic of hospitality and forgiveness. Where there is a weak God, hospitality and forgiveness can make a difference because they are equally born out of that weakness, whereas with a strong God, the God of our experience allows at best gratuitous evil to continue and even escalate. Here I think is the argument for an invitation method for change rather than a fear driven one, or a Jesus message rather than a John one. It is also the position that helps us move on from the dualistic battle between a liberal post-modern dismissal of tradition approach, and a conservative doctrinal, salvation of the church approach. This weak God enables and provides for a third way or a more comprehensive non-partisan positive process into the future.

This also means that like the question ‘does God exist or not’, the question ‘is there such a thing as sin or not’, are both questions no longer needing to be asked. God however we want to identify or describe God, exists as a necessary entry into what it means to be human and that is perhaps the real question to ask. What does it mean to be human? The questions about sin are also swallowed up in the new question. Caputo suggests that the kingdom of God is a field of weak forces for justice and that this field of reversals and displacements challenges traditional hierarchies of the church and the world. One cannot project away responsibilities. The weak forces all seeking justice create an environment of dismay, they raise the question ‘why? Or why not? And through the resultant disarray the high and mighty are displaced by the least among us. The reality we know is that the potential for getting it wrong, mucking it up are part of being a conscious human being. Naming it sin is putting on it a category we can dismiss rather than find an alternative to. The alternative or the seemingly impossible the new world, the peace filled world, is made possible by the weakness of God that empowers loving change.

This I know is all very deep stuff so let me approach this question of sin from an historic perspective. But first of all let’s leave the sin question in that place of yet to be defined and with the context of the text.

We know that John and Jesus were Jews who followed and valued Judaism. And Rabbi David Blumenthal, in an article published in ‘Cross Currents’ reminds us that: “Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a religious figure as part of the process of sin and repentance.  There is no designated authority to whom one can confess sins; sins are confessed privately, in prayer, before God.  This suggests that there is no public sin, no definable, identifiable thing called sin. Nor does Judaism recognize penance as a necessary part of the process of sin and repentance. Again if there is no such thing as personal sin then one does not need to do penance for anything on a public scale. The inner self knows sin in its human responsibility to be human. It is true that the practice of penances did exist in Jewish life for part of the middle ages, largely under Christian influence, but this was never formalized into classic rabbinic theology and practice” (DBlumenthal, 2010). 

This reminds us also that there is every likelihood the early Christian communities made-up the story dialogue between John and Jesus, (including the stories about John!), their efforts seemed to be designed to show that Jesus, and not John, was the more important.

As we said last week from all we know (and do not know) about his preaching style, John strongly claimed that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was a judgement to inspire fear in the ‘disobedient’ – the so-called insider. While Jesus preached about the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God being an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘ordinary’ – the so-called outsider.

Here we have the basis for hope. Two different visions or dreams by which to renew a hurting nation. So we should not be too surprised when the storyteller we call Matthew has John asking the question of Jesus: Who the heck are you – really? Even to Matthew’s John (and by implication, Matthew’s small community), Jesus did not fit stereotypical ‘messianic’ expectations.

With things constantly getting more difficult between the various developing Jewish communities, not to mention some downright ‘rivalry’ between them, it was proving difficult to maintain everyone’s enthusiasm.

One way Matthew’s community decided to respond to their situation was to look back to some of their earlier experiences to see if they could name something from there. And they remembered the prophet Isaiah and his vision… So remembering their past, they hoped it would open a way ahead. Once again some words from process theologian John Cobb, might be helpful: “Those who are wise do not cling to the old forms of hope in a new situation.  They learn from both the fulfilments and the disappointments…  They formulate their hope in new ways” (P&F Web site, 2007).

But then these telling and hopeful words: “From Jesus we learn that God is to be found in all that makes for life and healing, and for peace and justice…  people were moved by Jesus’ transformation of the way God and the world were understood…  the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire”.

And here’s the rub: if one is to advocate ‘the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire’, one’s vision or dream is going to encourage political participation.

And so in summary; what if the advent and Christmas stories are really about seeing the weak God, the vulnerable child born into nothing with nothing as the ground of a hope-filled future. A hope born out of despair and dismay as a hope where unconditional gift and forgiveness are vehicles of grace and transformation.

If there is a restlessness and a longing about Advent and if life is bleak and seemingly without hope. Then be aware, be alert, be awake for there is an opportunity for love and to address the impossible. While both John and Jesus chose to follow different dreams, both were seeking to transform their world, and bring an end to war and violence, injustice and oppression. My argument is that Jesus got it right.

And on the matter of sin we might need to revisit one of the gospels that didn’t make it into our Bible, the Gospel of Mary, where, Peter asks Jesus: what is the sin of the world? Jesus is said to reply: There is no sin.  It is you who make sin exist, when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature; this is where sin lies.

John Shuck from First Presbyterian USA says about this text there is no sin and while most of us familiar with [traditional] church have heard a lot about sin.  For the community of early Christians who appreciated Mary’s Gospel, sin is lack of awareness.  Sin is a fogging over.  Sin is becoming lost in the thoughts, anxieties and desires of our material existence that we live as though we are asleep…” (John Shuck, First Presbyterian Elizabethton, 2007, Shuck&Jive blog).

So! Let us be aware, be alert,  be open, and may the themes of advent continue as hope, peace, joy, and love and may they become concrete, and real, in our lives. Amen.

Notes: Hart, P.; N. Habel. 1990.  Outback Christmas. SA: Adelaide. Lutheran Publishing House. Shea, J. 1993.  Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. Third edition. NY: New York. Crossroad Publishing.

Heltzel Peter Goodwin Article Review of John D Caputo The Weakness of God. University Press 2006

 

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