Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Coming of Christ: Shame & Gathering

Luke 3:7-18 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." 10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Zephaniah 3:14-20 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

We’re told by Luke that John proclaimed "good news" (3.18). But, I admit, much of what he says is hard to swallow and doesn’t sound, at least at first, like "good news", like "gospel". John the Baptizer opens this section calling good religious folks a "brood of vipers" and warns them that they get no special privilege for being part of their holy tradition. It’s not about how great our parents or grandparents were, about our Sunday School teacher uncle, or – and John goes straight to this point – about our national heritage. We’re fond of saying – though historians do debate it – that we are – or were – a "Christian nation". So, John’s words to observant Jews could be said to us and what sociologists call our "civil religion":

Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

No privilege, no break, no bye. Not good news, at least not if you are expecting privilege! As Peter wrote, "The time has come for judgment to begin with the people of God" (1 Peter 4.17).

These are John’s opening words in this section, but they are not where I land as I pray over the text, and the entire set of texts for this day and for our Advent season. As I prayed through the advent texts, I was drawn to the juxtaposition of our existential dilemma with the gospel: in the first week, the connection between worry (a dilemma of our existence) and promise (a dimension of the gospel), and today in the connection between shame and gathering. So, here it is in the preaching of John the Baptizer:

His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary (3.17).

And, from the prophet Zephaniah (3.18-20):

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Shame and gathering. Yet, in the dilemma of our existence, Gatherings are often associated with Shame.

We prepare for a "gathering", an event, and we obsess about our bodies, our acne, our weight, our hair, our shoes and clothing. "I hate myself." "I hate my body." A gathering becomes the focal point for a flare-up of shame.

John the Baptizer didn’t have any trouble exposing that sensitive, tender nerve of Shame: "You brood of vipers!" For, beyond the obsession on body image, we’re overloaded with shame about the inner, hidden Self. When I go to the gathering, everyone will be happy and expect me to be happy too. I don’t FEEL happy, can’t keep up a good front, and am ashamed to speak aloud what is in my heart. OR, when I go to the gathering, everyone has their life together while mine is falling apart. OR, when I go to the gathering, I can’t cope with the invisible stain on my soul ... and it feels so bare and public.

Shame, as an emotion, is closely tied to Guilt. But, guilt is focused on the legal dimension while shame is focused on the relationship. Guilt is violating trust. Shame is not being able to look someone in the eye. And, to be righteous, to be right with God (a New Testament theme), to be "upright" (the Hebrew theme), to live with integrity (one of the themes of spirituality here at Bethany: generosity/giving, fidelity/faithful, integrity/real), is to be without guilt and without shame when we come to God’s gathering. I love the way Eugene Peterson translates the end of Psalm 11:

GOD’s business is putting things right;
he loves getting the lines straight,
Setting us straight. Once we’re standing tall,
we can look him straight in the eye.

Tom, football player in the movie We Are Marshall who was unwilling to return to the team after the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 persons ... he had overslept on the day the team died, not been left behind because of injury.

And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

Jesse – sent him a chocolate advent calendar, the advent of Christ is the gathering of his people ... this year there will be a coming, an arrival, when our family gathers and we meet our son on Christmas day ... when we gather, Christ comes among us ... when we gather, that is a demonstration that Jesus is at work in the world and a foretaste of the kingdom.

Old Rugged Cross ... "its shame and reproach gladly bear"

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