Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent 3 - Dec 11, 2016 - The Strength to be Idealists

What a vision the Magnificat presents us with. This beautiful hymn from Mary, that we sang for our Psalm reading today, gives us a vision of the world that God desires, where God establishes pure justice and equality. God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In this simple song, Mary rejoices in God’s righteousness, that God does away with exploitation and inequality and with oppression and poverty. And to those who are powerless and poor, who are constantly hungry and struggling to make ends meet, this is a powerful hymn of freedom. It calls us to open our arms to embrace a radically different world than the one we currently live in, where the powerful assume ever larger thrones and where the rich enjoy their ever-increasing good things. Mary’s hymn reminds us that the world we live in, which tells us it is better to be powerful and rich than lowly and hungry, is not the world God intends for us. For those of us who are social justice idealists, the Magnificat feeds our soul and inspires us in our efforts.

But for those of us who are realists, the Magnificat is, well, something we listen to in church but not something we bring home with us. Because life isn’t that simple, is it? The idea that the world can be divided so cleanly between those with power and those without, between those who are rich and those are hungry, it’s a bit ridiculous. Realists know that the world is much too complicated to let idealists run the show. Take the issue of environmental justice, for example, and the discussions around carbon taxes and oil pipelines, and all of that. Now idealists would say that we need to get rid of fossil fuels immediately, and shut down all the pipelines and refineries, because they are destroying the environment and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be living in a toxic soup and we have to stop it now. Realists, on the other hand, would say, Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t eliminate all the jobs that come from the pipelines and refineries. Those workers need to feed their families. The country’s economy would tank if we did that. We need these industries simply to survive to the second or third generation - clean air is useless if there’s no second or third generation to enjoy it.

And so the debate rages between the idealists and the realists. And then, somewhere in the middle, lies the rest of us. Those of us who wish we could live by the lofty ideals that Christ has set before us, of justice and equality, but who can’t argue against the realists because we need to get by in life. We act like the “crowds” in the Gospel of Matthew that we heard today, who go out to hear the idealist John the Baptist, but who aren’t willing to follow him to imprisonment. Instead, we find a way to compromise on our ideals. We turn to practicality and tradition. We act like realists and we dream like idealists, and when the young people come to us, because the young are often the most excited about living up to their ideals, when they come to us and say, “But don’t you care? How can you be such hypocrites? How can you compromise like that?” we stifle that twinge in our conscience and think, “You’ll get used to it. You’ll get used to compromising in order to get by, and one day you’ll understand.” And we think to ourselves how complicated the system is, and how it’s not so black and white, and how the division between powerful and powerless, between rich and poor, is not so simply made. And we listen to Mary’s Magnificat and we wonder, “Am I the powerful about to be brought down? Or the lowly about to be lifted up? Do I need to be filled with good things, or do I need to be emptied?” We acknowledge the vision that God calls us to, but we see the realities of the world, and we despair of being able to make any real changes in the world and try to get used to the way things are.

And do we get used to things, and we do get by pretty comfortably, until along comes Jesus in our Gospel reading from Matthew. In our reading, Jesus turns to the crowds who have come to see John, and lectures them for getting too comfortable with the situation they’re in. Jesus points to John the Baptist as someone who didn’t compromise - John was not a “reed shaken by the wind,” that, in order to survive, bends down when confronted by a bigger force. John was not someone “dressed in soft robes,” who took a job with the big company, as it were, in order to make a living and have something nice to wear. No, John was a prophet, and “more than a prophet,” which means that John refused to compromise, John refused to sacrifice his ideals, John refused to give into the realist’s perspective. John remained an idealist until the day he died - it was the reason he died, actually - and yet Jesus tells the crowds, and us, that here is truly a great man. Here is who we should be imitating.

I have no doubt, though, that the crowds listened to Jesus and then thought, like we do, “But it’s not that easy! It’s not that easy to extricate ourselves from the system! Yes, I want to do what’s right and participate in justice, but I can’t get rid of my gas-burning car and rely only on public transportation. I can’t cash in all my RRSPs and give the money to the poor. I just don’t see how I can do this!” We thirst for righteousness, as the Beatitudes say; we want the world to be a just and equitable place. Whether we are idealists or realists or somewhere in-between, I know that we all want the lowly to be lifted up and the poor to be filled with good things. It’s just that it seems so impossible. God’s kingdom seems like a only a dream - never something that will be a reality.

In the midst of this darkness, our readings for today give us two messages of light and hope. The first comes from the letter of James. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. ... Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. ... We call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” The letter of James calls us to endure, to be strong, to have patience. Not in the sense of getting used to things the way they are until God comes to fix them, but in the sense of holding to our ideals, and continuing the daily struggle to live as God’s children, strengthened by the knowledge that the Lord is going to make things right. The Lord is going to untangle this mess we find ourselves in, and restore justice in a compassionate and merciful manner. Cast us off our thrones where we are powerful, yes, but also lift us up in those areas where we are lowly, so that no one is too high or too low. The letter of James says to us that because God is going to do these things, we can stand firm in the face of opposition, like the oak tree in the river bed instead of the reed, resisting the call to give in to exploitative systems because we know they won’t last forever.

Our second message comes from Mary. One of the things that gets overlooked when we read the Magnificat is the tense of her words. That is, Mary is not speaking about what God will do. She is speaking about what God has done. God has brought the powerful down from their thrones. God has filled the hungry with good things. God has done great things for God’s people. This is not something we are waiting for, something we are hoping will one day happen, this is something God has done, and is continually doing! God, who is not confined by our linear timeline, has acted for justice, and is acting for justice, and will act for justice all at the same time. God has untangled us from the systems of oppression we find ourselves in, and is now untangling us, and will untangle us!
And so we can, indeed, engage in living as idealists rather than as realists. Because the world we envision will be brought about, and has been brought about, by God. If it was all up to us, then yes, we could revert to our realistic ways of living and get used to injustice. But it isn’t up to us. It’s up to God, and the power of God to restore the world to justice and life is beyond anything we know. As our reading from Isaiah says, God’s power causes flowers to bloom in the desert, causes weak bodies to become strong, causes the blind to see and deaf to hear. God’s power brings water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. God’s power becomes embodied in a tiny baby born two thousand years ago who goes on to love the world so dearly that he dies, and then is given new life, sharing it with all of us. God’s power ends the everlasting hold of death. God restores everlasting joy and peace to the world, bringing everyone into God’s circle of righteousness. We can endure this current darkness because God has already brought light into the world!

This is the meaning of Advent. This simultaneous looking backwards, and looking forwards, and acting in the present. We look back with joy to the moment that God upended the systems of power by incarnating in a human baby of no standing, born in a stable. We look forward with a patient hope to the moment that God will fulfill God’s upending of power by establishing a kingdom of justice and righteousness for all, filled with compassion and mercy. And we act in the present as if what we hope for has already come to pass, and as if what God has done in the past is our new reality. We refuse to get used to things the way they are and instead we proclaim, with the fervour of the idealist and the practicality of the realist, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” Amen.

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