“The weapons of divine justice are blunted by the confession and sorrow of the offender.” Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory
The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of a ruler who will restore justice to Israel, perhaps to the entire world, and the passage is typical of the readings of the Advent season as we “prepare the way of The Lord” – not only to celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas when “the Word became flesh” but also to anticipate the coming of Messiah when life as we know it will be turned upside down.
It is a challenge and is often uncomfortable to look more closely at these passages which, in their New Testament context, seem to speak specifically of the birth of Jesus, especially when we get a vision of an ideal society which will come about when this King takes His rightful place.
It is a sensitive subject for many because tradition has long held these prophecies to “prove” Jesus is the Messiah; so the idea that Isaiah may not be a direct and specific reference to Jesus challenges what we have traditionally been taught for so long. It becomes uncomfortable for us when we are challenged to think outside the box we’ve contained ourselves in and look more closely at these passages and the full biblical context rather than to simply take for granted what we’ve long assumed. Yet no matter how we choose to look at them, Jesus is still the long-awaited Messiah.
There is nothing to disprove Jesus as the Son of God, of course, for Jesus Himself says, “If I am not doing the works of My Father, then do not believe Me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe Me, believe the works so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37-38).
It is not hard for us to see that this ideal, prophetic society simply does not exist – not here, not now, and not even during the time of Jesus. So how do we approach such passages in a way that celebrates a Divine Promise come to fruition in the Incarnation - because it has! - and yet also gives us a Divine Vision of possibilities. In other words, why must we wait for the literal return of Messiah to have a spirit of justice and peace in our society? Why can we not have this now?
We can. Of course it takes two to tango, as the saying goes. As nice as we may try to be – and we must always try – others will not always cooperate. Praying for our enemies becomes more and more difficult, and turning the other cheek is a near impossibility – not because we cannot but because we will not. And we will not because “We are “mad as h*ll, and we’re not gonna take it anymore”! We’re reached the limits of our patience, and we’ve run out of cheeks to turn.
But “pride goes before destruction” as it is written (Proverbs 16:18); and when we are on our way down to our own destruction as we choose to live on the world’s terms, make our own judgments, and return evil for evil as we determine what is just, it is impossible to imagine Divine possibilities. It is hard to imagine what we can actually do even when others will not cooperate. Even within the ekklesia, the congregation, there is often this dominant attitude to “get mine while the gettin’ is good” – missing entirely the point of living well and faithfully - and ignoring altogether the possibility of a peaceful and just and merciful society right here and right now.
Though the prescribed Gospel reading for this 2nd Sunday of Advent is Matthew’s account of John the Baptizer, I chose instead to read from Luke’s account because there is more detail in the conversation St. John had with those who heeded his call to repentance. John didn’t just call them to stop doing unjust things; John called them to fully repent – to turn about and do exactly the opposite of what they had been doing. Essentially he called them to stop taking and start giving – for this is the only way to begin to undo the damage which had been done.
Even then there will not always be cooperation. Not everyone will go along, not everyone will help, and those who choose to exploit our earnest repentance will make the penitent life more challenging. This is, however, the very point of the Church, the ekklesia, the congregation of the faithful who choose to live according to Divine Law – that is, the Law of the Eternal Kingdom! – and stop living according to a society that seems intent on its own destruction. The people of the ekklesia, the Church, must find and make justice, peace, and mercy together. Welcome those who seek after the same righteousness – and show the door to those who won’t.
The account of the ekklesia in the Acts of the Apostles shows us what a just society looks like, and also shows us what is entirely possible – even when others do not cooperate. To these new believers who accepted the Word of The Lord and the teachings of the apostles with joy and gladness found themselves not just “personally saved” but called into the greater Body in which such things as justice, mercy, and fellowship are not only possible but very likely.
It will not always be easy. In fact, living in such a way is the “narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13) through which we must enter into this new life of Divine Possibilities. And let us not confuse refraining from evil acts with actually doing acts of mercy and justice because the difference is profound. Simply doing nothing is still nothing. We are not being moral and righteous people of the Covenant when we do nothing. Rather it is the “fruit we bear worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8) that makes us whole and holy and righteous and just and merciful and hospitable and invitational.
It is the Presence of the Holy Spirit and our desire to reflect our Lord in our life together that not only begins to undo the damage we’ve done by our actions and our neglect; it soon comes to be that we move beyond repairing and begin building upon goodness and mercy and justice, allowing the kind of community envisioned by so many of the prophets who have announced that this ideal society will exist one way or another, one day or another – with us or without us.
Above all, we must free ourselves from the shackles of a careless theology that insists Christians don’t have to do anything – for if Christians choose to do nothing but continue to live on the world’s terms and standards which shift from one generation to the next, then nothing will happen. All will remain the same, and we will continue to settle for whatever we can gain from this world on this world’s terms.
So let this new life of Divine Possibility begin here today. Let our prayers and our repentance be the beginning of something wonderful rather than merely the end of evil. Let us stop worrying about what others may do or whether others will cooperate, and begin acting as though the entire Church is depending on us individually. Because if we do this, it is the beginning.
Only then will we begin to see and feel a difference. And we will be blessed beyond any standard of human measurement because we will have chosen to be the blessing. And the Possibilities we have only up to this point tried to imagine through the prophets will soon be our reality in the Eternal Covenant. This is the Promise and the Reality of the Body of Christ in the world today. It is the very Life Jesus calls us into – today and forever. Amen.