Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
It is tempting today to get up here and sink my teeth into the fresh, red meat of politics. A bloody mouthful of outrage would taste really good right now. And believe me, I’m tempted. My wife is a graduate student, which means, if this tax bill actually gets reconciled and approved by both houses of the Legislature, we’ll suddenly owe more to the government without any inflow of cash to pay for it. If only we had a jet—we could write that off. And as we watch the jockeying around the tax bill, we’ll miss the ongoing attempts through Kris Kobach and his collection of wrecking balls swing into the voting rolls to shatter them, leaving behind the broken suggestion of democracy. And as we turn from that, we see a government that has decided, for the first time, to reduce National Monuments, set aside for posterity and preservation, in order to open them up to exploitation by fossil fuel companies and mineral miners. And, turning from that, you might see the record warmth of this fall, and hear the low moans of climate scientists, and the desperate assurances, like a person who just destroyed a family heirloom, holding the pieces under a light, “Don’t worry, we can fix it, we still have time, we can fix it…” Isaiah has a lot to say to me today—oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, Jesus—make it an Advent worth remembering. Come on down and start some wildfires and earthquakes, and break the power of all the moneyed deathmongers.
It’s too easy to map out my emotions and my outrage, wrap it up in a religious package, and proceed to the hymn of the day. I’ve been guilty of that in the past. Calvin said the human heart is a factory of idols, and even if you’ve got a really good heart, maybe all you’ll get are some really good idols. Some of them may even look like Jesus. But I think these texts warn us not to mistake the desires of our hearts, as right as they might be, as God’s promises. And these texts also tempt us to do that. They tempt us with justice, and we want it now. There’s a tension in our faith, the tension of God’s promises and our own efforts to fulfill them. It’s the tension between what God says and what we want to hear. But alongside the earthquakes and the presence of God, there’s also this: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” How’s that for a little poetry about fall?
Scripture doesn’t tell to us that God will fulfill our desires. Believe me, I desire God to burn the system down today. I want to light a fire under Washington and ask Albany some pointed questions. I want every homeless person to have a home, every hungry person to have a full belly. I want every building and parking lot to be covered in solar panels, offshore wind farms along the coasts. I want the prohibition of private beaches. There a lot of good things I want.
But here—all I can say is that God wants me to be faithful first. Rage without hope is a fire. It’ll burn and burn until it goes out, destroying whatever it touches. But rage with hope is an internal combustion engine. It’ll take you places. And hope comes from faith, and our hope, at the end of all our emotions, including rage, is the Risen Jesus.
Here’s why that’s important: justice relies on the good. God’s justice comes from God’s pure, holy goodness. Indeed, justice is the restoration, or recreation of holiness lost through sin. Remove God’s presence, and we are like dead leaves, carried away by our iniquities. But when we believe in the goodness of God, in God’s love for this world, and God’s own sacrifice on the cross, we can see what justice really is. Justice is a closer adherence to the truth, and purer way of life, the recreation of our broken world.
In all the things we see happening in our nation, in a money grab that robs the poor to pay the rich, in elimination of basic scientific professionalism from the EPA, in the Energy Department’s groveling to the coal and oil companies, and in the Myanmar government denying that there are or ever have been any such people called the Rohingya, or in Vladimir Putin’s work to undercut and undermine all truth and the alliances forged across Europe and the United States with fascists and right-wing wealth, underneath it all, we see that constant denial and questioning of truth, scientific truth, historical truth, moral truth. This denial accompanies the abandonment of the rule of law for the loyalty to a strongman—and it is, almost always, a man.
Rage is a necessary, but insufficient weapon against the undercutting of human values. Our rage needs a shape and a story. We need hope.
And so we turn today to truth, to Jesus Christ our Lord. And we do several things simply by our reorientation to him. First, our pledge of loyalty is to Christ—whatever justice we mind here on Earth, our lives and our living belong to Christ. No human authority deserves or receives our devotion, but only Christ. And second, we grab ahold of truth: that God loves the world, that God will judge the world, and that God will redeem the world. No matter how dark things get, we know that the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead can bring life out of death. We know that the God who created the universe can bring light out of darkness. And we know that the God who gave the law at Mount Sinai can bring forth a better justice out of our rage.
We cannot win this battle on outrage alone, but by holding steadfast to truth: that ordinary, decent democracy works, that just distribution of the benefits of the society works, that addressing the needs of the poor works, that generosity, compassion, and the rule of law work. And we also know that nothing we make as human beings will ever be perfect, but will always remain to be perfected. And so, we know that we always will keep awake, to watch ourselves, and to watch for the coming of Christ.
Keep awake, Jesus says. I think he means we need to remain faithful, to trust God. God can work with our rage. Indeed, God can turn apathy into anger, and anger into action. But see through the times—continue to hold fast to what is good. Hold fast to the truth that every person has worth, because every person bears the image of God. Hold fast to the truth that tyrants will pass away, because God throws every tyrant from their thrones. Hold fast doing right, because God sees what we do, no matter how insignificant it seems, no matter how hopeless it seems, and more than that, God is always moving to change our hearts and our world. There is no darkness God cannot make light, there is no fall that God cannot restore. Keep awake. Amen.
The Rev. John Z. Flack