Sunday, December 6, 2009

Second Sunday of Advent

Romans 15:4-13 / Matthew 11:2-10

Paul presents us with a bit of a puzzle today. First he reminds us of the inspired character of Scripture, and moreover that the Scriptures are fundamentally directed not to some person in the past only, but to us also: Whatever things have been written have been written for our instruction. The puzzle is what comes next. From the fact of the inspiration of the Scriptures and their being addressed to all believers, Paul makes what looks to us like a bit of a logical jump: May then the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of one mind toward one another. How did we get from the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures to ecclesial unity?

This is a puzzle for us especially who have been led to think of religious teaching, especially explicit doctrine with direct appeal to the revealed and inspired Word of God, to be divisive rather than unitive. The principle of etiquette is clear enough — at dinner parties, never speak of politics or religion. We worry that such talk will get tempers to flare, unkind things to be said, and little to no good will come of it. Unity, or at least unanimity, we suspect to require the absence of doctrine, of party, of loyalty. Hold what you will if you must. Indeed, the world is better for the variety of things held. But, whatever else you do, hold your tongue! Don't even suggest that you hold any view about which one could divide.

While this is a common enough worry, the readings today invite, require even, that we see things quite differently than this. To be sure, the worry of dinner party etiquette does get one thing quite right — a too narrow view of things, a too doctrinaire approach to life and to God's Word, will actually close our eyes to the crucial doctrine God means to give us. When the disciples of John came to Jesus, they needed to ask if he was the one, or whether they should look for another. Jesus invited them simply to recall what the Scriptures said and to judge based on what they had seen — Go and report to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers and cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise, the poor have the gospel preached to them. The answer to their question is the the very place where the question itself arises, namely from an attentive concern to the whole of what God has revealed about his Anointed.

Jesus then does the same for the crowd, but this time about John. If Jesus was the one who was sent, then who was this captivating figure John, a preacher so powerful one might easily have thought him to be the one the Father had sent. This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, who shall make ready Your way before You.' If you would know who John the Baptist was, know all the Scriptures.

Paul, of course, must do the same with the Church in Rome. Does Paul's mission to the Gentiles mean that God has abandoned his people, or that Paul preaches another God than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? No, for Christ Jesus has been a minister of the circumcision in order to show God's fidelity in confirming the promises made to our fathers. But does that mean that the Gentiles have a second place in God's heart? Not at all, for the Gentiles glorify God because of His mercy. Mercy and fidelity — both are from God, neither is known without the other. To see in the mercy to the Gentiles a rejection of Israel is to fail to hear God's Word. However, to speak of the faithfulness to Israel as though it alone mattered, or that it is independent of or anything other than the very work of Jesus Christ, that also is to fail to keep God's Word.

To be one, to be true to what God wants of us, and to find among ourselves true unity and oneness of mind means heeding the whole of the Scriptures. It means abandoning any strategy of reading that would leave out what is uncomfortable, whether the teaching seem too severe and restrictive or conversely whether the teaching appear too indulgent, too inclusive, too permissive. God is simple and one, and does not admit to parts. If we would have him, we cannot have him only partially. We must then receive, in all its richness, in all its fulness, ready to be surprised again and again by the riches it holds, the whole of the Bible and the whole of that Body to whom it is addressed. It is in our fidelity to the Word that we will have unity, that the God of hope will fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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