Photo credit: Egor Kamelev
Readings: Isaiah 35, Matthew 11:2-11, Heaven and Hell #522 (see below)
More than once this week, I heard from my various commentaries that the question that John asks in the Matthew text is an Advent question. Are you the one that is to come? It is a plaintive question, heavy with waiting, expectation, need, hope. And also, a little doubt, for underlying that question is another….Lord, are you really coming? The world often appears fraught to the people in it, we are but little and limited, and these days we are living through are no exception. We and those around us are grappling with loss, with anxiety, with change, with not having enough, with broken relationships, with a suffering earth. We grapple with a political realm in which it seems like truth doesn’t matter, with an economic realm in which it seems like compassion doesn’t matter, a cultural realm in which it seems like altruism doesn’t matter.
And so, in this Advent season, we ask the question that Christians have asked for two thousand years. Are you the one? How can we know if you are the one? Lord, are you coming to save us? We ask along with John the Baptist, each of us in our own prisons: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” We ask, in between the lines: Is our faith justified?
What it is that Jesus answers? What do you see happening? He says: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind have received sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Jesus tells us to look around, to notice birth and resurrection as it comes to us in our daily lives, in our world but in ourselves as well. Have we come into an insight that we were formally blind to, have we learned something new or empowered ourselves in some new way, have we cleansed ourselves of some habit that was holding us back, have we nursed back into health some part of us that we thought was lost, have we finally come to accept our worthiness in a world that would convince us we are nothing? Have we worked to bring any of these blessing to the life of another? Am I coming? says the Lord. I have already come.
Our Isaiah reading uses different but equally compelling imagery. We heard in our reading today about the desert bursting into bloom, about feeble hands and wobbly knees becoming strong, about song where there once was silence, about water flowing in the wilderness, about a road safe to travel. As we look around we see this too; we see crocuses bravely blooming in the snow, we see knees and shoulders replaced by capable doctors, solar powered desalination plants that bring clean fresh water to barren landscapes, hearing aids that allow babies to hear their mother’s voices, we see humpback whales rebounding from the brink of extinction,(1) we see #illridewithyou, a twitter campaign where Australians offered to ride with their Muslim neighbors afraid of islamophobia.(2) Am I coming? asks the Lord. I have already come.
This is what it looks like when God comes to us. When love is born in our lives. When divine love is incarnated in this world. But, these images are not the only thing included in the Isaiah reading. We also hear: “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
Wait, what? With…vengeance? With retribution? God will save us with these things? I don’t get it. I thought salvation was a blooming flower, a miracle, a gift, a waterfall, a healing, a leaping deer.
It is all these things. But it is not these things separated from their context. A superbloom in the desert only happens after a prolonged dormancy and a flooding rain. A healing surgery only becomes so in and through an intentional wounding of the body and the difficult therapy that follows. A movement of people offering rides to anxious strangers only happens when they reject the siren call of apathy and/or tribalism. A species is resurrected only when we humans refrain from hunting through law and consequence.
John the Baptist calls for us to make straight the highway for our God, the highway that Isaiah calls the Way of Holiness. It is our choice to clear that path. And anyone who has done even a little yard maintenance knows that this is hard work, and that it is not always work that we want to do. I used to dread when my parents would ask me to mow the lawn. I would do whatever I could to get out of it. And I resented them for asking me to do it, something that on this side of homeownership and parenthood, I recognize as a completely reasonable and necessary thing.
But sometimes things just need to be done. Sometimes the bandaid just needs to be ripped off. We can look our child in the eyes and tell them it needs to be done, and still they won’t agree, still they will barely allow it. And when we do rip it off, they look at us resentfully with a quivering lip and betrayed, watering eyes. Until the moment passes and they realize that the pain was momentary and now they are free.
Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.
Sometimes we just don’t want to do what salvation requires. Sometimes we don’t want to sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed. We are fearful, we believe we cannot survive without our emotional crutches, our justifications, our defenses. We want our transformations to be easy, safe, controllable. This is not what we are promised though.
C.S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce, imagines a busload of the newly deceased coming into heaven and being met by luminous angels. He tells the story of one spirit accompanied by a small red lizard on his shoulder. At first the spirit attempts to enter heaven, but after the lizard whispers in his ear for a bit, he decides to turn around. He is stopped by an angel who wonders where he is going. The spirit explains that “it’s no good,” the lizard on his shoulder won’t keep quiet, and he knows his murmurings don’t belong in heaven, so he’s just going to go home. The angel offers to kill the lizard but the spirit demurs, he shrinks, he makes excuses. He promises to think about it and come back another day.
“There is no other day”, says the angel. “All days are present now.” And he reaches a luminous hand towards the lizard.
“Get back!” shouts the spirit. “You’re burning me! How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so.” says the angel calmly.
“Why, you’re hurting me now.” complains the spirit.
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
But still the spirit equivocates. “Why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me—before I knew. It would be all over by now if you had.”
“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible.” explains the angel. “Have I your permission?”
And all the while, the lizard whispers and whispers in the spirit’s ear…
“Have I your permission?” says the angel again.
“I know it will kill me,” whimpers the spirit.
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right.” the spirit surrenders “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature…Get it over….God help me."
And the spirit finally allows the angel to tear the whispering lizard off his shoulder. The spirit screams in agony, and the lizard is gone, and moments later the spirit is transformed, standing taller, brighter, stronger, lighter. (3)
Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.
This is your God, the divine band-aid ripper, the one who will do what we cannot actively do but only allow, because we are afraid and tired and weak. We look through tear-filled eyes at this God who at first seems terrible and then is wonderful. I never said it wouldn’t hurt. I said it wouldn’t kill you. The caterpillar dissolves completely in its cocoon, and emerges in beauty.
Salvation is not an intercession but a transformation, one that we must choose. Richard Rohr puts it this way:
“We must all hope and work to eliminate suffering, especially in many of the great social issues of our time…We don’t ignore or capitulate to suffering, yet we must allow it to transform us and the world. Suffering often shapes and teaches us and precedes most significant resurrections.
Christian wisdom names the darkness as darkness and the Light as light and helps us learn how to live and work in the Light so that the darkness does not overcome us. If we have a pie-in-the-sky, everything is beautiful attitude, we are going to be trapped by the darkness because we don’t see clearly enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Conversely, if we can only see the darkness and forget the more foundational Light, we will be destroyed by our own negativity and fanaticism, or we will naively think we are completely apart and above the darkness. Instead, we must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness, even our own—while never doubting the light that God always is, and that we are too (Matthew 5:14). That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world—through the darkness and into an ever-greater Light.”(4)
Are you the one that is to come? we ask in Advent. I am coming, says the Lord, I am already here. I will come with vengeance, I will come to save you. The God who insists that we are strong enough and good enough to survive without the lizard on our shoulder, whatever that represents for us, from the inside of our fear, this God looks punishing, unfair, insane and downright unsympathetic. But this God is birthing us, and God knows that, sometimes, an attitude that looks something fierce like vengeance is required to get that baby born.
What do you see happening? The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor.
(3) Adapted from: C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Simon & Schuster:1996), 96-100
(4) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, 12/6/19, Adapted from Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr: Daily Meditations for Advent (Franciscan Media: 2008), 22-24.
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. 8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosyare cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” 7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: “ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Heaven and Hell #522
First, though, let me state what divine mercy is. Divine mercy is a pure mercy toward the whole human race with the intent of saving it, and it is constant toward every individual, never withdrawing from anyone. This means that everyone who can be saved is saved. However, no one can be saved except by divine means, the means revealed by the Lord in the Word. Divine means are what we refer to as divine truths. They teach how we are to live in order to be saved. The Lord uses them to lead us to heaven and to instill heaven's life into us. The Lord does this for everyone; but he cannot instill heaven's life into anyone who does not refrain from evil, since evil bars the way. So to the extent that we do refrain from evil, the Lord in his divine mercy leads us by divine means, from infancy to the end of life in the world and thereafter to eternity. This is the divine mercy that I mean. We can therefore see that the Lord's mercy is pure mercy, but not unmediated: that is, it does not save people whenever it feels like it, no matter how they have lived.