December 15, 2019

Sing Out for Joy
Advent 3, Year A

Becky Robbins-Penniman

What are the rules of faith? The rules most of us grew up with a variation of this:
God wants to be with only a very few special people, and God is just itching to punish the rest of us with terrifying vengeance. So straighten up and fly right. Threats and punishment!

I grew up with that. Many of you did, too. Not just churches do it. Huge systems, like government, use it. So do family homes. Many faith traditions – not just Christian – all over the planet, use threats and punishment to control the masses, to control the people who aren’t in control. For 10,000 years, all over the world, the system of threats and punishment has been the go-to method to keep people in line. We all understand it. We’ve all experienced it and so we learned the lesson well. Even if we hated it, we used it: threats and punishment are just the way we get things done, from raising our kids and managing our employees to dealing with criminals.

No surprise that John the Baptist had that mindset when he was promising the coming of the Messiah. He was looking for a mighty warrior, a descendant of the great King David, who would vanquish the Romans in battle and ascend to the throne of a restored Israel, and who would make EVERYONE obey all the laws found in the Torah. He’d kick some butt. There would be winners, and there would be losers, so you’d better back the right horse. This is a message we all understand; it’s a message we are still reading in today’s headlines all over the world: Hong Kong, the Middle East, here.

So, which one of ALL the groups that makes threats and dishes out punishment is doing God’s will? According to Jesus, not a single one of them. Threats and punishment are not how Emmanuel, God with us, God with skin on, makes the Kingdom come near.

When Jesus said that no one who ever born is greater than John the Baptist, he was affirming the part of John’s message that people should change their lives and bear good fruit; Jesus praised John’s willingness to be a social outcast, to go to prison, even to die, for the sake of preparing the way for the Messiah. THAT, says Jesus, is a real prophet. However, John’s approach to getting people to change was that old, old technique of fiery threats of retributive punishment; which is not the nature of God or God’s Kingdom.

We enter the Kingdom of God through invitation, through putting aside our own choices and making choices on how we live, what we think, how we choose to be, using the Kingdom’s promises that all people, even the ones we don’t like, are to be brought into hope, love, joy and peace – ALL people. People who live in the Kingdom trust the power of these promises, and those who hear and trust this invitation, says Jesus, who lay down their arms, who don’t use oppression and violence to get things done, are even greater than John the Baptist.

Now, there is a subtle but important difference punishment and consequences. Jesus is very clear about consequences. He doesn’t say there are no consequences; if we choose evil, we’ll get evil. There’s no surprise there. But that’s not God’s will for us. God’s will for us is for love, hope, joy and peace. In using punishment, one person tries to control another to get what they want; Consequences are natural, logical consequences for whatever we choose. We remain personally responsible for the choices for we make. God’s invitation is for us to choose wisely, choose the Kingdom’s values. Jesus does not threaten, he describes. He leaves the power of choice with us.

God does not confer the hope, joy, love and peace of the Kingdom like a medal. No, it’s from the inside, when we accept the invitation. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, God transforms us, gives us the power to choose and to live the values of the Kingdom – right in the midst of brokenness, like Jesus did – and we can partner with God to heal our little corner of life on this planet…

Read the full sermon text HERE.