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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

by Kristin Berkey-Abbott


First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12


Today's Gospel continues with the theme of watching, waiting, and listening for the call. Today it's John the Baptist who tells us of what's to come.

The real, living Jesus was not who John's listeners expected. Many of them probably thought that John was talking about himself; after all, first century Palestine was full of self-proclaimed Messiahs, and I expect many of them spoke of themselves in the third person telling (or warning) of the deeds they would do. Many of John's listeners probably had no idea what he was talking about; humans seem incapable of thinking in terms of metaphor and symbol for very long. Many of them probably expected a Messiah that would come in a form they'd recognize: a warrior to save them from the Romans, a temple reformer to get rid of corrupt priests, or maybe someone who would lead them into the wilderness to set up a new community.

Are we not the same way? How many of us read the Bible literally, expecting specific answers to social or political issues that would have been unheard of thousands of years ago when the Scriptures were written? How many of us expect our salvation to come in the tired old ways? We go to church, we sit in our pews, we wait for God to appear, and we go home to take a nap and gear up for our secular week ahead. We scurry through the rat race of our lives, substituting other things for God. We worship at the churches of Capitalism, buying things at the mall or on the Internet, which means we have to work overtime to pay for those things. We wonder why we feel unfulfilled. We overeat or drink or have sex or flick through Internet porn sites, and we wonder why we feel so empty. To try to fill that hole, we do more of the activities that leave us with gaping holes in our Spirit. We hear that voice--maybe it cries or maybe it whispers. It scares us, so we eat some more or flip through ever more cable stations or go to bed early--because we can't deal with the implications.

John warns what happens to those of us who don't listen: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (verse 12). Some of us don't like this vision of a God with a winnowing fork in hand. How does this mesh with a God of grace and love?

But I'm reminded of the situation I find myself in, when I teach in my English classes. I often have students who have hated English classes in the past, so they don't come to class, they don't do the work, they make no attempt, and so, they fail. Maybe they tell the stories in a familiar narrative that blames me, the teacher. But truth be told, they didn't fail the class because of me. On the contrary, I would have worked with them, I would have helped them, I would have led them out of the valley of failure and despair. But I can only do so much, without a student working with me.

Likewise, God doesn't have to do much winnowing. Our lifestyles are already punishing us. Many of us are already feeling that unquenchable fire.

The good news is that there is time to change our ways. There is still time to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." (verse 3). Advent, traditionally a time for getting ready, is a good time to think ahead. How could we make the next year to be our best spiritual year ever?

Make your goals small and attainable. In horse training language, set your jumps low. Plan for actions that will be ridiculously early. You could start every day with a prayer that God would help you be the light of the world, that God would help you be your best self. You could end the day by thanking God for all the blessings that came your way. Or maybe you want to start each day with a Bible reading. Maybe, when you surf the Internet at work because you are so bored, you could visit some spiritual websites that feed your soul. Maybe you could bring a granola bar to the homeless guy who begs for money at the street corner. Maybe you could make crafts for the craft fair that raises money for charity. Maybe you could write a weekly letter or e-mail to someone you know who is lonely.

Don't try to do all of these things. Just choose one or two. Do your activity for a few months, until it becomes habit, and then adopt another. If you find yourself feeling like you can't meet your spiritual goals, simplify.

In this way, you will be in a much stronger spiritual place a year from now. God will call, and you will hear. God won't have to go to such great lengths to get your attention. Your deepest yearnings, the ones you didn't even know you had, will be filled, as you move towards God--and God moves towards you.

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