Monday, December 17, 2007

In the Meantime: Be Compassionate

(A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent based on Isaiah 35:1-10 & Matthew 11:2-11)

Our Advent topic is “In the Meantime.” On the First Sunday of Advent I said that here in the meantime between the First and Second Advents of Jesus Christ we who are his followers are to be ready. On the Second Sunday I said that we are to be at peace. Here on the Third Sunday of Advent I want to say that we should be compassionate.

It is better to be compassionate than not to be compassionate. Furthermore, acting on your compassion is better than just feeling compassion. Those truths are universal; they are not limited to Christians.

But surely Christians, of all people, should have hearts full of compassion and lives filled with acts of compassion. Compassion is worth having just for the sake of having it; that is true whether you are a Christian or not. We Christians, though, are filled with the love and the Spirit of God through his Son Jesus Christ and we really should need no other motivation to have and to practice compassion.

Ask yourself: what are Christians like? Here is my partial list.

Christians are kind.

Christians are gentle.

Christians are loving.

Christians are full of grace.

Christians are compassionate.

Those should be the facts into which we are growing, not the possibilities that we are pondering as options. When we are filled with the love and grace of God, how can it be otherwise?

Furthermore, compassion is for us an eschatological reality. That is, the meeting of people’s needs is a sign that the kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come. When John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking if he was the “one who is to come,” Jesus replied with words that not only summarized what he had been doing but also called to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah. The things that Jesus had been doing to touch and to change people’s lives were exactly the kinds of things that Isaiah had said would happen when the Messiah came. Jesus did what he did because in him the Kingdom of God had come.

What was John worried about? He had earlier proclaimed that Jesus was the one who was to come. Now he asks Jesus whether he is in the fact the one. John was an authentic prophet—Jesus said that he was “more than a prophet.” John was also a product of his people and a student of his holy book. They and it taught that when the Messiah came, there would be judgment of the wicked and vindication of the righteous. So John preached that the one who would come after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Yet Jesus went around associating with sinners. He went around touching and loving and showing grace to sinners. He did not see the diseases and defects of people as signs of their sin and thus causes for judgment; he saw them as opportunities to show the grace of God and to demonstrate the power of the Kingdom. He offered the good news of God to the poor. Jesus challenged John to see the things he was doing as signs of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. He reminded John that the prophets had expected acts such as his when the Kingdom came.

Then Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6). He was challenging John to accept the kind of Messiah that Jesus was and to maintain his allegiance to him. “My way is the way of the Kingdom,” Jesus was saying. “These things I do—those are Kingdom acts. Don’t let them cause you to doubt. Exactly the opposite should happen—let them cause you to believe.” Jesus’ way—and thus God’s way—Jesus was saying, was the way of service and sacrifice. In effect, Jesus was challenging John to place his fingers in the nail prints in his hand and in the wound in his side long before he told Thomas to do so. He wanted John to understand that the acts of compassion—the acts of mercy and love and healing and preaching—were the signs of the Kingdom.

In short, Jesus told John that the very acts of compassion that surprised him were in fact the evidence that the Kingdom had come.

Such acts are still the sign that the Kingdom has come. Therefore, you would expect me now to proclaim, “So, let’s get out there and do acts of compassion so that they’ll know the Kingdom has come.” There would be some merit to that. The challenge is certainly placed before us. But is that what Jesus was doing? Was he out there healing and preaching and loving in order to prove that the Kingdom had come? No—the Kingdom had come in him and therefore those things had to happen. They happened because the Kingdom had happened. They thus have to happen through us through whom the works of the Kingdom continue.

So I must say frankly that it bothers me when I see a lack of compassion in you or in me because I wonder just how well we are living in the Kingdom.

Now I want to confess something else that bothers me. What are the implications of this truth: folks who aren’t Christians are just as capable of compassion and kindness as Christians are?

This past Thursday (12/13/07) in a Starbucks Coffee drive-through lane, a customer in line behind Arthur Rosenfeld was angrily honking and yelling at him. Rather than respond in kind, Rosenfeld paid for the irate patron’s order. That set off a chain of kindness that lasted all day long as customer after customer paid for the order of the person behind them. Now, we would really love that story if I could finish it by saying that Rosenfeld was a Christian and that he was intentionally sharing the love of Christ and that the love of Christ got passed right down the line at that drive-through all day long. But I can’t say that. In fact, the story noted that Rosenfeld is “a Tai-Chi master” who “responded with a bit of Zen.”

"It wasn't an idea to pay anything forward, nor was it even a random act of kindness, it was a change of consciousness," he said. "Take this negative and change it into something positive." That’s a very Eastern philosophy way of talking and living. Rosenfeld’s action apparently had no overtly Christian motive behind it.

But you know—it’s just possible that the love of Christ and the Kingdom of God crept through somehow anyway, isn’t it? Would you want to say, “No, it didn’t—not if the people exhibiting kindness didn’t mean for it to” and thereby limit the power and grace of God?

In a similar vein, would you want to say that the love of Christ and the kingdom of God cannot be made obvious in the compassionate acts of Christians even when we don’t explicitly make our message known? This week’s brouhaha over our sister church’s ministry of providing shoes to school children got me to thinking about that. Naturally, the Christians involved in that ministry believe that through it they are expressing the love of Christ. Naturally, some folks are concerned that the children not be required to submit to a religious ritual or to overt evangelization as a condition of receiving the shoes. The proper result is that the volunteers have to be very careful not to cross that line.

But again I ask: would any of us say that in those acts of compassion the love of Christ and the Kingdom of God do not break through? Would any of us limit the power and grace of God by saying that unless we make the message overt God can’t work?

And yet, as much as I believe that God can work through our actions when we can’t be overt and as much as I believe that God can work even through the actions of people who don’t claim to be acting on his behalf, I also believe that we need to be as self-conscious as possible about our identity as citizens of the Kingdom and as disciples of Christ.

We should be aware of our poverty before God so that we can be brothers and sisters to those in poverty around us. We should be always aware that we are among the “least of these” so that we can be sisters and brothers to the “least of these” around us. We should be intentional about growing in his grace and in his love so that we just can’t help but feel and show compassion. We should be intentional about performing acts of compassion as a way of announcing the present and coming Kingdom of God. We should preach the good news to the poor and to the hurting with our words and with our actions.

In this meantime between the First and Second Advents of Christ, let us make his present presence obvious by our compassion.

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