Advent 3A (December 15, 2019)

The reading from James sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s probably in part because Lutherans hate James. Luther famously derided the book as “an epistle of straw.” But it’s also odd as we prepare for Christmas to read, “as an example of suffering and patience take the prophets,” and, “do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.” It sounds an awful lot like, “God wants you to accept whatever terrible things are happening, and not raise a fuss, no matter what.” We’ve all heard that. “People will be mad if you fight this.” “We’re disappointed that you raised this issue when you did since we were planning to ignore it.” And so on. That’s the trouble with the moral teaching of Scripture: it lends itself to works righteousness, the idea that our work wins us something with God. In this case, our work would be enduring suffering and intentionally not doing anything about it in the hope that God will reward our suffering.

            The moral teaching of the church derives from seeing Christ at work in the mundane. We’ve seen Christ doing stuff around us, and we cannot faithfully ignore it, so, we cannot just jettison the teaching. Also, the moral teaching of the Church exists (or is supposed to exist) to protect us from others (and, let’s be honest, to protect others from us). As much as James sticks out like a sore thumb, his moral teaching fits these criteria. James writes, “do not grumble against one another.” James, as much as any biblical author, addresses a Church that is not powerful. Roman elites did not become Christian; it would’ve been social and economic suicide. James is quick to remind his readers of their relative weakness. Here, James says, “Don’t blame each other for that weakness.” Or, “Don’t blame each other for stuff that someone else did to both of you.” He instructs his readers not to do this so that they not be judged. The idea is that if you hurt someone who is not at fault (but who you blame) you’re in a whole mess of trouble. Your vengeance has hurt a righteous one. That is a crucial theme in today’s readings.

            Isaiah—in this beautiful First Reading—says God will come with vengeance! Isaiah writes of an unforgiving and damaged land. The ecosystem is depressing. It is a desert with no rivers or springs. It is burning sand. There are dangerous animals: jackals and lions. The people who live there are broken. Isaiah writes of weak hands, feeble knees, fearful hearts, blindness, deafness, people lamed, people muted. Isaiah says this will be rectified because God will come with vengeance. How is vengeance gonna restore eyesight? I didn’t always need glasses. Vengeance is not going to restore my youthful eyesight. Nobody caused my eyesight to change. In our First Reading, I get the idea that something or someone caused this. Someone damaged the land and broke the people who live in it.

            There’s a certain wickedness to destroying a land and breaking a people in this manner. You may have read this past week more information from Flint, Michigan’s water crisis (which is five years old, going on six). It turns out that senior employees at the utility provider for Flint knew there was a possibility of lead in the water and recommended that the utility tell the city to change its source. But, the utility company never made the recommendation public. It’s just one of the chapters in a saga of wickedness. Closer to home we’ve got lead in the soil in East Chicago. That poisons the residents, breaks their bodies, breaks their finances. We’ve got regular instances of pollution in Lake Michigan right at the Dunes. Sometimes it kills the fish, makes it unsafe for people, takes away something of living here. These things affect the ecosystems and break the people. And there’s a certain wickedness to them because people are causing this—they’re doing it to other people. We can understand why the afflicted seek vengeance, or, at least would be grateful if God showed up with vengeance. We would want it—we do want it—if we face such wickedness.

            God’s response, described in the Gospel, is not what we think of when we think of vengeance. Jesus tells John the Baptist’s disciples about his work. “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.” It does not sound much like vengeance. It does sound like the rest of today’s First Reading. Indeed, Jesus refers to four different scenes in Isaiah when he says this. It’s as though John the Baptist’s disciples ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” And Jesus answers, “Well, the whole book of Isaiah seems to be getting fulfilled.” The Psalm speaks similarly: God keeps promises, gives justice to the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the captives free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up the bowed-down, cares for the resident alien, and sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the ways of the wicked. The items on this list all go together. Justice, food, freedom, and so on, they’re how God frustrates the way of the wicked. They may not sound like vengeance, but they’re how God defeats evil.

            Gustaf Aulen, the 20th Century Swedish Theologian, argues in his Christus Victor that the Church in the early centuries broadly understood that evil lost the moment it encountered good. This happened in Jesus. Each Church father had his own idea about how it happened, but, whoever you asked, there were some common themes. There was the idea that for whatever reason the Devil had some power, over sinful people. (If you’re not sure who’s sinful, you are and so is everyone else.) And there was the idea that the Devil grossly misused this power when he dealt with Jesus Christ. When the Devil struck Jesus Christ, the Devil really screwed up, because the Devil’s power is over sinners, and Jesus Christ is God and God has no sin. The Devil struck a righteous one. Oops. So, the idea was, the Devil lost any claim over sinners because the Devil in his zeal also knocked off God. Evil ran into good and the first thing evil did was kill the good, but all that really happened was evil undid itself. Evil ran into good and botched it immediately. Good—God—triumphed, and evil—the Devil—lost. Put as simply as possible, the Devil’s big screwup was striking a righteous one.

            And that is analogous to the Sin that Saint James urges us not to commit. In today’s Second Reading, James says not to grumble against one another lest we be judged. Another way of saying that is “Don’t try to take down each other because you might take down a righteous one—scratch that—you will take down a righteous one, and that’s the Devil’s chief sin.” When it comes to copying characters in the drama of the atonement, the Devil is not the one you want to copy (if for no other reason than he loses!) You will take down a righteous one. Be wary of who you call enemy or oppressor, for they are just as trapped in sin as you are. Heck, someone on this earth considers you their mortal enemy. In someone’s life, you are the one who performed the wicked deeds, just as others were wicked to the land and its people. It does not make any of the sin “okay.” It’s not weak resignation to brokenness. And it is not a call to endure brokenness as though endurance would earn us something with God. God comes with vengeance…God’s vengeance is Jesus.

            John the Baptist asks from prison, “Are you, Jesus, the one? God told me one was coming like an ax at the root of the trees, baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire, with a winnowing fork in his hands to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff to burn in unquenchable fire. And, it’s just, I think Herod’s going to behead me and I haven’t seen any fire, yet.” Jesus responds, “Well, the whole book of Isaiah seems to be getting fulfilled, so, yeah.” Yeah. God’s vengeance is Jesus. God “gets back at” brokenness by healing it. God gets back an injustice with justice. God gets back at starvation with food. God gets back at slavery with freedom. God gets back at marginalization with inclusion.

            So, that is how we will follow Christ faithfully. We will let the Holy Spirit continue Christ’s work in us. We will not take down one another, because everyone is trapped in the same sinful web. That does not mean we will ignore the reality of sinfulness. Damaged ecosystem and broken people? That’s reality. That’s the truth. Dealing with that is going to take a hefty dose of honesty. How have my decisions played into the damage? How have I benefited from the brokenness of others? What wicked actions and wicked actors were responsible for this? How will all of us need to change in order to make this better? God wins not by taking down the righteous but by putting things the way God wants them despite the wicked works of creatures. If Christ can beat the Devil himself just by showing up, Christ can heal our world. So, yes, this Lutheran will say it: James is right. “Do not grumble against one another.” Instead, give the world all the Jesus it can handle and then some.