Second Sunday in Advent
December 7, 1997

Trinity Lutheran Church
Alameda, California

Gary Pence

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

In yesterday's paper I saw the results of a Gallup poll of 1,200 Americans on "Spiritual Beliefs and the Dying Process." The survey asked people what it was that would worry them most as death approached. Although most respondents said they worried about the personal pain they might suffer or how loved ones would manage after their death, when people were asked which overall area they were most concerned about, 38 percent said it was spiritual matters. "Spiritual needs far exceed the other needs," according to George Gallup, Jr., the chairman of the Institute that took the poll. But he added that what he found most surprising of people's spiritual concerns was this: 42 percent of respondents said that when they thought about dying, they worried "a great deal" that God would not forgive them.

42 percent worry, not just a little bit, but "a great deal" whether God will forgive them at the time of their death. Perhaps some of you worry about that. Maybe some of you worry about it "a great deal." It's hard to shake the notion that, if we donít live our lives the right way, we are going to get punished for it sooner or later, even that God is going to punish us if not now, then in eternity.

It's no wonder if we think that way. Rewards and punishments are built into the structure of everyday life. We expect punishments to follow crimes and sometimes people even demand it. This last week there has been this big controversy involving Golden State Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo and Warriors all-star guard Latrell Sprewell. Apparently the Coach is not a nice man. He rides and swears at and abuses his players to the point that Sprewell told a press conference, "I couldn't take it anymore." So Sprewell grabbed Carlesimo, choked him, and threatened to kill him. His explanation--"I couldn't take it anymore."--acknowledges that he lost his cool and lashed out at his coach in a rage. But when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown entered the scene, his response was, "Latrell's boss may have needed choking. It may have been justified. Someone should ask the question, "What prompted it?"

These are comments which--after a flood of protesting phone calls into his office--the mayor has come to regret, with considerable backpedaling in Saturday's paper. But why did he make comments like that in the first place? Political motives aside, it's clearly because we have come to expect that, when people act badly, as Coach Carlesimo undoubtedly has, they ought to get paid back for their crimes. There ought to be retribution, punishment. So the mayor as much as said that the coach got what he deserved.

I saw another example of how we think about punishment in the news story yesterday about new rules about to be instituted in the state's prison system. No more long hair or beards for inmates. No more standard inmate dress of blue jeans and a blue shirt; now inmates will have to wear all-white 2-piece uniforms with CDC PRISONER stenciled on the back. No more packages from home; families will have to buy food and other presents from a state-approved list of vendors, who will ship the goods directly to inmates. No more weights and barbells in the corner of the prison yard; inmates will no longer be allowed to work out to look and feel buff and in shape (to prevent them from becoming more formidable adversaries in prison and when they are released, according to prison officials).

These changes are supposed to make prison life safer and discourage escapes. But the vice-president of the union representing the state's 19,000 correctional officers, the guards who actually work with the inmates inside the prison walls, said, "We're all feeling, 'Holy Cow! We hope the inmates don't react to this in a violent manner." They don't seem to think these changes are going to help. So why are they being initiated? I think that Mike Reynolds, the father of an 18-year-old girl who was murdered by two repeat offenders and who is known as the father of California's "three strikes" law provides the real answer. He says, "I think this new prison grooming rule is long overdue. These guys are in prison; they're not at Fantasy Island." He means, these guys have committed crimes and they should pay for them with lives as miserable as we can make them during their time in prison.

And we can all sympathize with Reynolds' feelings. What must it do to a person to have a daughter or son murdered? In situations like that people feel like crying out for justice, for punishment, for retribution on the criminal.

So if we figure that God is like us, it's no wonder if we believe that God must be angry with us when we act badly, and that God will demand punishment or retribution of us. And, of course, there are plenty of stories in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that portray God in exactly that way--full of rage at one people or another and slaughtering them to appease his righteous anger. No wonder that 42 percent of persons responding to the Gallup poll said that when they thought about dying, they worried "a great deal" that God would not forgive them.

But our feelings, our expectations, our desires, our responses are not always God's, and the birth and life of Jesus which we are anticipating during the Advent season reveals just how different God is from us. Today's Gospel quotes those wonderful verses from the prophet Isaiah:

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill
shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

Some of you may have seen that PBS special about the Lewis and Clark expedition to the northwest in the 19th century, long before the national interstate system was built, long before there were any roads at all to help them on their way. They were forced to make their way through valleys, over mountains and hills, along crooked paths and rough ways. The journey was so rugged and so dangerous that was something of a miracle that only one member of the expedition died. The whole trip took three years.

But when God comes to us in the life of Jesus, itís as though all humanity is gathered to greet him along a road that is smooth, even, straight, and easily accessible to everyone: "All flesh--every human being, whether strong or weak, sick or healthy, male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, persons of every race and nation, persons of every social or economic class and status, models of morality and moral reprobates--all shall see the salvation that comes from God." That's the message of Advent.

So the pity of this Gallup poll is that people are worrying about something the Christian Gospel tells them they need no longer worry about. Those brutal Old Testament stories of a jealous, vindictive, and violent God reflected the understandable but limited ideas of people who projected the violence of their own lives onto God (the way might be inclined to do today). But in the coming and the birth and life of Jesus God lets us see and know his true nature. Unlike some of those earlier fierce and frightening images of God or the equally grim ones we might draw from our reading of the daily newspaper, on Christmas God comes as a baby--weak, vulnerable to cold, poverty, and danger from King Herod. Jesus lives a peaceful life with ordinary people, soothing and healing people's suffering, feeding the hungry, reconciling enemies, teaching about forgiveness given 70 x 7 times, by which he means unlimited forgiveness. Now let me ask you this: If Jesus tells us to forgive each other 70 x 7 times, an unlimited number of times, how can God live by any lower a standard? Jesus is acting out for us what God is like--one whose forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and love are unlimited.

And when we come to end of Jesus' life, he is captured by the authorities and sentenced unjustly to death. And does Jesus assert some divine prerogative to stop this miscarriage of justice? Does he rise up in self-righteous rage to blast Pilate and the high priest and his betrayers, roasting them with divine retribution? He does not. He goes almost silently and submissively to his death rather than lift a finger against his accusers, his judges, or his executioners. And Jesus is revealing to us what GOD is like. A God whose forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and love are unlimited.

And when Jesus three days after his death rises up alive from his grave, does he return to confront his accusers, his judges, or his executioners, to laugh them to scorn, and finally to execute his own wrath on them with the punishment we might say that they deserved? He did not. He meets quietly with his own followers to give them hope and courage for the future, to feed them, nurture them, support them, heal them, prepare them for their ministry in his name, a ministry of forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and love in the name of the God for whom forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and love are unlimited.

John the Baptist, we are told in the Gospel this morning, preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But in the Jesus who is to come, every person of every sort and condition everywhere sees and knows a compassionate God who has already forgiven us and invited us to a life free from fear and a life beyond death free from pain and every suffering. That is the Advent message.

Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.