Sunday, December 13, 2009

Atnonement - A Sermon

Happy Third Sunday of Advent. Note the pink candle today. It’s supposed to lighten the mood of the reflective, even slightly penitential feel of Advent.

We all know what it really means, though. Only eleven shopping days till Christmas.

Which is just another way of saying let’s not fool ourselves. Nobody’s letting up today from the stress. In fact, people are just kicking into high gear. Frantic shopping, decorating and so on. We’re no exception at the church -- why just today we have mini-orchestra rehearsal, handbell choir rehearsal and Epiphany pageant script distribution.

The scriptures aren’t letting up, either. For a supposedly “light” day, they start off with some great lines. Like John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” Puts you in the Christmas mood, doesn’t it?

And don’t forget the winnowing fork the Messiah is bringing so that he can cast the chaff into the eternal flames.

Almost makes you think the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah might have a better idea of what God’s coming might be like.
 “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.” Sounds pretty good.

Sadly, most of Zephaniah -- all three chapters -- is more like John the Baptist. He starts off telling the people of Jerusalem that they are terrible and will be punished. Then he tells the other nations the same thing. Then he describes their coming punishment complete with blood flowing in the streets. Only after God is appeased will the survivors find rest.

Here’s a feel for Zephaniah’s real message: “Seek the LORD all you humble of the the land, who do his commands, perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the LORD’S wrath.” (chapter 2)

For Zephaniah, there will be salvation -- but only after the people have paid for their sins and paid dearly. This is called atonement.

As I mentioned last week, John has one foot solidly in the Old Testament even as he looks toward a New that he can’t quite grasp. He still sees God as the just but angry God who must be satisfied with the atoning punishment we deserve.

John was faithful, but he was not where we should stop in our faith. Jesus came and showed us a new covenant, a new relationship with God. Yet somehow, many of us can’t seem to get past John.

But as we know, Jesus comes and shows us something new, something totally unexpected. He shows us an image of God who is not all that interested in sacrifice and more interested in loving us. But that leaves us some huge questions: how do we understand what Jesus did back then, how do we understand his impact on us today?

There is a theory on what Jesus did called the Atonement. It’s something John the Baptist and Zephaniah could relate to. It says we are wicked and totally separate from God. We must pay -- atone -- for our sins, but we can’t because we’re so pitiful that no sacrifice, no penance on our part can appease our angry God.

Therefore Jesus, who is perfect and loving, willingly becomes the only sacrifice that is good enough to assuage God’s anger. By doing this, he opens for us the gates to heaven.

I have heard it preached that this image, this angry God image so familiar to the prophets, ought better be called “At - One - Ment,” because it says that although we are separate from God because of our sins, Jesus makes us one again.

I think I’ve got another name for it: At - None - Ment. Because this theory believes that we are so separate from God that nothing will ever truly unite us with God, only appease him.

And it flies in the face of Jesus himself, who called God Father and taught us to do the same. Atonement -- At-none-ment -- is not the Gospel.

This week in the parables class, we were looking at parables about seeking. What we noted is that it is God who seeks us who are lost. Whether it’s a lost sheep, a lost coin or a disobedient lost son, Jesus says that it is God who seeks us even while we are still contentedly lost and looking after our own interests.

God goes after us, completely disregarding our lack of interest in going after him. God rejoices when we open our hearts to him regardless of behavior or even our newfound faith -- the prodigal son never said he was sorry, for example -- he never got a word out before his doting father embraced him and brought him in to a feast. There was no atoning going on, neither was there a winnowing fork nor an ax at the root.

Does this mean we should utterly ignore Zephaniah and John the Baptist? No. Certainly their calls to be honest and just in our daily dealings are worthy. But we do so because we have been welcomed with open arms into God’s family so completely that God’s Spirit dwells within us. We deal honestly, seek the best for others not because we are trying to avoid the coming wrath but because we are members of the Kingdom of God right now.

Christ became one of us to help us comprehend how we are God’s children by invitation. We are loved, we are already at one not because of any sacrifice -- worthy or otherwise -- but simply because God is love.

In a sense, that makes it harder to do good because there are no dire consequences if we don’t. For now, on this “quieter” day of Advent, let it suffice to say the best way to live as John and Zephaniah -- and God -- would have us is to slow down a bit, open our hearts to God’s presence.

The more we do this, more we will know we are at one with God and the rest will follow. And we'll find that our lives will be pleasing to Zephaniah, and John, and God. Amen.