Have you ever met a genuine “died in the wool” New Testament Christian? They can be scary. Years ago captive in an examination chair, my optometrist tells me he’s one – has no use for the Old Testament and no longer reads any of it. “I’m a New Testament Christian.” I figure maybe now is not the best time to offer an opposing view. He was helping me learn to stick my finger in my eye to attach soft contact lenses, something I swore I’d never do. After I mastered it, forcing my eyelids to stay open as my loaded finger approached, I asked, “Don’t you think we need the Old Testament to understand Jesus? After all that was his Bible. If you don’t get the Old Testament, you won’t get Jesus.” In my friend’s world Jesus became a Christian at Easter, so why bother with the old stuff when God starts anew?
My friend is not alone. I’ve met others who think faith begins in Jesus. God starts all over, so the Old Testament is useless, done. Erase the past. Besides, God has a better attitude in the New Testament.
Actually God is not starting over, but fulfills the Old Testament’s destination in Jesus. For Mark gospel’s roots sprout in the soil of Israel’s earliest chapters. He says – remember Isaiah, see John the Baptist. Isaiah proclaims God is about to set the people free, held captive in a foreign land – to go home to Jerusalem. John’s preaching calls people home – from sin and bad religion – people who in their minds and hearts are apart from God. John says, “Good news, you don’t have to be. Repent and come to the God who comes for you.” John’s so good at it, all Jerusalem and Judea go out to hear him in the wilderness. The wilderness has been the place God trains prophets – and where God’s future judgment begins – not at the Temple with Ivy League seminary grads – but with a character who dresses like Elijah – camel hair toga held together by a leather strap, beard dripping honey and free-range locusts. Elijah’s return is a sign Messiah comes. We look back so we can understand what is about to come. Without the Old Testament we’d have no idea what Mark is telling us about John and the Jesus.
God keeps coming to us – same message, different delivery system. This time God comes in human flesh. As of old, God comes to love us, not condemn us – to tell us who we really are if we have sense enough to listen. Sometimes in the story God needs Israel’s attention to understand this. In our day many have no idea of what God is doing. Without eyes of faith, God looks like a non-player, or a being to avoid. Yet in turning our attention toward God we see God is with us all along – in our yearnings for what is eternal, which is the deepest longing this season stirs up in us. God comes not to get us to heaven, but to bring heaven into us. God comes to love us home.
Here’s what happens – we set our hearts on stuff, titles, honors, esteem, having more to satisfy the yearning. But we attach to lesser things. Deep down we know it’s an illusion. We keep on trying, become more dissatisfied, knotted in fear, anxious, convinced we are not enough – we don’t have enough. I’ve heard that parents can rent Christmas toys for their tots, and turn them back in when the kid’s interest fades, replace them with the next best thing. How wonderful! Sadly, we miss what we so long for – God’s unconditional love – that God all along has been trying to give us. We are raised with conditional love – rewarded for good behaviors and punished for bad. Unconditional love is hard to experience. How can we give others what we ourselves are yet to experience, if God’s love is merely an idea? We are not used to being loved with no strings attached – just because we are. That’s how God loves us, always has. God keeps coming in new ways to let us know.
Repent to receive this life, says John. Turn toward God not because we are evil, awful people – but because we are so loved. Sins we confess are attachments, addictions, attitudes that separate us from God. We can freely confess we’re not what we hope to be. Secret – God already knows.
Repentance turns us toward God. We become like that to which we give our attention. We see and trust we are God’s beloved, and we live like it. We trade fear, meanness, grudges and anger for kindness, generosity, compassion, loving and forgiving others even if we don’t want to. God’s taken care of removing an obstacle that keeps us separated, even before we ask. We come to church, listen deeply, hear words, connect anew to God, and go forth into the world, renewed to be God’s beloved for others.
I am reading Redemptorist priest Ken Sedlak’s wonderful book, Why God Loves Us…no matter what. Do you remember Jesus’ story of the merchant who finds a pearl of incomparable value in a field. I’ve read that story all these years thinking I have to act like the merchant. I must sell all, do any and everything to obtain this pearl of insurmountable value – God’s presence, unconditional love and salvation – or suffer the consequences. Jesus has a different version: God is the merchant. You and I are the pearl. God has always loved us; God gives, sells, pays whatever it costs to love us, claim and have us. What would our world be like if we really believed it?
In Advent we hear again who we are and who God is – a relentless lover, so stubborn to never give up on any of us, and whose love draws out who we really are. God loves this world so passionately from the beginning, a love given for all.
Maybe we can add one more to our shopping list this year – just what you needed to hear right now – not to worry, it’s not me. Maybe we can give a gift to God. After all it is Jesus’ birthday, not ours. Maybe we could heed John’s voice and repent – taking God seriously in our time, commitments, prayer, service, in hearing anew the old, old story, and begin going in a new, different direction, letting God’s unconditional love touch us through Jesus – permeate our lives – not for our pleasure, but for the sake of others and for the world. That’s how heaven comes to earth – in us. And after all, isn’t that what Christmas means?