Thursday, December 06, 2012
December 9, Advent 2: Desiring Salvation
Malachi 3:1-4, Benedictus, Philippians 1:1-1, Luke 3:1-6
All flesh shall see the salvation of God.
"All flesh" includes the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, those puppets of the Roman government, plus Herod and his brother Philip, who plotted against each other and slept with each other’s wives, plus Pontius Pilate, who governed the province of Judea so ineffectively that he was recalled to Rome and there committed suicide. Yes, Annas and Caiaphas did see that salvation in the person of Jesus when they had him on trial in the Sanhedrin and condemned it, and Herod and Philip heard of that salvation and ignored it, and Pontius Pilate examined that salvation face to face in the Praetoreum and then he executed it. Salvation is not compulsory, you can reject it. It is a gift, but maybe you might not desire it.
To desire salvation is to desire different things in the different religions. The salvation which a Buddhist desires is different from what a Hindu desires. Christians want more from it than Jews or Muslims do. The Song of Zechariah defines salvation as to be set free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship God without fear. Salvation is liberation for the sake of service, for the sake of service to God. Interesting: from servitude to service! Let me say it comprehensively: Your salvation is your getting the benefits of God’s activity in the world, your participation in God’s purposes, your share in God’s investments, particularly in that very personal investment of God’s self in first-born son of the Virgin Mary. To have a piece of him is your salvation!
Salvation is often treated as something merely individual, it’s often mistaken as getting into heaven when you die, and the world itself can go to hell. The attraction of this is that the afterlife cannot be disproven, while it is difficult to prove that salvation makes any real difference in the known world. Yes, salvation is personal and individual. But it’s also global. It is for you, but it’s also for all flesh, and that includes the institutions of the flesh, the cultures and the nations. It’s not for nothing that the gospel of St. Luke paints John the Baptist as framed by the figures of the rulers in power in that day, because it’s for the known world that salvation comes.
The largest figure in the painting is Tiberius Caesar. His image was everywhere back then, on the coins and in the temples. Everyone knew about Tiberius. In his childhood, his mother Livia was surrendered by his father to be the wife of Caesar Augustus, and Tiberius became Caesar’s stepson and a brother to Caesar’s daughter Julia. Tiberius led the legions from Spain to Germany to Armenia, putting kings on their thrones and crowns on their heads. Caesar never liked him, but he adopted him as his heir, and he made him divorce the wife he loved in order to marry his sister Julia, beautiful and cruel and shamelessly profligate. In the year A.D. 14, Augustus died, and Tiberius became Caesar, and arguably the most powerful man in the history of the world.
It’s fifteen years later that he’s in our picture. He is still in power but he’s living on the isle of Capri in self-imposed exile. He hates the city of Rome, he hates the Senate and populace, he hates his officials, he hates Caligula who will succeed him, he hates his wife, he hates his life, and everybody hates him back. He is the greatest man in the world, he is declared a future god, and he’s ending his life in isolated bitterness. He never sees the salvation of God.
Opening with Tiberius is how St. Luke conveys that salvation is both personal and global, individual and imperial. To desire a salvation of escaping from the world, like Tiberius escaping to Capri, entails that evil wins, and that Tiberius was right in his bitterness. The salvation of God is better, though it’s a judgment on Tiberius and the choices that he made. Salvation frees you from the world to bring you back to the world as God’s desires the world to be. Salvation is a liberation, but not from your physicality, not from our humanity, not from your sexuality or ethnicity or enculturation or orientation nor from your social and civic obligations, but from the power of sin in all those things.
The tragedy of Tiberius is that he could not make sense of his life or the world, except for his pragmatic nihilism. Well, you see the same sad world that he did, a world that is both good and bad, and maybe even worse than how he saw it, but you can see it in terms of salvation. You can experience your own life as being saved, your life as being listed on under the category of salvation. You need to, or else your life will make little sense except for distraction or despair.
To be saved is to be rescued from the power of sin and the authority of guilt in order to live under the sovereignty of God and share in the economy of grace. It’s not escaping the world but investing the world with a different loyalty. It means finding in God’s authority a liberation from those powers and compulsions which dominated Caiaphas and Herod and Pontius Pilate. Which they desired. They did not desire the freedom which Jesus offered because it involved surrender.
You surrender by taking the world on God’s terms instead of your own terms. Your world, your known world, the world as you know it. You let God judge that. Salvation entails a judgment on your world, so in one sense salvation is a No, but this judgment is not to condemn the world but to save the world and invest in the world, and in that sense salvation is a Yes. The investment is on God’s terms and not the world’s own terms. To take the world on God’s terms instead of your own is called "repentance." For you to repent is simply for you to desire salvation on God’s terms instead of your terms. You accept God’s No in order to receive God’s Yes.
You can hear the "No" in our reading from Malachi: "But who can endure the day of his coming? For he is like a refiners’s fire." And you can hear the "Yes" in Philippians: "I am confident that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the Day of Jesus Christ." Salvation is the long slow process of God’s work in you. Even when it’s uncomfortable, even painful, it’s always a Yes. God invests in you, it is your liberation from the world for the world, and from yourself for yourself, but for yourself according to God’s purposes.
I have been saying of late that one purpose of the church is to cultivate and guide your right desires. We cultivate your faith, and we guide your spirituality, but we also cultivate your desires. I told you to desire the Kingdom of God. I told you to desire righteousness. I’m telling you to desire salvation, and we cultivate this desire in you having your practice your repentance within the liturgy. During Advent we emphasize repentance with a longer and heavier prayer of confession and a three times longer Kyrie. We cultivate your desire for the forgiveness of your sins.
You know your sins are all forgiven already. To get your sins forgiven is not why you confess them. All of your sins were all forgiven already on the cross. You confess them to in order to desire what God desires. You confess them to claim the reality of your salvation. The forgiveness of sins is by no means the whole of salvation nor the goal of salvation. But it is salvation’s pilot light. It is salvation’s indicator light, by which you can tell that your salvation is present and going on. We learn this from the last few verses of the Song of Zechariah, which you might consider a mission statement for every one of your Christians in your known world:
And you, my child, shall be called a prophet of the Most High. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.