The passage we just read ends with the verse, “So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the Good News to the people.” That may strike us as an odd description of John’s message. He calls the people a brood of vipers, warns that they’re in danger of being expelled from God’s covenant community, and instructs them to make difficult changes to their lives. How is any of that Good News – why is it Gospel?
The answer is that the people of Israel were badly oppressed by their Roman occupiers, always on the verge of hunger, barely surviving. They were at their wits end — desperate for God’s intervention and rescue. God had promised through the prophets that this rescue would one day come: a new Exodus from captivity, the end of Israel’s subjugation by the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom.
John was announcing that the time of liberation at last was here. The salvation that the prophets had spoken about had arrived. So even though John’s message included harsh words and profound challenges, it meant that God’s kingdom was at hand. The liberation ultimately came in an unexpected and even more wonderful way. Good News indeed.
John’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God announced that the Messiah was about to be revealed and that people must repair their relationships with one another. Instead of looking only after themselves, John urges people to enlarge their circle of inclusion and caring. Those with extra food and clothes should share with their impoverished neighbors as part of an extended family. Tax collectors and soldier-policemen should treat ordinary people not as objects of exploitation, but as family members.
Jesus too calls his followers to enlarge their circle of caring. “If you love those who love you,” he says, “what reward will you get.” And, “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Remarkably, Jesus instructs us to treat like family those we’re least likely to love: Samaritans, Romans, Gentiles, persecutors, enemies.
So what is John’s and Jesus’ message to us on this 2nd Sunday of Advent? If like the people coming to John, we ask, “what should we do,” what will we be told? What are we to do in response to Jesus’ 1st coming, and to get ready for his 2nd coming? How can we enlarge our own circle of caring, extend our definition of family?
Let’s start with us as individuals. Perhaps there’s someone we’ve been at odds with and it’s time to make the effort to be reconciled. Or someone we were once close to that we’ve neglected and can re-connect with. Or maybe there’s family members and friends that we’re pushing away by arguing with them all the time. Instead, we can express love and learn to be better listeners, even when we don’t agree. These are opportunities to enlarge the circle.
But maybe we’re being invited by Jesus to something new and different. As you know, a year and a half ago Diana and I became foster parents and what the foster system calls “fictive grandparents” for new-born baby Abel. We didn’t just decide wanted to do this and put our name on a list. We couldn’t have imagined doing something like this. But we were asked to do it. We prayed and said yes. We’d never had a foster child, and it had been more than 30 years since our youngest child was a baby. But we enlarged our family circle to include Abel.
It has been a wonderful experience. We have certainly received more than we gave. In September Abel went to be with a new foster family some distance away. It was difficult to let him go, but they’re a wonderful family who are able to raise and adopt Abel. Something we’re too old to do, and it wouldn’t have been fair to him. Yet instead of us losing Abel, the new foster parents have expanded their family to include us as Abel’s grandparents. And our family has expanded to include them. The circle keeps growing. Others of us here may have similar stories.
So what’s next for our family – and for yours? Who might Jesus bring knocking on our doors to welcome in? Can we all decide to open ourselves to something new and different – to enlarge our circle of caring and widen our definition of family?
After all that’s the Christmas story. Not the traditional story about no room in the inn, which is based on a mistranslation of the word “inn.” But a more accurate and more inspiring story. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem for the census. They were welcomed into the house of their relatives. But the guest room (that’s how the word “inn” should be translated) in their relatives’ house was filled with other people also visiting. Still the hosts made a place for Mary, Joseph and Jesus in their home. In a space within their house itself where their animals sometimes stayed and that could serve as an overflow guest room. Instead of telling Mary and Joseph, “sorry, we’re already full up,” they enlarged the circle and found a way to make room for them in their home and in their heart.
What about our church community? When the COVID pandemic finally ends, if not before, it would be a good time to invite new folks to our church. To enlarge the circle. Our church community is unusual in being ethnically and nationally diverse and bi-lingual, and there are surely others who would feel at home with us. Let’s reach out to them.
But at the same time, let’s not put limits on who we invite to be with us. Who knows, maybe God will widen our circle in surprising new ways. During every renewal period in church history God has brought unexpected new believers into existing churches. In the First and Second Great Awakenings in early America the emotional fervor, spiritual manifestations and lower social and economic status of the new converts was hard for the established churches to accept. Some entire denominations welcomed the new movement and grew, while other denominations rejected it.
In the 1970s the new Christians in the Jesus movement of that time flooded into established churches. Instead of Sunday suits and dresses, they wore casual and sometimes outlandish clothes, the men had long hair, the women didn’t use make-up, they sometimes sat cross-legged in the aisles instead of the pews, shouting “right on” and “wow” during the sermons. They were unexpected, different and for many uncomfortable. But the churches that welcomed them and were willing to change some of the ways they did church grew and prospered.
This kind of enlarging the circle in unexpected ways is foreshadowed in the Christmas story. The Magi – non-Jewish astrologers from the East, unclean to Jewish eyes, were welcomed by Mary and Joseph around baby Jesus’ cradle.
We don’t know what God has ahead for our church. But let’s reach out and, like Andrew said to Peter, say “come and see.” And let’s not put limits on who we invite. Perhaps God will bring us folks we don’t expect. Whoever he brings, let’s enlarge our circle to make them feel at home.
Finally, our nation can enlarge its circle. We might recall the part of the Christmas story where Joseph, Mary and Jesus went to live in Egypt to escape King Herod. The people of Egypt enlarged their circle to welcome Jesus, just as they had nearly two thousand years earlier to make room for Jacob and his family.
The U.S. can follow that example by implementing more humane immigration policies. After all, in Matthew 25 Jesus tells the nations to welcome the “stranger,” that is, the immigrant. He says that in doing this, they are welcoming Jesus himself.
Right now, the United States is focused on receiving Afghan refugees with the help of resettlement organizations and local churches across the country. The government provides some funding, but many people are also donating funds to contribute to the resettlement costs —helping with rent, clothes, transportation, and personal involvement with the arriving families. The American people are enlarging their circle – redefining our national identity — to include Afghans.
And meanwhile church organizations continue to call on Congress to legalize and provide a path to citizenship for all immigrants who are here.
Let me close with a story — the parable of the onion from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable a wicked woman’s guardian angel talks God into letting him pull her up to heaven as she holds on to an onion. At first it’s working well and she’s going up. But then some other condemned souls grab hold of her so they’ll be pulled up to heaven too. The woman starts kicking at them to make them let go. She yells, “get off, this is my onion!” Immediately the onion breaks, and she falls back down.
Brothers and sisters, nothing we have belongs to us alone. Not our food or clothes or home or church or country, nor even our salvation. Our well-being in this life and the next is united with the well-being of others, who God loves as much as he does us. So we’re called to keep expanding the circle of well-being. Not to keep people out or send them away. But to bring as many folks into that circle with us as we can.
Get ready, John cries out! The Kingdom of God is at hand. King Jesus the Messiah is here. Expand your circle of caring, widen your definition of family. That way we’ll be in union with Jesus now in this life. And our families and churches and nations will start to look like God’s Kingdom when it comes in fullness.
Martin Shupack, December. 4, 2021